At the edge of a poor neighborhood called The Hill, where the houses are weathered and the streets unpaved, is a chain link fence. On the other side of the fence is a lush golf course set among antebellum mansions. A black youngster from The Hill, 15 or so, leans against the fence and watches a group of white men strolling up a fairway and dreams of playing golf on that manicured grass. In the evening, by the light of a streetlamp, the boy and his friends dig holes in the dirt road in front of their houses and play a rudimentary skins game. They pass a battered putter back and forth among themselves, imitating the strokes they have seen through the fence. Each one puts in 25¬¨¬®¬¨¢ and the winner gets the pot.
While growing up in Augusta in the 1950s, young Jim Dent and his friends played out this scene countless times. The golf course that bordered The Hill was the Augusta Country Club, and the fairway they could see through the fence was the 16th. The boys were as oblivious to the societal constraints and, for that matter, to the laws of trespass as they were captivated by the golf course. In the late afternoon, they would climb that six-foot fence and furtively roam number 16 in search of balls. Occasionally, if there was time and enough daylight, they would hit a few putts on the green before scurrying home. Spankings usually awaited them, but they didn't care. "I thought that golf course was the greatest place in the world," says Dent. "It was exciting and fascinating just to be around there."
But what's exciting and fascinating today is Dent's performance on the Senior PGA Tour. After 18 years on the regular Tour without so much as a single win, Dent, at 51, has become a star. In his first season on the Senior tour he won two tournaments and $377,691. This year he has been a regular finisher in the Top 10 and has earned more than $600,000 in prize money.
"The progress he's made proves that if you really work on something you can make it," says Bob Rosburg, who hired Dent to be his caddie at the 1956 Masters and now is a fellow traveler on the Senior tour. "You've got to give him credit."
"It's marvelous what Jim has achieved," says his sister Juanita White, who lives in Augusta, "and he's still the same lovable, mild-mannered guy he always was."
He's not the same player, though. The Senior tour has been Dent's mulligan, his second chance. When you're an athlete who was a wannabe the first time, "second chance" is the sweetest phrase you can hear. "I didn't wait around and think about what I needed to do to get ready for the Senior tour," said Dent in his suite at the Silverado Country Club in Napa, Calif., during the Transamerica Senior Golf Championship in October. "I went out and did it."
Actually, Dent didn't have much to think about. What he needed was a short game, and he had known it for some time. On the regular Tour in the 1970s he was one of the longest hitters, but he died around the greens. Still, in '74 he won $48,486, good for 59th on the money list, and The New York Times ran an instructional article with the headline HOW TO DRIVE A GOLF BALL FARTHER: WATCH JIM DENT. The same season, SI called him "pro golf's latest Rocket Man." But '74 would be his best regular Tour showing—financially speaking. After that, the "whuuumpf" of his club head meeting dimples continued, but he didn't make much noise on the Tour otherwise. At age 48 and struggling, he began an overhaul of his short game, starting with formal lessons in chipping and putting.
The lack of a formal golf education was Dent's Achilles' heel. He had learned the basics as a teenager at Augusta Country Club by studying the men he caddied for. Their swings and their club choices became his. "There was no possibility for lessons then," says Dent, "and you couldn't ask the golfers questions. You were lucky just to be able to watch them to find out how to do it and then try to duplicate it on your own."
His Aunt Mary saw things a bit differently. Long before he became a caddie, she gave Jim a spanking every time she caught him sneaking onto the course or hanging around the clubhouse. On wages she earned as a housekeeper in one of the mansions down the street from The Hill, Mary raised Jim and three of his seven siblings; his mother died when Jim was six, and his father died when Jim was 12.
Mary and the other parents in the neighborhood disapproved of the boys' fascination with the world of wealth and privilege represented by the country club. They worried about what might happen if the members caught the black youngsters on the wrong side of that fence. Also, Mary didn't want Jim joining the dice-shooting, card-playing caddies at the club. "She said I'd learn how to gamble, and I did," says Dent, chuckling.
After a while, Mary must have realized the spankings were futile because Jim continued to disobey her, and eventually he started caddying at the club. The going rate was $2.50 for 18 holes and that included the tip. After a few years' experience, Jim moved next door, to the adjoining Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters.
"Caddies there could make $20 or more a day, so you had to work your way up to it," says Dent. "I'd go over on weekends, when a lot of people were there, and get the leftovers—the ones who only paid $15 and nobody else wanted."
