He's such a blue-collar Staten Island type that you don't expect the definitive Jim Albus story to take place on the fairways of the posh Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles. The way an old college pal tells it, Albus and his roommate had sneaked onto Bel-Air one afternoon three decades ago and were playing the 3rd hole when an armed security guard surprised them and shouted that the L.A. police were on their way. Albus panicked and started running with his golf clubs, causing the guard to draw his gun. "Run!" Albus yelled over his shoulder. "You won't get shot for playing golf."
Men have made it through life with less succinct philosophies.
Unfortunately, Albus's buddy decided not to test the guard's resolve and stayed behind. So Albus, a loyal friend, quit running and trudged back to face the music. "The police wound up escorting us back to our car," Albus recalls, "but for a while there it looked like I'd have a criminal record."
Anyone who has seen Albus's muscle-bound swing understands why the Staten Island native used to have to sneak onto tony courses. He rocks his 210 pounds from one foot to the other in diminishing arcs before listing right and taking the club back slowly to just beyond vertical—pausing long enough to consider his options—and then plowing through the ball with straight-line power. It's the kind of muni-ficent, homemade swing you see at L.A.'s Rancho Park Golf Club, where Albus honed his game in the '60s. It is the sort of swing you see at Staten Island's Latourette Golf Club, where he was the head pro in the '70s.
And these days it's the sort of swing you see Sunday afternoons on national television, where Albus regularly sneaks up on senior golfers with better form—fellows like Jack Nicklaus, Dave Stockton and Ray Floyd. A two-time winner on the PGA Senior Tour this year, the 54-year-old Albus is third on the money list, with more than $1 million in earnings, and first in the tour's All-Around statistical category, which combines a player's rankings in driving, putting, sand saves and trespassing on private property.
Albus is the least charismatic of the three former club pros who in recent years have jumped the fence, so to speak, by winning major Senior championships. Larry Laoretti stole the 1992 U.S. Senior Open with a cigar clenched firmly in his teeth. Tom Wargo captured the 1993 PGA Seniors championship and regaled the nation with tales of his previous jobs as autoworker, farmer, ironworker, fisherman and small-town club pro. But before either of them caught the public's fancy, Albus, in just his sixth Senior tour event, humbled Lee Trevino and a pack of seasoned touring pros to win the 1991 Senior Players Championship at the TPC of Michigan. If Albus appears less colorful than Laoretti and Wargo, though, it's only because he's given to understatement and hides his almost bald head and bemused eyes under a floppy tennis hat.
What other golf pro has skydived more than 30 times, parasailed over schools of sharks and suffered "rapture of the deep" while scuba diving? How many senior golfers have faced down knife-and-gun-wielding muggers in Jamaica? Who else has spent nine weeks in bed with a paralyzing virus and bounced back four weeks later with a victory? For that matter, what other player has a wife with a master's degree in music history from UCLA?
"He's not one-dimensional," says Senior tour star Jim Colbert. "And he's not one of those guys who holes up in his room. We play a regular $50 Nassau, but if you said, 'Albus, let's play for a thousand,' he'd say, 'O.K.' " Colbert throws in the ultimate compliment: "If he'd played the old tour, I'm sure we'd have been best friends."
Like Wargo, Albus took up golf late. "I caddied at Latourette in my teens," he says, "but I never played. It was an old man's sport." He tells a story about playing for the first time that practically plagiarizes the story told by Wargo, who played his first round with an ironworker pal after drinking beer all night. For Albus, it was an all-night fraternity party that left him greeting the dawn with some fellow SAEs at Bucknell University in 1962. The boozy brothers—one of whom was a scratch player on the golf team—took Albus, a sophomore, onto the nine-hole Bucknell golf course and relieved him of his petty cash. "They beat my brains out, naturally," Albus recalls. "Golf was much harder than it looked."
Dave Contant, a retired schoolteacher and a contractor in West L.A., tells this story with even more relish than Albus, because Contant was one of the SAEs who played that morning. "I took five bucks from the guy, and that got him started," jokes Contant, who caddied and played with Albus in Pennsylvania and Southern California before losing track of his friend in the '70s. "I didn't see Jim again until I turned on Channel 7, 20 years later, and there he was, as big as life, beating Lee Trevino in Detroit." Contant laughs. "Now he graciously lets me caddie for him at a few tournaments."
