Up from the Ashes

A fire destroyed Raymond Floyd's house, but it rekindled his desire to win
April 12, 1992

They are going home again this week, home to the dogwoods that bloom paper-white each spring and to the brilliant red azaleas that glow like embers on the lawns of Augusta National. They are going home to the cathedral of tall pines, to the deacons in green jackets, to the old-time religion at Amen Corner. Front yard, backyard. Home.

They are going home again to the Masters, golf's only major tournament that comes back to the same place every year. But for Raymond Floyd, this year's Masters will be different, very different. This year Floyd will be going to the only home he has. Early in the morning of Feb. 19, while Floyd was in San Diego for the Buick Invitational, the sprawling, 12,000-square-foot house on Miami's Biscayne Bay in which he and his family had lived for 14 years was destroyed by a fire.

"House is not the right word," says Maria Floyd, Raymond's wife of 18 years. "It was our home. It was big and grand, but you could come in our house and put your feet up in any room and feel at home. It was the basis for our whole lives. All of our memories were there." The house was built of stone and cement, so while it burned, it was the interior—not just the furniture but also the pictures, the mementos, the awards, the very soul of their lives—that fueled the fire. "We woke up one morning, and it wasn't there anymore," Raymond says.

When Maria called Raymond in San Diego at 1:08 a.m.—he says he will always remember that time on his hotel clock—and told him their house was burning, he asked her how bad it was. "They say they'll have it out shortly, but the roof's fallen in," she said.

"She called me back an hour and a half later while I was packing," Raymond recalls, "and she was not hysterical, but she was very upset. She said, 'We're going to lose the house. It's roaring.' "

The Floyds' housekeeper, Aurelia Kaselin, had been awakened in her room by the crackling of fire on the patio outside. Maria, whom Kaselin had called on the house intercom, thought the fire was so insignificant that she only roused her three teenage children so they wouldn't be startled by the sirens of the fire trucks. When Kaselin rescued the family parakeet from the window overlooking the patio, she noticed that glass was spitting off the window from the heat. "By that time there were firemen pounding on the front door, saying that everybody had to get out of the house," says Maria, who stood on the front lawn and watched throughout the early morning as the fire fighters battled the blaze. "It wasn't until we were driving away in the station wagon that I could sec how big the fire was."

The facade of the house remained standing, lending an air of unreality to the whole episode. When Raymond got home later that day, he said it was as if he were standing on a movie set. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "You feel so violated, like everything's been taken away from you."

Investigators think the fire may have been caused by a faulty electrical outlet. The Floyds' first decision was to rebuild on the same site, and in the meantime, they have moved into a house up the street, where they'll live for the next year during construction.

A lesser casualty of the fire was the huge party Raymond and Maria threw every year during the Doral Ryder Open for just about everyone connected to the Miami tournament. "It didn't matter that we had white carpets, or what you spilled," Maria says. "Everybody came, and everybody was comfortable." Raymond grilled steaks, and there was an Italian buffet. The Floyds made everyone feel at home.

Before the fire, it had been six years since Floyd had won a Tour event, and at 49, he felt himself marking time until he would be eligible for the Senior tour next September. "I'd been playing well, I just didn't score," he says. "Maybe the fire woke me up, I don't know, but at the Doral [two weeks later] all of a sudden I started scoring." He finished the tournament at 17 under, a winner by two shots over the white-hot Fred Couples and Keith Clearwater. The victory made Floyd the oldest player to win a Tour event since Art Wall won the 1975 Milwaukee Open, at 51. Moreover, it made him only the second player, along with Sam Snead, to win a Tour event in four different decades.

"We agreed that I would handle the fire," Maria says, "and I think he wanted to do his part to help divert us from the nightmare we were going through. Raymond has a wonderful ability to reach down and do what he has to do." Two weeks ago he reached down again and won the Senior Grand Slam Championship in Japan (where the eligibility rules decree that all birthdays fall on Jan. 1). Raymond Floyd is hot again, hotter than a house afire, and he is heading home to Augusta National.

Floyd grew up 250 miles from Augusta, in Fayetteville, N.C. "I'm always excited about going to the Masters," he says. "It's the greatest tournament in the world, the greatest place in the world. I go there three or four times a year when the tournament isn't on, just to play." He speaks in a voice fragrant with honeysuckle and magnolia blossoms, a remnant of his North Carolina boyhood.

His father, L.B. Floyd, served a 21-year hitch in the Army, much of it as a master sergeant at Fort Bragg, near Fayetteville, where he was the golf professional at the enlisted men's base course. Floyd's mother, Edith, was a local club champion, and his sister, Marlene, has played on the LPGA tour since 1976. "We never really lived the Army life," Raymond says. "My dad always wore civilian clothes." In the Floyd barracks, reveille was just an early tee time.

Raymond has no memory of a day that was not inhabited by golf. "He could always hit it so pure and good," recalls L.B., who's now 69. "I owned a driving range near camp, and I had to stop taking him there because the people would all stop and watch him hit. Nobody was buying any balls. I don't mean to brag on the boy, but Raymond can still turn the club upside down and hit it 250 yards off the tee lefthanded."

At age six, Raymond could play equally well left- or righthanded, which was quite an advantage when he began hustling the noncoms for quarters. "There was a sergeant in the Army I played a lot when I was 13 or 14, and it got to where I couldn't give him enough ups," Floyd says, "so I finally played him, alternating shots between my left hand and my right." Raymond was a scratch golfer by then, and what he scratched for mostly was other people's money.

