A Hollywood writer had flown to Texas to discuss a movie about his life. Connie Chung's crew from Eye to Eye had spent days on his farm. The mayor of his hometown had arranged for the gaping hole in his driveway to be filled, and the city council, intending no pun, had voted to name the approach to the new municipal golf course after him: Robert Landers Drive.
Now came the hard part. It was time to produce. Landers was about to come under the scrutiny of his new peers. He would have to be on. The 51-year-old cattle farmer from Azle, Texas, took a deep breath and stepped into the abyss—the foyer of Raymond Floyd's mansion in Miami Beach, Fla.
This was, indeed, a trial by fire. Earlier in the day Landers had played his first 18 holes as a member of the Senior tour, turning in an understandably unsteady 75 in the opening round of the Royal Caribbean Classic in Key Biscayne. It was a pressure-packed experience to be sure: 300 people thronged the 1st tee at The Links at Key Biscayne to watch his first drive. He spanked it.
But Landers and his wife, Freddie, were truly nervous about their plans for the evening. They had been invited to a dinner party at the Floyds'. Freddie spent the day wondering what to wear to their first social engagement as a tour couple—she settled on slacks and a sweater—and worrying about gaffes she might commit. "It's like you've been shopping at K Marts all your life," she said, "and now you're going to Neimans." Of course, the party went splendidly and the Landerses were guilty of no faux pas, although Freddie refused to venture too near the pool, fearful that she might trip on one of her sandals and land in the drink. Robert reported, "A lady near me knocked over her water glass, and I thought, Boy, I'm glad that wasn't me."
So far the Landerses have charmed the plus fours off the Senior tour. At the Floyds' party everyone wanted to eat with them. This was the pattern all weekend: People wanted to meet them because they are a novelty, then they wanted to spend time with them because they are a delight—genuine, kind, humble and as surprised as anyone by their good fortune.
To say that Robert Landers is an unlikely member of the Senior tour is like saying O.J. might be in a spot of trouble. As anyone familiar with the growing Landers legend knows, he did not take up the game seriously until the age of 28. He earned $4,270 and a spot on the tour last November by placing sixth at its qualifying tournament in Lutz, Fla. He plays in sneakers and uses clubs he glued together on a workbench in his barn. He hones his brusque three-quarter swing—his sudden, slashing whacks at the ball bring to mind a man trying to kill a cornered rat—by hitting bucket after bucket of balls in his cow pastures, an aromatic practice range that gives fresh meaning to the expression crappy lie.
With a three-round total of 288, Landers finished a lowly 62nd in a field of 78 oldsters last week, but his indifferent play did absolutely nothing to dampen the sensation created by his presence. Every step of every round, he was bird-dogged by television crews and the self-styled Moo Crew, his nascent fan club. He commanded far larger followings than any other golfer in a field that featured the more familiar names of Floyd, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Lee Trevino and J.C. Snead, who finished with a four-under-par 209, then edged Floyd, the party animal, on the first hole of sudden death.
"The farmer," as he was called by spectators at Key Biscayne, as in "There he is, the guy in the tennis shoes, that's the farmer" pulled down a modest $1,275 for his labors. The Landerses weren't complaining. In 1987 their house burned down, forcing them to live in a 36-foot trailer on their 73-acre spread. Three years later, after they had borrowed to build a new house, they both lost their jobs. To get by, they had to supplement their modest farming income. Robert cut and sold firewood. Freddie made knick-knacks and sold them at flea markets.
Far be it from the Landerses to let the money from Robert's Q school check and his one endorsement contract diminish their frugality. They drove from Azle in the Dodge van owned by Landers's caddie, Roland Sparks. At night, to save on hotel expenses, the three of them shared a room. Not that the entire trip was marked by austerity. On a few nights, at the insistence of Sparks, they splurged, dining at a Shoney's. "We'd never been to a Shoney's before," says Freddie.
Now that they finally have some, the Landerses tend to spend their dough on practical things. Short on cash when they started farming, they didn't buy as many fence posts as they should have. As a result it has long been easy for their livestock to escape. Among the first things they did with their new money was buy 1,500 cedar stays to shore up their fences.
