Just Having a Fling

Golfer Ken Green has become a winner without winning many friends
January 30, 1989

Ken Green, the putty-faced, bespectacled 30-year-old pro golfer who last year earned $1.1 million playing the game on three continents, stood in a courtroom in May 1985, describing his situation. He had $1,600 in his savings account, a bouncing checkbook and a beach bum's suntan. Judge John J.P. Ryan of Superior Court in Danbury, Conn., was worried because Green owed his estranged wife, Savera, $3,250 in alimony and child support, and where the money was going to come from was anybody's guess. "If he doesn't make it up by the end of June, then he's out of the golfing business." Ryan told the lawyers. "He has to get an income, a source of steady income."

No problem, thought Green as he jammed his fists in the pockets of his beltless trousers. No problem.

At the end of 1984, the investors who had bankrolled Green on the PGA Tour pulled out after having endured losses for three straight years. Green financed himself for the first three months of 1985 by betting, with unusual success, on college basketball games. When he had spent those winnings, he borrowed $2,000 from a friend. Soon after, Green found himself in court facing his wife. And all the while, Green was muttering his two-word philosophy of life to himself: "No problem."

Three months after that court hearing, Green, who had been scraping around the fringes of professional golf for six years, won his first PGA tournament, the Buick Open. Today, Green is codesigning a golf course in Hawaii. He will become—he predicts with typical assuredness—the "greatest architect in the history of the game." He lives in a half-million-dollar house in West Palm Beach, Fla. Sponsors seek him. Fellow-pros study his putting stroke. The ams who pay to play in pro-ams—successful businessmen, lawyers, judges—hope to draw Green as a partner. Spectators love his fast-paced and aggressive play—he aims at every pin, tries to reach virtually every par-5 in two, seldom lags a putt—and his chattiness. He also scores. He is likely to be a member of the 1989 U.S. Ryder Cup team. And that makes some of his colleagues sick.

"I'm not the most popular guy out there." says Green, referring to the PGA Tour, where, he says, he has "only two true friends." Mark Calcavecchia and Bill Sander. "I'm too emotional. I'm sure some players look at the pairing sheets, see that they're playing with me and say, 'Oh, geez. Why me?'

"I think of myself as confident," continues Green, who frequently competes wearing a green golf glove and green-and-white saddle shoes. "But people see me as smug."

Those people include certain players, fans, tournament sponsors, Tour officials, TV executives, friends and family members, most of whom also consider Green likable. That, however, doesn't mean they like the way Green flips his club to his caddie after almost every shot or his flip answers to questions or his flippant attitude toward some of golf's traditions and rules.

For instance, Green doesn't see why a touring pro should be penalized for signing an incorrect scorecard. "We shouldn't even have to keep our own score," he says. "The computer knows what you made as soon as you've made it, anyhow." He would rather negotiate a golf course by cart than by foot. "I cart whenever I can," says Green, who also likes to create verbs and other parts of speech whenever he can.

He thinks Tour players should be allowed to wear shorts on the links. "We're supposed to set an example for millions of other golfers, right?" he says. "But every day, millions of golfers tee it up wearing shorts, so what's the point?" Green believes players ought to be able to use profanity without fear of being fined. "I want to be the exact same way I am on the golf course as I am off it," he says. "When I'm off the golf course, I use profanity, so why shouldn't I use it when I'm on the course?" He does, anyway.

Galleries, he maintains, should be allowed to move and talk as they please. "We're professionals; we should be able to concentrate," he says. And he would rather win the Canon Greater Hartford Open or the Manufacturers Hanover Westchester Classic than the U.S. Open or the Masters. "They're the tournaments I grew up with," says Green, who's a native of Danbury.

He'll gladly expound on almost any topic. His harangue on the good people who bring you the Masters is this: "They don't set up the course properly. They make the greens too hard and too fast, and the pin placements are suspect. Hell, the greens are unplayable. You can never tell them [the Masters officials] what to do or give them suggestions. But I give them all the credit in the world for pulling off the scam they do. No matter how they set up the course, everyone shows up. If any other Tour stop did that, nobody would show up."

