People think of me as stern, difficult, cranky and cantankerous," says Bruce Crampton. "And I agree. I am what I am." Indeed, that self-assessment is dead-on accurate, for without a doubt Crampton, possessor of perhaps the sweetest swing ever to grace a golf course, is the most disliked player in the sport. Irascible personality? Please, he has retired the cup.
Crampton, 51, who for the last year has been the best player on the PGA Senior Tour, is so frosty you can catch cold standing next to him and so abrasive he'll make you itch. In its March issue, Golf Digest reported that fellow senior pro Harold Henning sent Crampton a greeting card that read, "Let's go to a masquerade party as a horse. I'll be the head, and you can be your usual self." Both Henning and Crampton deny the tale, but it has become part of the Crampton lore.
And there is lore aplenty. Recently, at the Hillcrest Golf Club in Sun City West, Ariz., Crampton was walking up the 18th fairway. A spectator amiably inquired of Crampton, who had just returned from a visit to his native Australia, "How were things Down Under?" He glowered at the fan and walked off. A friend of Crampton's, who was standing nearby, said softly, "Why does he do things like that?" Who knows?
Crampton is a notoriously slow player—so slow that easygoing Chi Chi Rodriguez angrily refused to shake Crampton's hand after playing a recent round with him. Crampton resists all efforts to speed up. Ask for Crampton stories and somebody will surely trot out the tale about the woman who supposedly introduced herself to Crampton as his amateur partner for the day and said, "A friend of mine bet me 10 dollars you wouldn't say five words to me." Said Crampton, "Sorry, lady. You lose."
"He is a strange fellow," says Julius Boros. But lots of golfers are strange. Would Boros like to play a practice round with Crampton? "Naw, he's not my type," he says.
Says one of golf's biggest stars, after first extracting an oath-in-blood promise of anonymity, "Crampton is rude, selfish and inconsiderate." When Peter Thomson, a fellow senior pro from Australia, was asked on the practice tee about Crampton, Thomson walked away. Bob Goalby says, "I feel sorry for Bruce." Gary Player chooses his words extremely carefully: "He is a very, very hard worker." Crampton's closest friend on the Senior Tour, Orville Moody, with whom he teamed to win the Legends of Golf last month, says Bruce "has a reputation for being kind of a mean guy and kind of nasty to play with. They don't understand he is just dedicated."
Fans, grouses Crampton, don't understand his brand of concentration and dedication because, he says, when "you take the masses, the majority are not that successful. They will cheer any shot that is airborne, goes forward and generally in the right direction."
So Bruce, in a popularity poll, where would you end up? "Pretty low," he says. "I can have a bad effect on people."
But, please, let's pause for a moment of charity. Ian Johnston, a business partner of Crampton's and one of his best friends, says, "Bruce can be a bit of an——, but he's a super guy." And give Crampton this: He does try to exhibit a sense of humor. He has memorized jokes to tell when he plays pro-ams. He also can regale the fellows with his X-rated truck-stop stories. The one about Hurricane Gussie is downright hilarious, but you probably wouldn't be interested.
The fact remains, though, that Crampton cares about golf and little else. He is not a people person. He is most comfortable in a crowd of one. Nothing wrong with that. It's just that we have come to hope for more from our sports stars.
When Crampton was on the regular tour, between 1957 and 1977, he won 15 tournaments. He finished second 17 times, including twice at the PGA, once at the Masters and once at the U.S. Open. In all four of those majors he was runner-up to Jack Nicklaus. Did repeatedly losing to Nicklaus bother him? "There is nothing personal in golf for me," he says. "I play courses, not people. Look, I won 15 tournaments, and it just happened that none of them came on a week we were playing a major."
So second was good enough?
"No. You can finish second every week, make a fortune and still not be satisfied."
In 1973 Crampton became the Tour's fifth millionaire. That year, the best of his career, he won four tournaments, finished second in five others and was the second-leading money winner (behind Nicklaus), with $274,266. He twice won the Vardon Trophy for lowest stroke average for a year. But he was so disliked that when he announced on May 5, 1977, that he was retiring because he was in mental and emotional shambles, even the gentlemanly golf writer for The New York Times, John Radosta, referred to Crampton's reputation as "the most peevish of them all." Radosta went on to write that Crampton "could qualify for a movie role as the Crab or the Sour Puss."
When he quit, Crampton said he wanted to spend more time with his family. His marriage, frequently shaky, was feeling tremors approaching 8 on the Richter scale. Crampton resented it when his wife, Joan, would call to tell him about all her problems on the home front. He routinely would exclaim, "Look, I've got 36 problems facing me the next two days." For a while in the mid-'70s he tried taking Joan and their two sons, Jay and Roger, now 19 and 12, on the road with him, but driving 8 to 10 hours between tournaments and staying four to a motel room night after night were disastrous.
In 1976, Crampton won $50,094, only 58th on the money list. When he tied for 68th at the '77 Andy Williams-San Diego Open—and collected a check for $119.57—Crampton was at his wit's end. And miserable. And burned out. And bitter. He complains that when he played with Arnold Palmer, Palmer would hit a drive and people would go nuts, but he would outdrive Palmer and hear nothing but silence. When Crampton quit the Tour, he left behind a zillion feuds with fans, marshals, photographers, the press and other players. He disappeared from public view—not that anyone was looking for him—to regroup mentally. He had no college education and no marketable skill except a classic golf swing.
