Walt Zembriski has to hustle to keep up with the leaders. Senior golfers may ride in carts from tee to green, but Zembriski a small, jut-jawed man with a Wilson cap tugged down to his eyebrows, marches. "I've been walking golf courses all my life," he says. "I'm not going to change now."
That the leaders he's chasing have names like Orville Moody, Miller Barber, Gene Littler and Al Geiberger is proof positive that Zembriski, 54, has changed his life dramatically. As one of the top new players on the Senior PGA Tour—in 1988 he was seventh on the money list with $348,531—Zembriski attracts Polish fans, who are known as the Warsaw Pack. When he hits a good shot, they cheer, "Dobrze!" ("Good!")
But don't get the idea that his newfound success has gone to his head. "I don't hang around the locker room reminiscing with the legends," Zembriski says. "I don't have anything to reminisce with them about."
While the legends were building their reputations on the PGA Tour, he was building skylines in New Jersey. When Moody won the U.S. Open in 1969, Zembriski was a $400-a-week steelworker. He crawled the high iron, assembling high rises in Fort Lee, Passaic and a dozen other New Jersey towns. He saw five of his fellow skywalkers fall to their deaths and once barely survived a scrape with a load of lumber swinging from a crane. A runaway cable crushed his right thumb. "Lucky thing," he says, showing off the still-mangled thumb. "You don't use that thumb in your golf swing."
December 25, 1989
He was a good worker, the consummate skywalker. He might spend lunchtime passing a flask of blackberry brandy with his union brothers 50 floors up, but he put in a full day's labor. After work he might buy a round at Marcy's bar, but then he was off to the driving range. This was his eccentricity—Zembriski had the idea that he was a golfer.
Zembriski grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Mahwah, N.J., near a public golf course where his father had once caddied for Babe Ruth. Young Walt used to fight with his four brothers for the $25 Golfcraft clubs their dad, a foundry worker, had brought home one day. When he won, Walt took the clubs to local sandpits and hit rocks. He cadged golf balls and hit them up Railroad Avenue toward Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, where the Zembriskis were parishioners. A few of his errant shots broke windows. The priest swept up the stained glass and brought the balls back to Walt, who said countless Hail Marys to make amends.
In 1966, as a crew-cut 31-year-old, Zembriski won the match-play final of the New Jersey Amateur, 9 and 8. He "played as if he owned the links," one news account read. He dreamed of turning pro, but the PGA Tour was beyond his reach.
"It's one thing playing around northern New Jersey and another thing playing the Tour," says Dave Piersma, who was Zembriski's milkman and golf partner in those days. "He had a family, responsibilities. You can't take the family along if you're a rabbit on the Tour."
Zembriski worked construction by day and hit golf balls at night. "Golf broke up his marriage," says Piersma. Gloria Zembriski wanted her husband to stick to his union job. Walt had another idea. "I'd sucked enough steel dust," says Zembriski.
He turned pro and earned his Tour card in '67 but flunked after struggling for more than two years. He went home and worked in a tack factory in Suffern, N.Y., feeding sheets of steel to the cutting machine. He drove to regional tournaments, disappearing for days at a time. Gloria moved out, taking their young daughter with her.
At 43, Zembriski qualified for the 1978 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, in Denver. He shot 76-73 in the first two rounds and made the cut. In the locker room one day, Tom Weiskopf asked the scruffy unknown to open his locker for him. "I'm not a locker boy, I'm a player," said Zembriski. "And I think I've got a shot on you."
But not for long. In the third round Zembriski shot 84 and was last in the field of 63. First off the tee on Sunday morning, he played alone. He marched the final 18 in two hours, 13 minutes—the fastest round in Open history—shot 76 and finished 61st.
He qualified for the Open again in 1982, at Pebble Beach. He shot 88, packed his bags and went home. "He didn't lament," says Piersma. "That's not Walt. He practiced."
By then Zembriski was living in Orlando, Fla., where he could practice year-round. He did maintenance work at an executive course in exchange for playing privileges. He also cleaned swimming pools. He played the J.C. Goosie Space Coast mini-tour, in Florida, battling long-driving youngsters for four-figure purses. Tour sponsor J.C. Goosie lent him $1,200 to pay for a month's entry fees. Zembriski slept in a rusty Buick Regal, made $1,250 and repaid the loan. He had played four weeks for $50.
"He was one of those guys who just loved to play," says Goosie, who now is 47th on the Senior tour money list. "Walt was a grinder—he had to work hard to break even."
Eventually Zembriski won a few mini-tour events, and he kept an eye on the Senior events, which were growing in number and worth. The legends had beaten him once, he thought, but they were older now. Some saw the "Geritol tour" as a mulligan—another chance to win big bucks without really trying. Some had gone to fat. "You could see the beer bellies," says Zembriski.
He was the same 150 pounds he had always been. He was deadly as ever with his irons and, with the help of metal woods, 10 yards longer off the tee. "I couldn't wait to turn 50," he says.
He quit smoking and drinking. He walked incessantly. "Gotta get my legs in shape," he said to his friends. "Gotta get ready."
Four years ago, 50 at last, he was eligible. At the 1985 USGA Senior Open at Lake Tahoe, he was, according to Golf Journal, "watched by half a dozen curiosity seekers and random passersby looking for Arnold Palmer." Zembriski led the field after two rounds. John Heine, who ran the Cannongate Golf Club in Orlando, where Zembriski also practiced, flew to Lake Tahoe on Saturday and met the leader coming off the 9th green. "What am I gonna do?" said Zembriski. "I haven't got enough money to pay my caddie."