Yet many people, even Masters-loving people, are fond of Green. Frank Chirkinian, the producer of golf telecasts for CBS Sports, who makes his home in Augusta and considers the Masters "the greatest theater in the world," is among them. "He's a likable guy," says Chirkinian, "and he can play like hell. But I object very strenuously to his demeanor, to his cavalier attitude, to some of the things he says. He belittles his game with his actions and his pronouncements."

Says fellow pro Payne Stewart, who is a great believer in preserving the traditions of the game, "He's not afraid to hit any shot, and he doesn't worry about the outcome, which is a great attitude to have. But some of the things he does are unprofessional."

Most irritating to Stewart is Green's habit of tossing his club to his caddie. "We were paired together at Nabisco in November, and on the 1st hole he flipped his putter to his caddie," recalls Stewart. "The thing went right past my nose, missed me by about two inches. If it had hit me, it would've gone back to him in two pieces."

Adds another pro, Lanny Wadkins, of Green's flipping routine: "He and his caddie have gotten pretty good at it. It looks as if they practice in the hotel room." Green says he tosses his clubs to relieve tension, and he insists that he doesn't practice the routine. He's not a big believer in practice of any sort.

What Green chiefly believes in is himself. His self-confidence has been brewing since he was 12, when his parents split up while the family was living in Honduras. Ken had to decide if he wanted to return to the States with his mother, Jane, and his older brother and sister, or stay in Honduras with his father, Martin, who was principal of the American School in Tegucigalpa. Martin believes that when you have made such an important decision at age 12, choosing between a seven-iron and an eight-iron years later isn't so tough. "He learned that in this world you have to make choices and live with them," says Martin. The boy decided to stay with his father.

Martin belonged to a local club that had a nine-hole course, and before long, Kenny found himself infatuated with golf. He liked whacking the ball, but he loved the short game. He also loved to compete, most often imagining himself playing against Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. He always won. In 1971 he represented Honduras in the Central American Junior Golf Championships in Managua. Once, when Martin was in Florida for a conference, Kenny arranged to get himself to Costa Rica for a junior tournament.

In 1973 Martin returned to the U.S. to take a job as principal of a school on an Indian reservation. Kenny, who was 14 at the time and eager to play high school golf, decided to return to Connecticut to live with his mother and siblings. Jane worked as a bookkeeper and bartender in the Woodbury area to help support the foursome.

At Nonnewaug High, Green's golf was good but his attendance record was not. "I knew by then I was going to be a professional golfer and the stuff in the classroom wasn't relevant to what I wanted to do," he says. When he did show up for school, he was usually late. "I'd stay up till dawn watching old movies on TV," says Green, who is still a movie buff and still likes to sleep late.

His coach, Bob Dibble, remembers calling Green at home or picking him up to make sure he got to school. "There was a rule that you couldn't compete in an athletic event if you weren't in school by 10:30 a.m.," says Dibble. "On the days we had matches, Kenny always managed to just beat the deadline."

By the middle of his junior year Green's truancy hadn't improved, and he was on the verge of getting kicked off the team. He quit school first. At night he bowled, maintaining a 190 average, and shot pool. (Those two activities still dominate his evenings, along with video games and Ping-Pong.) But his days were dedicated to golf. He became a fixture at Richter Park, an outstanding public course in Danbury, and a caddie at the private Ridgewood Country Club. Late in the day, when the fairway sprinklers at Ridgewood were turned on, Green would putt and chip and hit pitches and bunker shots until dusk gave way to night. He eventually finished high school at Danbury High and graduated from Palm Beach Junior College, but his aim was always the same.

When he turned pro in 1979 at age 21, his ball-striking ability was largely undeveloped but his short game was so good that he could consistently shoot par on short public courses. He was good enough to win Nassaus against unsuspecting customers but not good enough to make a living playing tournament golf. In 1979, '80 and '81 Green entered more than 100 minitour events. He won four of them but earned no money to speak of. Jane, who was still holding down two jobs, helped him out during those years. His game improved, and in 1981 Green made it through the PGA Tour qualifying school on his third attempt.

