Larry Laoretti's address is changing from Kentucky to Ohio, and as he zooms past the sign that reads THANKS FOR VISITING THE BLUEGRASS STATE, he flicks his cigar ash out the driver's window. He then slides his ever-present stogie in among his yellowed canines and incisors, which have become beveled over time, since he chomped down on his first White Owl, about a million years ago.
Laoretti, the freewheeling winner of the 1992 U.S. Senior Open golf tournament, steers his 38-foot mobile home through a left turn, toward Michigan, and heads down the American Legion Memorial Highway. This is his America, where silos rise like mileage markers, where motel billboards boast of COLOR TV!, where pickup trucks in the fast lane crawl along at 35 mph, where people dine at places like Shoney's and Stuckey's, and where weary travelers like Larry Laoretti honk when they pass busty young women whose jalopies have broken down on the shoulder. Folks in these parts like to wear polyester jumpsuits, chat about "that rascal Senator So-and-so," attend livestock auctions and recite poetry.... Poetry?
You betcha. Laoretti, 53, is suddenly spouting poetry from behind the wet end of his stogie. He doesn't know Robert Frost from Jack Frost, but this is a poem his mother, Hilda, used to spoon-feed to little Larry as she tucked him in, back in Mahopac, N.Y. The poem has somehow shadowed his nomadic life and is now taped to a wall above the dinner table in his mobile home. The poem is called If, composed, says Laoretti, "by some English guy," better known as Rudyard Kipling. Laoretti's words are at first tough to grasp—enunciation is difficult when you have a giant cigar clutched in your teeth—but they eventually make sense:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too.
"Hell of a poem, huh?" he says, with a wink. Sure. Who ever thought Laoretti could trust himself? Isn't this guy up to wife number 3? Didn't he dash from pro shop to pro shop during a less-than-distinguished career as a teaching pro? And isn't his entire game just a gimmick? Isn't he just a glorified club pro? A guy who puffs on a cigar while he swings? A guy who once had his pregnant wife carry his clubs? He couldn't win a major, could he?
But in July, there was Laoretti, winner of zero tournaments in his 32 years as a pro, in the final round of the U.S. Senior Open in Bethlehem, Pa., appearing as if from a puff of his own cigar smoke and dogging everybody who had said he would have the Grim Reaper for a caddie that day. Here was the guy with the two-dollar cigar and the 59-cent swing, hitting every fairway and 17 greens in regulation on Sunday to whip Nicklaus, Trevino, Chi-Chi and everyone else by four shots. He swaggered off the course with his lips curled around his Te-Amo and chortled, "I fooled them all, didn't I?"
It's important to note that when Laoretti says, "Fuhgeddabowdit" (translation: "Forget-about-it"), what he means is "yes." Four years ago when he and his girlfriend, Susan Kulkaski, reached the moment of truth in their relationship, she understood him perfectly.
Susan: "Do you like these pumps?"
Susan: "Will you leave your wife?"
Kulkaski, 29, first met Laoretti in 1986 at the Indian Creek Country Club in Jupiter, Fla., where he was the club pro. She was 23 years old at the time and working for her dad selling plastics. Laoretti was 47. She wanted to learn how to play golf. He showed up half an hour late for her first lesson. "He had some lame excuse, like he was home in bed with his wife," Kulkaski remembers. "Yeah, right!"
Laoretti's reputation as a Lothario had preceded him. He was married first in 1959, at age 20, to his high school sweetheart, Jane Stumpfel. The couple adopted a son, Peter, before divorcing in 1968. "We just grew apart," Laoretti says. In truth Larry fell for a certain waitress at Smithtown Landing Country Club on Long Island, where he was then teaching. Irene Smith already had three children when she was swept away by the dashing club pro. The two were married two months after Larry divorced, and they had one daughter, Lynn. The family followed Laoretti across the country from golf club to golf club before he finally took root at Indian Creek in 1983.
