Dead Serious

All kidding aside, Tour funnyman Peter Jacobsen played great golf in winning back-to-back tournaments
February 20, 1995

Unless it's a nine-hole score, 40 is no longer a number to be feared on the PGA Tour. In a sport in which getting older is increasingly synonymous with getting better, 40 now marks a renaissance for many players, the point where their skill, experience and desire merge on the path that leads to the Senior tour. Last year six players older than 40 won on the PGA Tour, and if further proof is needed that 40 is not over the hill, consider that Greg Norman hit the magic number last week.

The trend has exceptions, of course, particularly among pros who have lost their zest for the game. For them, hitting 40 represents not a new beginning but the beginning of the end. And if ever a player seemed numb to the restorative powers of a number, it was Peter Jacobsen.

Perhaps the Tour player with the most diverse outside interests, Jacobsen appeared to regard competitive golf as an afterthought soon after he turned 30 in 1984, his ninth year as a pro. Entering 1995 with four Tour wins, he was perhaps better known for being a television commentator, the lead singer of Jake Trout and the Flounders, Jack Lemmon's perennial pro-am partner at Pebble Beach and the dead-on impersonator of pros like Tom Kite, Craig Stadler and Lanny Wadkins. Jacobsen is also a course designer, cofounder and host of a local charity tournament outside his hometown of Portland, the chairman of a sports event management and promotion company, a two-term veteran of the Tour's policy board, an autobiographer, a husband and a father of three.

It figured that by the time Jacobsen turned 40, which he did last March, he would have eased out of the competitive cauldron altogether in order to do what he does best—have fun.

"I think a lot of us saw Peter getting farther away from playing golf," says Jacobsen's friend and fellow Tour pro Dan Forsman. "I'm sure he's heard young players go by and whisper, 'Yeah, that's Jacobsen. He's the imitator guy.' "

But while his imitations of other players seemingly eclipsed his own performance on the course, Jacobsen held on to the belief that he was a better player than he was given credit for. And turning 40 may have provided just the urgency he needed to finally prove it. With a dominating four-stroke victory at the Buick Invitational of California in La Jolla on Sunday, combined with his equally impressive two-stroke win the week before at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Jacobsen has put together the biggest surge at 40 since Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus tore up the Tour at that age in 1980.

In accomplishing the unusual Tour feat of back-to-back titles, Jacobsen played his dream rounds—hitting fairways and greens with metronomic monotony, making the putts that maintained his momentum, carrying himself with an easy serenity and, when the time came on Sundays, turning into a cold-blooded closer.

As much as anyone, Jacobsen knows how out of character he has been the last two weeks. In 17 years on the Tour, he was a player who too often couldn't play to his ability at crunch time. That pattern began to develop at the 1983 PGA Championship. Jacobsen was one stroke off the lead going to the 72nd hole there, but bogeyed and wound up finishing third behind Hal Sutton and Nicklaus. He lost two playoffs—in the '85 Honda Classic and the '89 Western Open—by three-putting the first hole of sudden death, and he blew the '88 Western Open when he double-bogeyed the last hole to lose by one to a very surprised Jim Benepe.

Coming into Pebble Beach, he had won just once—the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in 1990—in the past 10 years. So it was understandable on Sunday, after he had posted a 19-under 68-65-68-68-269 at Torrey Pines, that Jacobsen seemed overwhelmed by his recent transformation.

"Maybe I'm a slow starter," he joked, after finishing four shots ahead of Mark Calcavecchia, Mike Hulbert, Sutton and Kirk Triplett. "Over the last 19 years, I questioned myself down the stretch, questioned myself under pressure. I would wonder why I could shoot 64s and 65s in pro-ams or exhibitions but then on Saturday or Sunday never come through with the good round. And I never really knew. I've been playing well for about a year, but I haven't put it together until now. I do know the money means absolutely nothing. Just to be able to go out there and win golf tournaments, that's the whole deal."

That has always been the bottom line for Jacobsen. Despite all that he has had going on the side, Jacobsen has yearned to be regarded as a top player. In Portland he was brought up in a family filled with avid golfers. With a strong, long body, Jacobsen, at 6'3" and 200 pounds, developed a powerful, rhythmic swing. But when he joined the Tour in 1977, he had a hard time overcoming an inferiority complex that stemmed from his status as an unsung player out of the University of Oregon.

"I was still trying to learn how to play when I came out of college, and I was intimidated by the great players," he says. "I was in awe. I'm still in awe."

His friends and supporters saw through the confident persona Jacobsen projected as an entertainer and a businessman, and were frustrated by his inability to carry that attitude onto the course.