Dent played Augusta National half a dozen times, always with other caddies, on the day after the course was closed for the summer. Whenever he could, he also played on Augusta's public courses. He continued to putt on The Hill and to sneak onto the back nine at the country club.
When Dent was in high school in the late 1950s, the PGA Tour still had a Caucasians-only rule. Charlie Sifford's debut on the PGA Tour was still a few years away, and the idea of a black man becoming a Tour professional was almost unimaginable, even to the boys from The Hill. Many of them continued to caddie in high school, but golf for them was only a hobby. No one suspected that Dent was different from the rest. But he knew. "After I started caddying, I really got into golf," he says. "It got to be fun and a challenge."
David DuPree was Dent's football coach at Augusta's Lucy Laney High, where Dent started at tight end for two years. Nevertheless, DuPree was unaware of Dent's golf aspirations until they had long since been realized. One day 15 years ago, a reporter phoned him from Florida to ask whether the Tour's longest hitter had developed his muscles lifting weights in high school. "At first I told him the Jim Dent I knew wasn't a professional golfer," DuPree says. "I was surprised to find' out he was."
Andrew Chishom, who was a football teammate of Dent's and a close friend of his at Laney High, wasn't surprised. He has felt the force of Dent's ambition. Thirty years after the fact, he blames his arthritic shoulder on Dent, who tried mightily to run through him one day in practice. "From the black perspective at that time, the idea of becoming a professional golfer didn't seem to be even a remote possibility," says Chishom, who is now a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina. "But Jim had an explosive, competitive temperament and fierce determination. It just shows that as long as you believe in yourself, you never know what you might become."
In retrospect, says Juanita, "the way Jim was always digging holes everywhere for golf balls and playing, we should have known he was serious. But he was so quiet, you didn't know what he was thinking about half of the time."
Dent's reticence made him an enigma at Laney High. No one could get a fix on the guy with the easygoing manner and the ever-present smile. At six feet and 170 pounds, he cut a dashing figure. His trouser creases always seemed a little smoother. His shoes shone a little brighter. And, as is often the case in high school, the result was he had more than his share of girlfriends. "He had an air of sophistication, which the kids called 'sweetness,' " says Johnnie Jackson, the Laney High offensive-line coach at the time. "It set Jim apart. He seemed to be a young man among boys."
Especially confounding was Dent's nonchalance about sports. According to Jackson, Dent was a gifted athlete who excelled at football and could have been on the basketball and baseball teams. He preferred to spend his springs by the radio, listening to the Dodgers play baseball and studying swings at the golf course.
As a senior, after Laney's 1960 team had finished 6-3-1, Dent (whose teammates included New York Jet-to-be Emerson Boozer) was wooed by several schools to play football. However, he wound up at Paine College, a predominantly black Methodist school in Augusta, 10 minutes from The Hill. After a few weeks there, he dropped out and headed north to Atlantic City. There, he quickly learned that he could play golf every morning and then work in the afternoons, giving him the time he felt he needed to develop his game. Before leaving, though, he hinted at his grand plans, bragging to Boozer that by dropping out he would gain "a four-year advantage on all the guys going to college."
It was a rare display of hubris from Dent, and he is embarrassed by the boast now. "When you're young, you think you're smarter than everyone else," he says. "I've been lucky, but I also have paid the price to be a golfer. I know that once you get a college diploma they can't take it away. It's a great piece of paper to have."
Dent knocked around Atlantic City for about seven years. He played golf and worked nights as a busboy and later as a waiter at the Smithville Inn. James Black, who would become a PGA touring pro and a good friend, helped Dent with his game. The two men shared the same fishing holes and traveled together to events on the predominantly black United Golf Association tour. Having never had a lesson, Dent looked up to Black, although Black was two years younger. A North Carolinian, Black had learned the game from Clayton Heafner and Sam Snead, and had won the Negro National Open, both as an amateur and as a professional. "Jim was all golf in those days," recalls Black.
When they practiced together, Dent would find a water hazard or an out-of-bounds marker and ask Black to explain the rule for playing the ball from there. Except for those dialogues, Dent never had much use for the Socratic method. Homero Blancas, who would coach Dent on chipping when he joined the Senior tour, also discovered that Dent would rather make a golf shot than stand around theorizing about it. "I tried explaining how to put backspin on the ball, but it was easier for him if I hit a few shots and let him try to copy me," says Blancas.