Strangers have been calling. Would Robert be interested in endorsing this sportswear, these balls, this putter? Would he consider going back to golf shoes? (After losing all his shoes in the fire, he became accustomed to playing in sneakers.) Last Friday, Rodriguez came up with a scheme—"Get this guy an endorsement with a milk company." Says Landers's old friend and new manager, Jerry Hamilton, "We may try to do that."
Although Hamilton is in negotiations with a half-dozen clothes and equipment makers, the only apparel firm with whom Landers has signed is Dickies, in a deal worth tens of thousand of dollars. It is an appropriate match: reasonably priced workwear with an ox-yoke logo worn by the farmer turned pro golfer with an ox-like resolve to achieve his goals.
The 20 friends of Landers's who made the trip to Key Biscayne were, at first, easily recognizable by their Dickies hats. But as the story of what one Miami sportscaster called the "incredible golfing farmer" spread, so did Landers's popularity. Complete strangers began showing up in Dickies-wear. Gordy Schore, a mortgage broker from Fort Lauderdale who sported Dickies pants and a Dickies shirt on Saturday, said, "Last year I followed George Shortridge, but he never did too much. Then I read about Landers. How can you resist a story like that?"
How indeed? Not long after making the cut at the Q school, Landers got a call from movie producer Chuck Gordon's office. "If they ever do make a movie, I want Jaclyn Smith to play me," says Freddie, who admires the line of clothes the former Charlie's Angels cast member has endorsed for K Mart.
Says Robert, "If Jaclyn Smith plays you, I'm playing myself."
Hamilton says he is "staying in touch" with Gordon, whose producing credits, he notes, include the movie Field of Dreams, an apt description of the pastures in which Landers has refined his unorthodox swing.
That swing was the subject of much discussion and wonderment last weekend. Remarked one member of the Moo Crew, "With that swing, if you told me he was a 10 handicap, I'd believe you. That guy could hustle the hell out of you."
A self-taught player, Landers has never taken a lesson. Says a friend of Landers's, Fort Worth club pro Steve Champion, "If he came to me for a lesson, I'd say, 'Oh, this is all wrong' and start tearing it down."
Landers got off to a rough start on Friday, bogeying the 1st hole when he skulled a shot out of a fairway bunker. Usually straight as an arrow—his long irons are the strength of his game—Landers hit 14 bunkers in his first two rounds, dooming his chances for a high finish. His sand game needs work despite his herculean efforts to improve it. Four years ago he dug a bunker in his pasture, filling it with sand he dredged from a nearby creek. After sifting out the rocks, Landers would lug the sand from the creek in five-gallon buckets. Alas, he no longer enjoys the use of his homemade trap. "The cows took it over," he says with a shrug.
"I'd just beat 'em with a stick to get them out," says Freddie, "but he's too nice."
So wretched were conditions in Key Biscayne on Saturday, with 30-mph winds bowing the pins into parentheses, that Landers shot 79 and moved up in the standings. After knocking down a four-foot putt to par the 18th, he was enthusiastically mooed.
Had he heard his lowing herd? "Oh, yeah," he said, anxiously adding, "I would never prod them to do that." Here is a man who still doesn't wear spikes because he's afraid he'll drag his feet and damage the greens, so it was hardly surprising that he was worried about ruffling the feathers of the tour's established players.
He didn't. "People love him; he's the American dream," says Rodriguez. "The tour needs a guy like Landers. But we need him to play well."
Indeed, if Landers doesn't show better than he did last weekend, he won't be around for another year. "You're all over him now," Trevino said, addressing the media, "but unless he starts shooting lower scores, I don't know how long [the attention] will last. I only met him once, and I gave him one piece of advice: 'Play every week. That way you'll have a better chance of keeping your card.' "
Only the top 31 money winners earn berths on the Senior tour for next season. If Landers isn't among them, he'll lose his card and have to go back to qualifying school to get a new one.
Last week the Landerses were too busy enjoying the moment to contemplate-such a sobering reality. Walking from the driving range to the putting green every morning, they held hands like sweethearts. "We've always been real happy and contented, but we never did a lot of laughing out loud," says Freddie. "Since we got here, at least once a day we've just laughed ourselves silly. You know when you laugh so hard your stomach hurts?"
As they amuse themselves, the Landerses are likewise bringing smiles to the faces of an ever-expanding Moo Crew.