So all Crampton did was plunge into the oil business and do spectacularly. The first well he drilled was a winner. Says Crampton, "I thought, This is easy." On display in glass jars in his Dallas home are samples of Texas crude from 14 successful drillings. Oil was the ideal business for Crampton. "It's a real masculine occupation," he says. "And I didn't have to go to the press room and explain my day."
Suddenly, life was good. He got dry holes, too, but it didn't matter, because oil fetched as high as $39 a barrel. Raising money required only a phone call. Drilling to completion cost $130,000, and you only had to go down 4,400 feet. Crampton still gets goose bumps thinking about those days.
"It was exciting," he says. "It was like golf. You never know what will happen at the beginning of the day, and there are no guarantees. In both businesses, you either made the cut or you didn't. Those wells were better than golf, really, because they produced at night."
Crampton was making as much as $30,000 a month. In west Texas, he painted his tanks with green stripes, green being "the color of money," he says. "What in the hell did I want to play golf for? One well was like winning six tournaments. I didn't even know what was going on in golf."
Crampton decided to drill deeper, in search of longer-lasting wells. To drill to 8,200 feet cost $500,000. More money went out, and when oil prices tumbled toward $10 a barrel, a lot less came in. Crampton's earnings eventually dipped to $5,000 a month. Scary? "No more so than trying to make the cut," he says.
Although Crampton had avoided the highly leveraged deals that sank many a high roller, he was concerned about his financial future. Thus he was susceptible to his friends' praise when he would hit a nifty shot during a round. "Vintage Crampton," they would cry. "People would love to see that swing again."
Says Crampton, "I knew I wasn't close. But I got to thinking that maybe I could come back and do what I liked best—hitting professional golf shots with character."
He turned 50, the minimum age for the Senior Tour, in September 1985. That year he entered three senior tournaments and finished third in one, enough to tell him that he could play with the 50-and-over set. Says Crampton, "I was amazed at how good it felt to be back, trying to hit a golf ball just a little better than anybody else."
He never dreamed, however, that he would manhandle the seniors. In 1986 he won seven tournaments, including four of the last seven, and $454,299. There was no choice but for the media to name him senior Player of the Year. Everyone was so pleased. This year Crampton is fourth on the money list, with $65,837 in official earnings. He also has an additional $140,000 in "unofficial" earnings for winning the Doug Sanders invitational and for first-place finishes in the Chrysler Cup and the Legends.
No wonder Billy Casper says, "There were guys who didn't want Crampton out here, but I'm not one of them. As we get older, we've all mellowed. I don't mind playing with him, except he plays too damn good." Adds Rodriguez, "He works harder on his game than anyone."
Crampton does 40 minutes of flexibility exercises every morning and works out every afternoon in a mobile fitness center that travels with the Senior Tour. He also spends countless hours on the practice tee. "The other players don't know me," he says when asked for friends on the tour who know him best. "I don't sit around in bars and visit. My time is spent elsewhere. The only thing I am trying to do is play well on the tour."
But is he having any fun? At this question, Rodriguez stares off into space and says, "It's hard to say. Only his inner soul knows. Sometimes it seems as if his success makes him unhappy."
As does his image. Years ago, he thought his overbite made him look too stern, so he had it fixed. He tried wearing colorful pants for a while. He began wearing a Hogan-type hat in hopes that it would make him appear friendlier. He tried to smile more. Crampton admits that his off-and-on fight to buff his image has been trying. "I get to the point where I don't know how to act," he says.
Even when Crampton puts on his party manners—as he did recently in Austin, Texas, while making an instructional golf video—he seems severe. "I just look like I'm going to chew somebody's ass out," he said. "I see the expression on my face. But I have found that about the time you show emotion, you double-bogey the hole and lose the tournament." Still, when he would stop talking and start swinging, he would light up. "Golf," he said, "is not that difficult for me."
Says his caddie, Paul Dayhoff, "He's not so complicated. All he wants is perfection. Just hit the ball, chase it, hit it again."
Unlike many players of his caliber, Crampton's golfing prowess earns him little off the course. "I don't have charisma, and I don't attract the masses," he says. "I have always believed it is better to put a confident swing on a conservative shot than a cocky swing on a tentative shot. Anybody who watches me does so only because he respects discipline, integrity and good golf shots. I don't ask for any more respect from fans when they are in my office than they should ask of me when I am in theirs."
At least he's honest, which, of course, doesn't help his image. "It's been tarnished over the years," he says. "I'm going to correct that."
Erasing a reputation 30 years in the making is rugged, but Crampton seems bent on trying, sometimes anyway. In one of his periodic stabs at humor, he says, "I don't drink or smoke, and two out of three isn't bad."
What's the third?
"I three-putt occasionally."
He does have people pulling for him. Rodriguez, for example, says, "I pray for him."
Rodriguez pauses and adds, "Actually, what I pray is that I will beat his brains out."