Laoretti's second marriage was teetering when Susan walked into his pro shop. After her second lesson Laoretti asked her out for a drink, but she declined—on account of his wedding ring and all. But she booked another lesson and afterward said, "How 'bout that drink?" Larry and Susan soon began seeing each other, and Susan eventually moved into a two-room apartment with Lynn, who was, by then, a teenager. "That's how his wife found out about us," Susan says. "I had to get out of that apartment in a hurry."
Laoretti's second divorce was final in July 1988. In September he and Susan were married by a justice of the peace. Thirteen months later, Susan bore Larry a son, Lonnie.
We recount this family history simply to illustrate that Laoretti has never been one to linger in one place. Two years ago ESPN pleaded with him to stand over his golf ball just a millisecond longer so he could be shown hitting it on TV. It seems that he was launching his approach shots before his partner's ball had even landed on the green. "He's like an old gunslinger," says fellow Senior Al Geiberger. "You look away for an instant, and boom! his ball is gone."
That may explain why Laoretti travels in a motor home. He would rather sit in a dentist's chair than in an airport. He likes to hit the road right after the final hole of a tournament—he usually yields the wheel to his caddie, Bob O'Brien—and head for the next campground (O'Brien stays in a nearby motel). The mobile home is cozy. There's only one bedroom, but there arc loads of entertainment extras: two televisions, a VCR (the Buns of Steel exercise video gets plenty of use), a stereo and a cellular phone. There are family snapshots taped to the fridge, and a stack of Reader's Digests in the bathroom. The rules of the road are simple:
1) driver chooses tunes; 2) no back-sofa driving; and 3) gin rummy loser docs the dishes.
That's it. Of course, when you drive 25,000 miles a year, it isn't all happy motoring. There was that time when one of the tires blew and caused the septic tank to explode. "Somewhere in Ohio, the grass is growing a little taller by the interstate," O'Brien says.
Laoretti's wanderlust began when he was a teenager who hit far more hooks than books. He had taught himself the game while caddying at the Mahopac Country Club, playing on caddie days and sneaking out for a few holes in the evenings. Upon graduating from Mahopac High, he left a prescient message below his snapshot in the senior-class yearbook, The Wampum. It read: "The golf profession will take Larry far."
The Navy got to him first and took him to Guam, where one day a lieutenant commander walked up to Petty Officer Laoretti and blew a cloud of cigar smoke in his face. Laoretti inhaled the smoke as if it were the bouquet of a fine Bordeaux. "The next day I bought 50 White Owls," he says.
Two years later Laoretti was transferred to San Diego, and he arranged to caddie in the Bob Hope Desert Classic in Palm Springs for Mike Fetchick, a pro he had met at the Mahopac Country Club when Laoretti was eight years old. One day on the driving range, Fetchick made the mistake of asking Laoretti if he wanted to hit one. "Larry snatched my driver and knocked 10 in a row over this hedge 280 yards away," Fetchick says. "All the other pros stopped dead and asked, 'Is this guy for real?' " Fuhgeddabowdit.
After his Navy hitch ended in 1960, Laoretti took an $85-a-week job cleaning clubs at Glen Head (N.Y.) Country Club, the first of seven clubs where he would work over the next two decades, mostly as a teaching pro. In those early years Laoretti dreamed of doing more than preaching swing plane to housewives and plumbers. "I was dying to take my shot at the Tour," he says. "But what could I do? I was supporting a wife and kids."
To satisfy his appetite for golf, Laoretti played in local qualifiers. He made the field for the 1966 PGA at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, where he narrowly survived the cut and played the final round paired with local favorite Jack Nicklaus. A gallery of more than 10,000 watched Laoretti skull one out of a fairway bunker on the very first hole.
But the moment that haunts Laoretti occurred when he was sitting beside pro Tony Lema in the locker room at the end of that round. Lema told the assembled crowd that he had chartered a plane to Chicago, and he asked, "Anybody need a ride?" That night, Lema's plane crashed in a fireball. Four people were on board; there were no survivors. "I'll never forget it, because Lema was my hero," Laoretti says. "He was an ex-caddie and an Italian boy like me who loved to be a showman. I've tried to fill his shoes."