He faded to a tie for fourth place, nine strokes in back of Barber, the eventual winner, but made more than enough to cover his caddie fee. After the tournament Heine took photos of him mugging in front of the leader board—Barber, Roberto DeVicenzo, Gay Brewer, Zembriski and Peter Thomson.
Zembriski's best year was 1988, when he won two tournaments, the Newport Cup and the Vantage Championship. A refreshing addition to the tour's "whacks" museum, he was the only one in the Top 10 who had flunked the "Diaper Tour"—the seniors' term for the regular PGA circuit. Approaching this year's end, he was 14th on the money list with $274,411; $52,000 of that came from his victory in the GTE West Classic.
The Senior tour consists of two camps, the legends and the other guys. Golf fans mob the legends: Gary Player in his basic black; Chi Chi Rodriguez playing Zorro with his putter; Doug Sanders in his emerald cleats; Geiberger, the stately string bean; Littler, the machine; and Palmer, who shows the rest of the legends what fame is all about.
The other guys play for galleries of 20 or 30. Most are happy simply to tee it up with men they once watched on TV. One of the other guys, Ben Smith, used to fix pinsetting machines in a bowling alley. Another, Charlie Owens, who plays cross-handed, has a fused left knee and rides with that leg sticking out of his golf cart.
John Brodie, the most glamorous other guy, used to quarterback the San Francisco 49ers. Jesse Whittenton was a defensive back for the Green Bay Packers—he is the only Senior golfer who can boast of picking off a Brodie pass. Former Yankee pitcher Ralph Terry, who went 23-12 in 1962 and was the World Series MVP that year, says, "Golf is teaching me patience." Terry, 53, who is best known for giving up Bill Mazeroski's World Series-winning home run in 1960, needs all the patience he can muster. Rodriguez, who's a baseball fan, calls him Maz.
And then there is Zembriski, king of the other guys. He no longer packs the union card he had in his wallet at the '85 Senior Open—it has been crowded out by credit cards—but he still carries his mother's rosary when he plays. Success has not changed him, he says, except for the condo he bought near the course where he used to clean swimming pools, the El Dorado that replaced his old Buick and $120,000 in the bank. "I've got my financial security," says Zembriski. "I stay in Ramada Inns—nice places. This is what I wanted. This is it." He has given some of his winnings to the Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Mahwah, to help build a new church with new stained-glass windows.
Already 35th on the Seniors' career money list with $962,918, Zembriski figures to be a millionaire by next spring. On tour, Zembriski sometimes takes a fellow no-name to dinner. More often he eats alone. "I'm about as close as you'll get to him," says Joe Jimenez, his best friend on the circuit. "I can get him out to dinner, but not too often. He's in his hotel room, putting balls on the carpet."
When he shows up on the practice tee, Zembriski is one of the first to pull out the needle. "Joe, you look tired," he says.
"You better play good if you want to get in my group on Sunday," says Jimenez, jovially.
"You'll be lucky if you're standing up on Sunday," says Zembriski. "You'll be lucky if they let you play the same day as me."
Zembriski is starting to draw crowds of his own—laborers, members of Polish heritage societies, government workers—people who, pre-Zembriski, had never seen a divot. "Steelworkers, postmen—Walt's the idol of those people," says Geiberger. "My postman says he's practicing to come out here in two years."
Ironworker Craig MacIntyre, 46, bought a ticket to the Greater Grand Rapids (Mich.) Open because Zembriski was entered. MacIntyre shook his hand and gave him an IRONWORKERS LOCAL 340 T-shirt. MacIntyre had never been to a golf tournament.
"I don't follow people around much," said MacIntyre. "I came here to share the brotherhood. Walt got into another line of work, but he's still got that hard, manual, build-America attitude. Construction is hard, dangerous work. It bonds guys together. That's why I'm here—to give him support."
Zembriski is smaller than all but a few of the seniors, littler even than Littler. He has to stay sharp to keep up with the legends, most of whom still outdrive him. Jim Dent leads the seniors with an average drive of 274.6 yards. Zembriski ranks 47th at 248.1 yards. He is still a grinder. "He would have made a great leadoff hitter," says Terry. "Wait would figure out a way to get on base."
"Walt is an example of what can happen if you're a pretty good player," says Palmer, who's still Zembriski's hero. "He played the mini-tour and had some success, took that experience and applied it to the Senior tour. He's a scrapper, a player of great endurance. I think it's great that a man can come right off the street—if he can play—and enjoy a life-style he's never had."
"I'm loving it," says Zembriski. "Bob Charles is probably the best one out here right now, but I'm close to him. I play hard every day, and I got no nerves. I never ever choke."
There is a Polish adage, said when friends come together, link arms and lift drinks: "Staro‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬µ‚àÜí‚àö° nie rado‚Äö√¢√†‚àö¬µ‚àÜí‚àö°" ("To get old is not fun"). For Zembriski the opposite is true. "Once you've walked a six-inch beam 50 floors off the ground, a three-foot putt doesn't scare you," he says.
Free-lance writer Kevin Cook plans to make his debut as a senior golfer in 2006.