How Albus got from golf novice to senior star in three decades would make a good book—if the hero himself could explain it. "Maybe I'm just a slow learner," he suggests. Actually, it's the reverse. A gifted athlete in his youth (all-city basketball player in high school; all-conference outfielder and 160-pound boxing champ at Bucknell), Albus threw himself at golf. "I got quite fanatical about it," he says, "to the point that I transferred schools after my junior year to play more golf."
Albus was two years into golf and already a four handicapper when he became a temporary Californian, earning a bachelor's degree at UCLA while playing most of L.A.'s courses, invited or not. He also caddied at the Los Angeles Country Club to gain access to it on caddie days. At the Veterans Administration Golf Course, a pitch-and-putt off Wilshire Boulevard, it was easier just to climb the fence.
Albus was also a regular at the Holmby Hills par-3 course, which doubled as a city park. "You had to hit wedge shots over people on blankets," Contant says of that tract. Albus perfected his swing by reading golf books and magazines and by observing better players; he was often seen on the meadow that would become Century City, hitting four or five hundred balls a day. "I always had a slow, deliberate swing with a pause at the top," Albus said. "It was never pretty."
Nor was it dependable enough to take out on tour. Albus was a 27-year-old two handicapper when he made the two biggest decisions of his life—to marry Brenda Ely, a UCLA grad student who played piano and organ, and to become a golf professional. The first decision, he points out with a smile, was easier to make than the second. "It didn't seem right to turn professional, because I wasn't good enough to play golf for a living. But it's so easy to become a golf professional. You just turn."
That's what Albus did in 1967, taking a job as starter and assistant pro at Mission Viejo Country Club. Two years later he moved back East to work at Latourette, an otherwise attractive New York City muni marred by vandalism, abandoned cars and the occasional corpse dropped overnight in the rough.
"It got ugly there for a while," Albus says of the years when the city was bankrupt and he had to make do with a maintenance staff of inexperienced, federally funded CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) workers. "But nothing discouraged the golfers. They'd get up at 2 a.m., take the ferry over from Brooklyn and sleep in the parking lot until sign-up time at five o'clock. If I showed up at 5:30, there'd be a hundred or more waiting in the dark."
Latourette, as it turned out, provided the environment for his game to flourish. Whenever possible, he joined the 20 or so New Yorkers in Latourette's never-ending "scat game," a modest-stakes skins game for players craving ribald competition. Winters afforded time off to play mini-tours, usually in Florida but sometimes as distant as Africa, Asia and Australia. Best of all the Metropolitan PGA Section of New York offered some of the most intense sectional play in the U.S.
Albus moved to the exclusive Piping Rock Club in Westbury, N.Y., as head pro in 1978, and soon he had reason to dream. By the end of the '80s he had won two Metropolitan Opens and two Long Island Opens, been a four-time Met Section Player of the Year and a member of four PGA Cup squads, and played in seven PGA Championships and six U.S. Opens. In 1984, at age 44, he finished 25th in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
When Colbert played with Albus in the third round of the '91 Senior Players Championship, he realized that the congenially rumpled New Yorker was no ordinary club pro. "Jim got in some funny places in 18 holes," he recalls, "but every time he had to do something, he had a technique. And he didn't care if Nicklaus was in front of him, or Trevino. He started bogey, double bogey on Sunday, and Trevino said, 'Here we go.' But what did Jim make that day, nine birdies?"
Five, actually—but enough to win by three strokes on one of the Senior tour's toughest golf courses. What made the victory more remarkable—and what Albus failed to mention at the time—was that he was barely recovered from an unidentified virus that had felled him while he was trying to qualify for an event 14 weeks earlier. It had left him weak, numb from the waist down and racked by headaches and spinal shocks. A CT scan and countless tests ruled out cancer and most other recognizable life-threatening diseases, so the doctors told him he would probably recover. They just couldn't say from what.