"When I grew up, golf was a gambling game, that was just the nature of it," Floyd says. "And for me, that was the fascination of it. Had it not been for the gambling, I don't believe I would have enjoyed the games as much or stayed on top the way I did. I started playing for quarters, and for a long time I guess I never ' played a game of golf that I didn't have a bet on. If you're practicing a hole, a six doesn't seem much different from a four. But if you have a quarter on it, then you've got a rooting interest. And the higher the stakes, the more intense your interest becomes."

By the time he finished Fayetteville Senior High, Floyd had attracted the attention of a backer who drove the teenager to a town 50 miles from Fayetteville to play in gambling games almost every week. "We gave him an allowance," L.B. says, "but you know how kids are, always running out. Raymond was like that until he was about 18, and then I noticed for several months he never came back and asked for any extra money. He would go out on weekends and just clean these men for big money. I didn't want to raise a son up to become a degenerate gambler, but....Raymond would just clean those ol' boys out. It was hard to fault him."

Floyd spent one semester at the University of North Carolina in 1960, but he quickly grew restless in Chapel Hill. He had been offered a contract to pitch for the Cleveland Indians organization at 17 but had turned it down. Instead, at 19, he became a golf pro.

"In those days, all the real athletes went into baseball or football," Floyd says. "Golf really wasn't that big then." When Floyd won the St. Petersburg Open and was named the PGA rookie of the year for 1963, Arnold Palmer was the leading money winner, and Jack Nicklaus was still fat. Nicklaus, who had preceded Floyd onto the Tour by a year, lost the weight soon enough, but it has taken Floyd almost three decades to begin to emerge from the vast Nicklaus shadow.

At 6 feet, 200 pounds, Floyd was never physically overmatched by anyone on the Tour, not even Nicklaus. "I could launch it," Floyd says. And yet for the first 11 years of his career, the only time he finished higher than 24th on the earnings list was 1969, the year he won the PGA Championship, his first major title.

After the PGA victory Floyd's interest in the game nearly flickered out. "I reached a point where I wasn't enjoying what I was doing," he says. "From 1970 to '73 I was just going through the motions. As my game soured, my desire to work left me, and I wasn't practicing at all. I would drift along until I started to need money; then I'd go out and work hard until I had enough to live on again."

That all changed in 1973 when he married Maria Fraietta, whom he met in Miami, where she had a fashion and design school. Three months after their December wedding Floyd was playing in the second round of the Jacksonville Open when he realized he was not going to make the cut. In the middle of the round he told Maria to get ready to fly back to Miami that night. Maria, who had discovered a month earlier that she was pregnant, had other ideas. "I'm not going to Miami," she told him. "I came here for four days, and I'm going to stay for four days." They stayed the full four days, even though Floyd withdrew from the tournament. "Then we drove to Hilton Head, and Raymond tied for sixth there," Maria says. "That was the turning point."

"Maria told me if I wasn't committed to what I was doing, I should get out, that I was young enough to find another career," Raymond says. "Well, that shocked me. I couldn't imagine my life without golf. And at that moment I decided I'd meandered around enough. That was the point of maturity for me. I've never played a round of golf since then that I didn't give everything I've got."

Two years later Floyd blistered the par 5s at Augusta, playing them in 14 under and tying the tournament record, and won the 1976 Masters by eight strokes. He thought nothing would ever top that feeling, but winning the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in '86, at the age of 43—he was at the time the oldest player to win an Open—came close. Before that victory Floyd had never finished higher than sixth in an Open.

In the final round of that tournament, Floyd had a trancelike gaze that the other players call The Look. "I know the image I project on the golf course, because people are afraid to come up to me," Floyd says. "I've had players tell me I intimidate them on the course." This troubles Floyd, who is, in all other ways, a genial fellow. "I don't do it intentionally," he says. "To try to beat somebody with gambit or foolery is not my way."

As Floyd torched the Shinnecock course that day with a closing 66, he walked past Maria on his way to the 11th tee and stared straight through her. "I've seen him win before without that look," she said, "but I've never seen him lose with it."

That was why there was something ominous about Raymond's jovial manner as he was building a commanding lead—four shots over Nick Faldo with six holes to play—at the 1990 Masters. "He never had The Look at Augusta that year," Maria says, "not for a single round." Raymond hadn't won a tournament in four years and was trying to become the oldest player ever to win a Masters. But his margin started to unravel on 14 when his chip for a birdie veered less than an inch wide of the hole. The ball changed course after rolling over a penny that Floyd's playing partner, John Huston, had placed on the green to mark his ball. Floyd lost on the second hole of a playoff.

"That was the toughest loss I've ever had," he says. "There's been nothing else in my career that's affected me the way that loss did."

Maria says, "There isn't a week that goes by I don't think about that loss. The Masters has always been the most special time in our lives, and now the most special place, too. Even the noise from the crowd is different there, the way it echoes through the trees. Like no place else."

It is the sound of a mother's voice—comforting and clear—calling children home for supper. For golfers it's like no place else. They are going home.

PHOTOKEN LEVINE/ALLSPORT USAFloyd is eager to get to the Masters, which he won in 1976 by lapping the field (right). PHOTONEIL LEIFER[See caption above.] PHOTOTONY TRIOLOFloyd, unfocused early in his career, shared his Open triumph with daughter Christina. PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYON[See caption above.] PHOTOLOU TOMAN/SUN SENTINELMaria was overwhelmed when she surveyed the extent of the damage to the house after the devastating blaze was finally put out. PHOTORANDY BAZEMORE/MIAMI HERALD[See caption above.]

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)