By that time he had married Savera Rotella, who is 12 years his senior. In the winter of 1982, Ken, Savera and Kenneth II, who was born in December 1981, began traveling together on the circuit once known as the golden grind. That year Green won $11,899. In 1983 the $40,263 he won was about $5,000 short of his expenses for the year. In '84 he finished 156th on the money list with $20,160 in winnings. Green was in the red. His marriage was dissolving. He went to a hypnotherapist.

At the '84 Tournament Players Championship, Paula Hinson, a Jacksonville hypnotherapist, had left flyers describing her services in the players' locker room. Green saw her four times that week. They discussed two topics: divorce and golf. "I felt in my heart Savera and I needed to get a divorce, but I couldn't verbalize it," says Green. "Paula helped push me over the brink. All she did was ask questions, and in that semi-sleep state, I found myself answering them honestly."

In their golf talks, Hinson says she found "a little voice in Ken that would come up at the worst times and say, 'You're not going to make it. You're a nobody.' " Hinson tried "to erase that voice or find ways for him to erase it."

Five years later, Green finds that the voice still comes and goes. But after the meetings with Hinson, whom he no longer sees, he asked Savera for a divorce. She was surprised. "Golf was always first with Kenny, I understood that," says Savera, who lives in Bethel, Conn., with Kenneth. "We were so broke, but he always managed to keep us together. Why he wasn't willing to try longer I do not know."

With the divorce in the works, Green asked Boca Raton, Fla., teaching pro Peter Kostis for help. "When he came to see me, it wasn't a question of. Can I make it?" recalls Kostis. "His attitude was, I need your help so I can make it."

Kostis, who classifies all golfers, considered Green to be "an Expressive." Expressives are players like Lee Trevino, Craig Stadler and Wadkins, for whom the mechanics of the golf swing should not become a priority. "An Expressive expresses himself by posting scores," says Kostis. "That's all he cares about, or that's all he should care about. What I did for Ken was free him up mentally so that he wouldn't have to think about the swing."

Before Green went to Kostis, his swing was a mess. He held the club with a weak grip, which promoted a fade, but played the ball back in a closed stance, which promoted a hook. He had a handsy, slashing swing that caused push-fades and pull-hooks. The more stressful the situation, the more hand-oriented Green's swing became, and the more trouble he wound up in. Kostis strengthened Green's grip, moved up his ball position, squared off his stance, improved his posture and got him to use his body in such a way that he wouldn't have to overwork his hands.

In August 1985, one month after his divorce became final, Green won the Buick Open and $81,000. His sister, Shelley, who had caddied for him through two lean years, wept with happiness. The victory seemed to come from out of the blue, but Green wasn't surprised. He knew that his new swing, coupled with his old attitude, would work. "The pro golf tour is a hard place to get on-the-job training." says Ray Floyd, who will captain this year's Ryder Cup team. "Ken is one of those rare players who could do it, and that tells you something about him and his game."

After the Buick win, Green continued to improve, and in 1988 he broke through. He wound up fourth on the money list with $779,181 and won the Canadian and Greater Milwaukee opens in consecutive weeks. He also lost three playoffs, tied for second at the Pensacola Open and tied for third at the Nabisco. In three of those tournaments Green says he heard from the old voice on certain shots.

"I don't hear it as often as I used to, but I still hear it every so often." he says. "Seventy percent of the time it's on putts of six feet or less. It's like a little bit of Satan sneaking out. When I conquer it, I'll be pretty impressive."

With or without the voice. Green is an exceptional putter. He isn't at the otherworldly Ben Crenshaw-Seve Ballesteros level, but he's just one tier down, on the Calcavecchia-Paul Azinger floor. Last year Green finished fifth on the Tour in putting, averaging 1.74 putts per hole, and first in eagles with 21.

In November he won the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan and $221,000. The next week Green earned another $100,000 for a third-place finish at the Million Dollar Challenge in Sun City, South Africa. "Boycotts in sports accomplish nothing," says Green in defense of his decision to play in South Africa.