Recover, he did. Still weak from losing 25 pounds, Albus played in the Met Section tournament that June, finished tied for eighth the following week at the Senior tour's Commemorative, and made the Players field when then PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman granted him a last-minute exemption. "I've wondered about it," Albus says, referring to his sterling play after the illness. "Your perspective changes when you survive something like that. Maybe you don't over-try so much."
Since startling the golf world with that victory, Albus has made the extraordinary seem commonplace. This season, in addition to his two wins—the Vantage at the Dominion in San Antonio in March and the Bank of Boston Senior Classic in August—he has finished second five times, including a near-miss at the U.S. Senior Open at Pinehurst, won by Simon Hobday. Since July, Albus has been in the top 10 in 9 of 11 tournaments, riding a deadly accurate driver and a dependable putting stroke. "I'm steadier than I used to be," he says. "I've played more spectacular golf back in the Met Section, but I couldn't sustain it like I have here. And I'm not exactly sure why."
His peers have a clue: He has left his club-pro job, his two kids are grown, and he's playing every week. "That's why you see guys on this tour, like Jim, who are so much better than they were 20 years ago," says Floyd. "He wasn't able to give himself to the game when he was raising a family, and now he can."
Brenda Albus, who used to manage the golf shop for Jim at Piping Rock and now travels with him, credits those reasons and another—temperament. "He has a very good attitude for golf," she says. "He doesn't let a bad shot or a bad round upset him."
The best story about the Albus temperament is one he tells on himself. Five years ago, when he was just an aging club pro at the Jamaica Open, he was held up one night on a street in Kingston. Someone stuck a gun in his back and said, "Give me your wallet, or I'll blow your head off." A second robber nicked him with a knife. Albus's response: inappropriate laughter. "I was scared; it was a nervous laugh," he said later, "but those Jamaicans must've thought they'd encountered a raving lunatic." The robbers ran off, leaving Albus with his wallet.
All things considered, Albus says he would rather face a Lee Trevino than a mugger. Trevino's tough, but he won't confront you with anything deadlier than a rubber snake.
Now, a rubber shark might spook Albus. An avid scuba diver since he discovered the clear waters off Catalina Island, Calif., in the '60s, Albus has avoided any underwater confrontations with sharks. However, while parasailing off Florida's Singer Island some years ago, he noticed dozens of large, menacing shadows in the water, 100 feet below his skis. "I thought I was nuts, but they told me later the sharks are always there. Nobody says anything, because it might frighten off customers."
Once while scuba diving in Lake George in New York State, Albus went too deep and became disoriented with nitrogen narcosis. Fortunately, a fellow diver was there to guide him back to the surface. That experience notwithstanding, Albus delights in introducing prairie types like Wargo to the joys of the deep. "When we play in Hawaii," says Albus, "I spend more time under the water than on top."
Brenda smiles indulgently at such talk. Her husband, she says, is a frugal man who sees his sudden millionaire status as a license not to buy things but to travel and enjoy life. The Albuses recently sold their house in Oyster Bay, N.Y., and purchased a condominium in Sarasota, Fla.—a little place to change seasonal wardrobes and hang out, should Jim ever decide he needs a week off. On the road Brenda hits the museums and takes Italian lessons from Berlitz while Jim practices and plays in pro-ams. Five nights a week they find a health club for predinner aerobics and weight-lifting. Son Mark, a senior on the golf team at Vanderbilt, sometimes appears at his dad's side during tournaments, offering advice. Daughter Kathleen, 23, who is a mental-health researcher at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Md., might also tote for her father before going to graduate school next year.
"Jim's playing so much now because he enjoys it," says Brenda. "The whole thing is kind of a fairy tale for us."
Best of all, there's nobody around—armed or otherwise—to run Jim Albus off the fairways of the Senior tour. "I've heard other club pros say they sensed a hostility on the tour," he says, "but I've never had a problem out here. If you play well, your peers will accept you."
Albus grins the grin of a man who, late in life, feels welcome on either side of practically any fence. "You know what it's been?" he says. "A big holiday."