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'I Am Not a Flake'

March 09, 1992
March 09, 1992

Table of Contents
March 9, 1992

Business
Games
Basketball
Bicycling
Hockey
Duke-UCLA
Los Angeles Clippers
Tiger Woods
Jerry Tarkanian
Drug Scandal
Red Sox
NBA Sleepers
Rocky Thompson
Al MacInnis
Swimsuits '92
A Woman's Place
Bobby Douglas
Maine Central
Boxing
Queen Of The Jungle
Interview
Marathon
Books
For The Record
Point After

'I Am Not a Flake'

So says Rocky Thompson, who took 27 years to win a PGA event—and blames the Putt Fairy and the Phantom

Rocky Thompson arches his carrot-colored eyebrows and denies he's a flake. Back home in Toco, Texas—where he's the mayor—flakes are unreliable, irresponsible, downright reprehensible. "In short, jerks," Hizzoner says in a voice as sharp as freshly sliced jalape‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±o peppers. "Like in that movie Thelma & Louise."

This is an article from the March 9, 1992 issue Original Layout

In that movie, he tells you, "Louise, or maybe Thelma, blows a guy away. She wants to lay low in Mexico, but Thelma, or maybe Louise, gets antsy and wants to surrender to the police." Whereupon Louise—Thelma?—says, "Don't flake out on me."

"Meaning, don't be a jerk," explains Thompson. "So please, don't call me a flake, even if you mean wild and crazy, which I certainly am. Because where I'm from, a flake is a jerk, and while I might be a jerk, I'm not unreliable."

Thompson was flouting flakery one day in January, at the Infiniti Tournament of Champions in Carlsbad, Calif. To get invited, you had to have won a PGA Tour event in 1991. "I've wanted to play here ever since I entered my very first pro tournament, the 1964 Indy 500 Classic," the 52-year-old Thompson said. "Of course in those days I didn't drive the Rockmobile." It wasn't until 1966 that fellow pro Bob Goalby told him, "Rocky, if a man's gonna drive the Tour, he's gotta drive it in style." The very next day Thompson dumped his Oldsmobile and bought himself a red Coupe de Ville—the Rock-mobile. He has driven various versions of the Rockmobile ever since.

Even with his new wheels, Thompson just couldn't seem to find his way from Indianapolis to the winner's circle: The trip took him through Venezuela, Panama, Australia and New Zealand; from the Indian Open in New Delhi to the Bucaramanga Open in Colombia to the Space Coast Open in Titusville, Fla.; and to many other satellite sites too obscure to mention. "I've played in places where there isn't even a town," he says. And the trek lasted 27 years.

In nearly three decades on the PGA Tour, Thompson, the son of a Texas oilman who long financed his career, won just $141,096 and failed to win a single tournament. "I don't think I could have gone 27 years without a victory," says Chi Chi Rodriguez. "My clothes would have gone out of style."

King Rabbit, they called Thompson, because he hopped from tournament to tournament, trying to qualify and to pick up a little lettuce. Nobody ever played in more Tour events without an exemption. "I wonder how I made it through all those Monday qualifiers," he muses. "Just try playing 600 Tour events fighting the 36-hole cut, knowing if you don't make it, you're not going to get a dime."

Thompson drifted in links limbo, just above the family safety net, until joining the Senior tour in the fall of '89. "Suddenly I hit pay dirt," Thompson says. He made $308,915 in 1990, another $435,794 in 1991. And—wonder of wonders—Thompson actually won a tournament. Two of them, in fact: the MONY Syracuse Senior Classic last June and the Digital Seniors Classic in Concord, Mass., in September. The Syracuse victory snapped his winless streak at 611 tournaments and earned him a ticket to Carlsbad. "It feels the same to win on the Senior tour as it does in the juniors," he says. "Then again, how the hell would I know?"

Thompson can turn a phrase as felicitously as an old cowboy can drop a rope around a mustang's neck. "I may be old in body, but I have a teenager's brain," he says. Who else moonwalks on the putting green ("I like Guy Lombardo, but I love Van Halen")? Or relaxes before rounds by staring into a blinking light-and-sound gizmo he calls Mo Chine? Or performs what appear to be sexual calisthenics after sinking a 40-footer? Or carries a low-tech putter that looks like a ski pole jammed into a coconut Frozfruit? Or fears the Putt Fairy?

Thompson is an authentic character of the sort that sports once produced in abundance. And if today his breed seems like an endangered species, that may be a measure of the diminished quality of modern life.