Since his arrival on the Senior tour, after he turned 50 in July 1989, Laoretti has become a showstopper. He took a year off from teaching to sharpen his game. Then Larry and Susan pooled their assets—pennies, nickels, dimes and a few quarters added up to $110—and joined the tour. Although Susan was seven months pregnant at the time, she became Larry's caddie because of the emptiness of their pockets. Crisscrossing the country, the couple played in Monday qualifiers without much success but with plenty of laughs. For instance, Laoretti had the only caddie who, when asked to help read a putt, often replied, "Sorry. You're on your own, sweetheart." Team Laoretti won $3,025 during the final four months of 1989, little more than gas cash.
Two years later the Laoretti road show was traveling first-class in a new mobile home, and Susan could join the galleries that followed her husband's trail of smoke. Laoretti didn't win a tournament in 1991, but with six finishes among the top five, he earned more than $350,000, twice his 1990 total. He kept his frugal habits, though, returning to the motor home each night, drinking Carlo Paisano chianti from a gallon jug and balking at suggestions that he smoke a better class of cigar. "A cigar is like a good wine or a good woman," he says. "Once you acquire a taste for one, nothing else tastes quite right anymore."
With his everyman attitude, Laoretti has become a favorite of Senior tour spectators. He has been known to sidle up to a gallery rope and tell the fans his favorite joke, the one about the Senior golfer who goes in for a checkup:
"Doc," the golfer says, "will I be able to play golf for another 50 years?"
"Do you drink, smoke or carouse with women?" the doctor asks.
"I don't drink or smoke, and I detest women," the golfer responds.
"Then what do you want to live another 50 years for?" the doc says.
Of course, there was the time in Scotland when Susan wished her husband wasn't such a crowd pleaser. It was in September 1989, a week before their wedding, and Larry was playing in an all-expenses-paid tournament sponsored by the South Florida PGA. Despite being, well, tipsy much of the week, Laoretti won the $200 prize by five shots. It was all the money the couple had in the world. "So at the champion's dinner Larry gets loaded again," Susan recalls. "He could hardly talk, but when they called him up for his speech...." Laoretti stumbled up to the dais and summoned up an eloquent dissertation on the Scottish moors, peace on earth and whatever else came to mind. By the end there wasn't a dry eye in the house. He concluded by saying, "and finally, my friends, I'd like to donate my winnings to Scottish junior golf." Susan nearly fainted into her shepherd's pie.
This same charm captivated the golf gods at the Senior Open in July. At the champion's toast the blue blazers at the USGA got so carried away with Laoretti lore that they replaced the customary champagne with cheap Italian wine. Later that night Laoretti was back at the campground signing autographs for everybody in Bethlehem but Mary and Joseph. Says Susan, "I remember thinking how our whole life had changed in one day."
If it's Sunday night, this must be Grand Rapids, Mich., another stop on the Senior tour. Laoretti is sitting at a picnic table in a local campground and confessing his sins—which include multiple use of the Creator's name in vain during an unwanted stint in an unraked sand trap at The Highlands course earlier in the day—to a jovial, rotund priest named Father Turk. The priest is one of hundreds of ordinary people across the country whom Laoretti invites to join him and his family for a friendly picnic dinner when they're in town. Father Turk is wearing a too-small T-shirt that reads ON THE EIGHTH DAY GOD CREATED GOLF COURSES, and belly laughing over how he had been mistaken for pro Orville Moody three times that day.
Meanwhile, Susan is clearing the remnants of franks and beans from the picnic table and humming Achy Breaky Heart. Lonnie, a darling little poster child for the terrible twos, screeches, "Cowabunga, dude!" for the 127th time while goring unsuspecting guests with his ninja sword. Daddy just couldn't be prouder.
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same.
When the party's finally over, it's time to ride once again. But first Laoretti takes a quiet moment to survey the surrounding landscape from his own peculiar vantage point, a lonely picnic bench in space number 43 at the Grand Rogue campground.
"You wanna know something? We came from the absolute bottom of the cellar to the very top of the world," he says, puffing madly on his cigar. "Three years ago we didn't even have two buffaloes to rub together, and here we are today. Is this just an unbelievable rags-to-riches story, or what?"