"To make it on the Tour, you need three things," says Kostis. "You have to have talent and confidence in that talent; you have to have one and only one teacher; and you have to have a personal rock. Kenny survived for a while on the first two. He broke through in '88 because he had the third. Ellen, his new wife, is his rock, someone he can tell everything to, his biggest dreams and his worst fears."

Green refers to Ellen as "the wife." He mentioned her in a live interview with CBS last year. He was the leader after the third round of the Westchester Classic, and commentator Steve Melnyk asked Green about his plans for that night. Answered Green, "I'll try to keep myself busy, you know, maybe I'll beat up the wife or go to a movie or have some beers or something, anything to keep my mind off of golf."

The wife was standing at his side, off-camera. "I almost puked when he said that." says Ellen. "It was in extremely bad taste. He was trying to be funny, but there was nothing funny about it. We went home and had a long, serious talk about it. I said, "Wife-beating is real and it's horrible. It's not something you treat lightly.' He realized how stupid it was [to say it]."

Ellen and Ken had an algebra class together when they were juniors at Dan-bury High. They didn't really know each other, though. "I remember he used to wear those golf shirts all the time. Not the nice ones but brown ones with the stiff collars. What a nerd."

They met again in Danbury in 1986, after Ellen had graduated from college, spent a year in Tunisia with the Peace Corps, attended the 1984 Democratic Convention, been married and divorced, and had two children. They hit it off. "I learned something." says Ellen. "Just because a person looks like a nerd and talks like a nerd and acts like a nerd doesn't mean he is a nerd."

Ken and Ellen's marriage has caused some family tension, most notably in Ken's relationship with his sister. At the beginning of the 1987 season, Green fired Shelley as his caddie and hired their cousin Joe La Cava, who still has what these days is a lucrative job. Green declines to discuss the matter. Shelley believes that Ellen did not want her around. Ellen says that's not true. "We never even got a chance to get to know each other," says Ellen.

In September, the Greens, who have custody of Ellen's two children, had their first child, a boy whom they named Hunter. Ellen was happy the baby was a boy. If it had been a girl, Ken wanted to name her Kendell. "He has quite an ego." says Ellen.

Bill Sander, who has struggled for a decade on the Tour since winning the 1976 U.S. Amateur, admires Green's ego. "I was always taught that if you were too confident, people wouldn't like you." says Sander. "That's where Kenny is so strong. He doesn't worry about what people think. He doesn't suck up to everyone's expectations of what a Tour player should be." For several years Green traveled with two dogs and a ferret.

Green began 1989 by making a birdie on the first hole of the Tournament of Champions but finished 17 strokes behind the winner. Steve Jones. Can Green, seemingly so unlikely a person to have made it to the Tour at all, become one of the sport's dominant players? His answer is that he plans to play this year the same way he played last year—by going for broke at every opportunity. He would like to win more and, in fact, expects to. Says fellow pro Scott Verplank, "He plays to his personality,"—and that explains a great deal.

Last summer, while playing in the last group of the day, Green stood in the fairway of the 18th hole in the third round of the Canadian Open, enjoying the feeling of a one-shot lead. He surveyed his second shot on the par-5. The green was protected by a large pond and menacing bunkers. "What do I got?" Green asked his caddie.

"Two-fifty into a two-club wind." said cousin Joe.

If there's anyone who wouldn't lay up and pitch on in that situation, let them come forward now. "No problem." said Green, pulling his driver from the bag. He knocked the ball on the green and two-putted from 30 feet for a 4. Buoyed by that stirring birdie, he went out and won the title by a single shot.

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINOne of Green's less popular habits is tossing his club to his caddie after hitting a shot. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINKen's marriage to Ellen has produced one son, Hunter, and some family tensions. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINAs a schoolboy, Green had much better golf scores than test scores. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINThe "Expressive" Green cares little about mechanics but expects to sink every putt. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.] PHOTOLEONARD KAMSLERSister Shelley (above) caddied for Green until he replaced her with cousin Joe in 1987.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)