Before last year the closest Thompson had come to winning a tournament was 25 years ago at the Azalea Open in Wilmington, N.C. He would have forced a sudden-death playoff that day if his putt at 18 hadn't died a half-inch from the cup. "A victory there would have changed my first-day pairings forever," he reflects. "Never again would I have been required to tee off at 7 a.m., when the greens are frosty, or at 3:15 in the afternoon, when they've been torn up by spikes." He pulls in a long breath. "Another half an inch, and my whole life might have changed." Another breath. "Who knows, I might not be mayor of Toco."

Toco (pop. 164) squats in the middle of the Great Nowhere, a bleached expanse of Southwestern landscape. "Toco's just a little deal west of Paris," Thompson says. And he doesn't mean it's right there by Cherbourg.

Toco consists of 38 homes, three water tanks and a liquor store that doubles as the jail. No prisoners have been taken since 1972, when a band of desperadoes were locked up for drinking, handily enough, in the store's parking lot. Mayor Bill Thompson, Rocky's father, allowed himself a few liberties with his office. "My father held court for all 15 of them dudes," Rocky says. "He appointed himself judge of the Toco Territory."

When Bill died in 1983, Rocky took over as mayor. He has been reelected four times. "Has anyone ever run against me?" he says, incredulously. "Who the hell would want to?" His municipal duties run from impounding stray dogs to unclogging sewer lines. Once a year he shows up in Paris to host the Rocky Thompson Shootout, a sort of free-for-all in which duffers are blasted with water pistols as beer is poured on their Titleists. "The idea is to screw up the other players' shots without touching them or impairing the flight of the ball," Thompson says. Foghorns are legal, even encouraged. But firecrackers had to be outlawed in 1986 after a Roman candle sparked a fire in an adjoining field. "Just about anything goes in the Shootout," Thompson says. "It's what golf might have been like in the Old West."

For Rocky, the Old West is romantically real. He grew up singing Pistol Packin' Mama, Don't Fence Me In and The Yellow Rose of Texas. He believed in cowboys and Indians, in Tom Mix and in the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown and Red Ryder. Thompson took his name from Alan Rocky Lane, a Saturday-afternoon-serial cow-poke from Thompson's youth who "whupped up on the bad guys and never failed."

Thompson was born in Shreveport, La. When he was four, his family moved to Wichita Falls, Texas. His father later started the Thompson Oil Company, from which Toco took its name. "I'm not a bit sorry or apologetic that when I was born, my daddy was rich," Rocky says.

When Rocky was 12, his old man signed him up for golf lessons at the Wichita Falls Country Club. Within two years Rocky was shooting par. At 16 he averaged 68. "I had the world's greatest short game," he says. At 17 he saw his game balloon to an average of 73. "I had the world's worst long game." In 1956 he was paired with a Canadian slugger named Gary Cowan at the Jaycee junior championship in Fargo, N.Dak. Off the final tee Cowan outhit him by 50 yards. "I decided that if I could drive the ball farther, no one on the planet could beat me," Thompson says.

Thompson's remodeled swing looked like the swing of another Rocky—Colavito. "I traded my smooth, Gene Littler deal for a lashing, gashing piece of junk," he says. Thirty-six years later he's still trying to regain his graceful stroke.

Thompson often partied harder than he practiced. "The first 10 years on the Tour, I was a bachelor," he recalls. "I loved to dance. Most nights I was out late doing the twist, the Watusi, the James Brown. The women got me. No question, the women got me. Then I got married, and my wife got me. I didn't get totally serious about golf until I was 49."

With his 50th birthday approaching, Thompson spent all of 1989 prepping for the Senior PGA Qualifying School tournament. All, that is, but three days. "I wanted to beat balls on those days, too" he says. "But my wife kept me too busy with the honey-do's."

Meaning what?

"You know, Honey, do this. Honey, do that."

In the tournament about 450 people competed for eight Tour exemptions. Thompson led the field with an opening-day 67, followed by scores of 72, 71 and 71. He won the event by a record 10 strokes.

Thompson still goes to great lengths to win: 50 inches, to be exact. That's the size of Big Red, the driver that helped him place third in last year's seniors driving competition. Once a singles hitter, Thompson has become a real long-ball threat. That, combined with his soft touch—he was second in putting among the seniors last year—resulted in a Tour-high 400 birdies in 35 events.