"Peter's really always had the game, but it took him a long time to believe in himself," says Mike (Fluff) Cowan, who has been Jacobsen's caddie for 19 years. "Now he does. He proved it to me on the last hole at Pebble Beach, where he had a two-shot lead. In the past he would have been indecisive. He would have come to me and said, 'What do you like? What should I hit?' Instead, he walked up to that tee, never said boo to me, pulled out a driver and hit it. He's starting to know how good he is. It's nothing but the mind."

To help guide him through that frontier, Jacobsen has long relied on the counsel of his friend Chuck Hogan, who has coached more than 60 playing professionals on the mental aspects of the game. "Peter is extroverted and very creative," says Hogan. "That endears him to a great many people, but it also makes him highly sensitive to the comments of those same people. As a result, he is very suggestible and very distractible. For example, he would constantly experiment with his golf swing, listening to teacher after teacher. I would run into all kinds of teaching pros who would tell me, 'I gave Peter Jacobsen a golf lesson.' My comment would be, 'Who hasn't?' "

Jacobsen was further distracted by two personal losses. He was deeply shaken when his younger brother, Paul, died of AIDS in September 1988 and devastated in July 1991 when his father, Erling, died of cancer after fighting off the illness for seven years. After his father's death, Peter plunged to 127th on the money list in '92, losing his exempt status for the first time since he was a rookie.

With his playing career at rock bottom and "my desire gone," Jacobsen became an ABC golf commentator in 1993, juggling those duties with appearances on the Tour. However, sitting in the announcers' booth and watching players he knew he could beat reminded Jacobsen of how important the game was to him. He made plans to play full-time in '94, but a series of injuries, including pulled rib muscles and a deep cut on his right hand, limited him to 19 tournaments, with only three top-10 finishes.

Last fall Jacobsen rededicated himself to the game and made extensive preparations for this year, hiring personal trainer Fil Pearl, the son of a former Mr. Universe, Bill Pearl. From the middle of November to Jan. 1, Jacobsen lifted weights four days a week and ran up to five miles a day on a treadmill. He came out of the program in the best physical shape of his life, and even more important, he was pumped mentally.

This new discipline—he had talked about embarking on a physical regimen for 15 years without doing so—represented an important step for Jacobsen. "He said he was going to do something," says Hogan, "and he actually did it, with no slippage. That's what counts. Wannabes have a vision. Champions are their vision. Peter was crossing that threshold."

Jacobsen had noticed the perception among his peers that he was a player whose days were numbered, and it not only angered him but also motivated him. "It made me think, I'm not done. I'm going to prove to myself, and I'm going to prove to them, that I can play," he says, "that I can still play."

He also came into the year settled on his thoughts for a consistent swing and eager to try two ideas he had picked up while watching from the TV booth. After noticing how many players moved their heads when they putted, he worked overtime to keep his head still. He also realized that the best players walked down the fairway at the same tempo with which they swung and vowed to slow his own sometimes frenetic pace afoot.

After finishing 47th at the Hawaiian Open on Jan. 15 and missing the cut two weeks later at Phoenix, Jacobsen moved the ball back a few inches in his putting stance. The next week everything fell into place at Pebble Beach, where he took advantage of the lift, clean and place rule to hit 69 of 72 greens in regulation.

Last week at Torrey Pines, where his gallery for all four days included his friend P.J. Carlesimo, the Portland Trail Blazer coach, Jacobsen began the final round with a three-stroke lead. Hulbert birdied the first three holes and the 6th, cutting the lead to one, but Jacobsen answered with a birdie of his own at 6 and followed with two more on the 10th and 11th to get his advantage up to four strokes. The clincher came at the par-4 14th, after Jacobsen ran a putt from the fringe seven feet past the hole. On just the kind of putt that had been a career-long nemesis, he kept his head perfectly still and knocked the ball squarely in the hole.

"I can hardly wait for the alarm to go off in the morning," says Jacobsen. "I'm excited to put the tee in the ground. I'm excited to hit. I believe in my game now. I believe in myself. Maybe I haven't always, but it's fun now."

Who knows what's in store for Jacobsen the rest of this year? Perhaps he'll earn a Ryder Cup berth, or become the leading money winner, or lay claim to a major championship. The only thing that's certain is that Jacobsen will not become the first player since Gary Player in 1978 to win three straight events on the schedule. He is passing up this week's Bob Hope to fulfill his promise to throw a 40th-birthday party in Portland for his wife, Jan.

Like we told you, 40 is a powerful number in golf.

TWO PHOTOSPETER READ MILLERJacobsen, cruising in the Buick (left), took the hardware at Torrey Pines (top) and at Pebble Beach. PHOTOJIM GUND[See caption above.] PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINWhether taking bows for tackling a streaker at the '85 British Open or mimicking Kite, Jacobsen's a hoot. PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.] PHOTOAP PHOTO/JOAN C. FAHRENTHOLDAfter winning the Buick, Jacobsen fired his ball into the drink and greeted a fired-up Carlesimo. PHOTOPETER READ MILLER[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)