Life near the Boardwalk had its moments. At Mays Landing Country Club, a public course in McKee City where he was club champion in 1966, Dent was a legend. "All the local guys can show you the spots where Jim's 300-and 400-yard drives landed," says Stan Dudas, the current club pro.
"Those were the good old days," says Dent. "I thought I was the greatest golfer in the world. Money was scarce, but I didn't need much and I had no worries. I was doing what I wanted to do."
In Southern California, however, Dent could do it year-round and catch a few Dodger games in person. So in 1968 he headed west. In Los Angeles he met Mose Stevens, a real estate investor and golf groupie. Stevens, who died last year, was a benefactor to Pete Brown and a few other PGA touring pros in the '60s and '70s. Stevens sponsored Dent while he tried to earn his Tour card and, later, after he qualified. "Every summer he gave me $1,000 and a car, sent me back east and told me to play as long as the money lasted," says Dent. "He figured if you couldn't take $1,000 and keep some money in your pocket while you were playing, you were a poor golfer."
After trying unsuccessfully for four consecutive years, Dent finally got his Tour card in 1970. He was 31. "That might have been the best I ever played up to that point," says Dent, of the qualifying tournament. "I shot two or three under, and I was never over par."
Before his long drives earned him some decent paychecks and an exemption from qualifying, Dent was a rabbit—one of the nonexempt Tour pros who had to compete in a Monday qualifying round to gain a spot in that week's tournament. Rabbits hopped back to the mini-tours on Tuesday if they didn't qualify. "It was tough because you wanted to know how to shoot 68 instead of 75," says Dent. "But you couldn't learn too much from guys who were shooting 75 just like you."
That is as close as Dent comes to a lament about life before the Senior tour. "I didn't make whole lots of money, and I didn't win," he says. "But, hey, I thought it was good."
Dent's assessment may be upbeat, but his career on the PGA Tour didn't end in storybook fashion. By 1986 his 14-year marriage was finished. He moved out of the St. Petersburg, Fla., home he had shared with his wife, Brenda, and two children, Jimmy and Radiah, who were nine and 12, respectively, at the time. That same year, he lost his exemption and had to scrape out a living playing in mini-tours in Florida. With help from Black, who by then was a teaching pro in Tampa, Dent worked every day on improving his pitching and putting, getting ready for the Senior tour.
The Jim Dent story seems headed for a happy ending. He was named the Senior tour's Rookie of the Year in 1989, and this year he was the tour's longest driver and his new, improved short game made him a leader when it came to birdies. Since September, fellow seniors and amateurs have been lining up to get their hands on a copy of the 37.5-inch, mallet-head putter Dent used to birdie 15 holes during the final two rounds of the Crestar Classic, at Hermitage Country Club in Manakin-Sabot, Va. He finished 14 under par and won the tournament by one stroke. And Dent is working on a deal to market a metal driver bearing his signature. "Golf has opened a lot of doors for me," he says.
He isn't speaking figuratively. Before she died 10 years ago, his Aunt Mary moved from The Hill into a brick house Dent had built for her in Augusta. He owns one home in Tampa, is negotiating to buy some duplexes in Atlanta as investments and is midway through construction of a second house in a tony Augusta subdivision.
Life away from golf is happy, too. Dent remains close to Radiah and Jimmy, who live with their mother in St. Petersburg. Jimmy, a high school freshman, was in the gallery when his father won the Syracuse Seniors Classic in June. Just before he flew to Napa, Dent went to an open house at Jimmy's school to check on his son's progress in algebra. He reminded Jimmy that he won't be allowed to play football if his grades slide. Several times a week Dent phones Augusta to chat with his two grandchildren and with his daughter from a short-lived first marriage, Charlene, who teaches in the day-care center at University Hospital. "The money and everything is nice," Dent says, "but the thing I'm most proud of is being a winner."
It is late afternoon at Silverado Country Club, and Dent, who led the first two rounds, has just shot a final-round 71 to finish tied for eighth at the Transamerica event. He signs autographs and answers questions from a group of youngsters from Oakland who came to Napa to watch him play. For about 20 minutes he chats with them, showing them his golf clubs and letting them examine his cart. Before he leaves, he gives each one a golf ball. The youngsters are delighted, and so is Dent. He knows what it's like to be a kid who likes golf.