Oddly, Thompson uses several different putters. When one fails him, he switches to another—often on the same hole. "If a putter does well," he says, "I reward it by letting it play the next hole."

Does Thompson think his putters have minds of their own? "A flake would probably say yes, but I don't believe they do," he says. "At least not yet."

They do, nonetheless, have distinct personalities. Two of them come in the black-and-silver color scheme of the Los Angeles Raiders: what he calls the 650 (because it cost $650) and Faded Jake, whose black paint is beginning to—sorry, Rocky—flake off. The other putter is the oddly angled Low Rider, a homemade number that seems ideal for performing root canal work on a hippopotamus. To wield it, Thompson must assume a catcher's crouch, plant his elbows on his knees and punch the ball toward the hole. If the putt falls in, he shouts, "Low Rider! Low Rider! Lowwwwwww Rider!" If it doesn't, he blames the Putt Fairy.

A cruel and vengeful creature, the Putt Fairy, says Thompson, "punishes those who don't keep their mouths off the putt." A remark as innocent as "It's in!" will cause her to nudge a ball toward an unnatural break. "Sometimes the Putt Fairy gets so offended, she'll jerk that sucker out of that hole!" he says. "Of course, you know she's the wife of Satan."

Of all golf's gremlins, Thompson considers the Phantom to be the most fiendish. "He decides whether you'll get good or bad kicks," Thompson says. He calls good kicks Nicklauses; bad ones are Thompsons. "Sometimes the Phantom likes me and gives me a Nicklaus," says Thompson. "But Nicklaus never gets a Thompson. Never."

Thompson got Thompsoned last March at the Vantage in San Antonio. Going into the final hole, he was a stroke ahead of Lee Trevino. But his drive found a sprinkler head, kicked dead left and landed behind a tree. Thompson chipped out and wound up with a bogey. Trevino eagled the par-five hole and won the title.

Thompson finally got Nicklaused three months later at the MONY Classic, where he and Jim Dent were tied for the lead after 17 holes on the final day. On 18 Thompson hooked his tee shot into the rough and behind a weeping willow. Ignoring the obvious irony of the ball's resting place, he somehow slinked a six-iron to within 14 feet of the flag. Dent was long, 35 feet away. Thompson two-putted. When Dent muffed what would have been a score-tying six-footer, Thompson was suddenly a champion. He executed a hip-jiggle, then thrust his fist into the air like a down-home revolutionary.

Afterward, Thompson said, "I've been playing 27 years. My goal was to win a tournament. Just one week I wanted to be the Man. Until this week, as best I can count, I was oh for 611. But now, if I never win again...right now...this minute, today, this week, I am the Man!" So loud did he scream those last four words as he stood near the green that he lost his voice for a week. He was hoarse again in September when he won the Digital Seniors. This time he celebrated with a vaguely erotic variation on the push-and-pull. "I am the Man!" he exulted once again. "I am the Man!"

Still, unlike Stan, Thompson gets little recognition. He spent so long in the shadows that even some seniors don't know who he is. At the Tournament of Champions awards banquet, Calvin Peete introduced him as Rocky Thomas. "You know what I should have done?" Thomas told a clump of fellow senior citizens in the locker room the following day. "I should have shouted, 'Stop! Stop this program!'

"Then I should have said, 'I started in '64. I finally get a chance to play on the Senior tour, but I have to qualify. I hit one million, two hundred thousand practice balls and win one of eight qualifying spots. I finally win my first tournament. Now I'm to be announced to come up onstage to get a medal, and I'm introduced as Rocky Thomas.' "

He fused his carroty brows until they formed a single smudge across his forehead. " 'If I'm going to bust my buns for 27 years and go through all the heartache and pain and aggravation, I at least want everybody in this room, including Rodney Peete, to know that my name is Rocky Thompson. Thompson! Thank you.' "

The seniors laughed uproariously and broke into prolonged applause.

Thompson's smile was pert, twisted. "People think I'm nuts, but I don't care," he said. "The truth is, I am nuts." He paused, then added, "But I am not a flake."

PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEThompson arrives with all manner of putters and a 50-inch driver he calls Big Red.TWO PHOTOSBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEOn sinking a difficult putt, Thompson has been known to celebrate by gyrating in his own unique manner.PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.]PHOTODANNY TURNERIn Toco, Thompson is at home at City Hall. Among his duties: dog catching.PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINEA light-and-sound show he calls Mo Chine helps Thompson relax.