Here's the story of the hat: After a sweltering summer day on a
Kansas golf course in 1957, 16-year-old Jim Colbert almost
collapsed from sunstroke. Hey, moron, said his doctor (we're
paraphrasing), from now on wear a hat on the links.
The hat Jim adopted is known variously as a fishing hat, a rain
hat, a bucket hat -- the kind favored by McLean Stevenson in
M*A*S*H. As a journeyman on the PGA Tour in the 1960s and '70s,
Colbert became known for that chapeau, whose practicality was not
limited to its function as a sun guard: It also concealed one of
the less-convincing hairpieces on the circuit.
``I'll be the first to admit that it's pretty ugly,'' says
Colbert, speaking of his hat, not his rug. ``In 1970 I wore a
baseball cap for six months, but that bothered people. They'd say,
`We didn't recognize you in that thing. Where's your hat?' Trevino
has his sombrero, Nicklaus has the bear. I have my hat.''
While golf fans laughed with Trevino and admired Nicklaus, they
empathized with Colbert, the short guy with the bad hair and bad
back who struggled every week just to ``make a check.'' Throughout
his career on what he now puckishly calls ``the junior tour,''
Colbert's unglamorous lid was an apt symbol for a workaday pro
whose eight Tour wins and $1.6 million in earnings were spread out
over 22 years.
March 13, 1995
How incongruous, then, to see the hat painted on the tail of the
tan, $1.4 million Sabreliner 80 jet in which Colbert hopscotches
the country. He bought the jet in 1994 and uses it to commute to
Senior PGA Tour events and his business holdings from homes in Las
Vegas and Palm Desert, Calif. Since joining the Senior circuit in
'91, following three years as a golf analyst for ESPN, Colbert has
won 10 tournaments and amassed $3,736,671 in prize money. This
year he leads the Senior money list with $238,150. His Senior
winnings dwarf what he made on the PGA Tour, but both in turn are
dwarfed by the fortune he has amassed ``outside the ropes,'' in
the design, management and ownership of golf courses.
``I've always been on the side of the average Joe,'' Colbert was
saying last week, a few hours before jetting off to play in the
FHP Health Care Classic at the Ojai (Calif.) Country Club. Bruce
Devlin would win the 36- hole, rain-shortened event, while Colbert
would earn $19,000 for a six-under- par tie for eighth. That
finish would have been a champagne occasion for Colbert the worker
ant, but it didn't do much to excite Colbert the Senior. For
perspective: Colbert needed more than three years on the PGA Tour
to win his first $40,000; he now spends half that amount annually
to send his pilot and copilot to flight school.
Due to his farsighted decision in the early '80s to cater to the
public-course-playing public, Colbert can now afford memberships
in such excruciatingly private establishments as the Bighorn Golf
Club, whose 9th hole runs behind the Palm Desert house that he and
his wife, Marcia, just built.
``We're still waiting for a lot of art,'' says Marcia, as Jim
treats a visitor to a tour of the place. He points out his workout
area, complete with treadmill, gleaming weight machines, whirlpool
and cold plunge. The mattress in the master bedroom is also a
point of interest. In it are 350 magnets, which Colbert says help
increase circulation in the lumbar region of his back. ``I know it
sounds like voodoo,'' he says, ``but it works for me.''
He betrays not a trace of self-pity while discussing the back pain
that cut into his playing schedule and forced him to retire from
the Tour in 1987. Perhaps that's because fiscally, if not
physically, that bad back turned out to be a good thing.
Long ago, when he was a sophomore at Bishop Miege High in Roeland
Park, Kans., Colbert would sit behind Marcia in class and whisper
to her, ``I'm going to marry you and take you places.''
``He was a little too sure of himself back then,'' says Marcia,
``but everything worked out.'' They were married a mere two years
later, when both were 17. ``She was the homecoming queen, I was
the football star. It seemed like the thing to do,'' says Colbert.
He sold insurance after graduating from Kansas State in 1964, but
a year of peddling policies convinced him that he should try his
luck on the PGA Tour. By this time he and Marcia had three
daughters. The decision to quit his day job was not one he made
Nor, at first, did it appear to have been well reasoned. He won
$1,897 his first season and almost lost his Tour card. He came
back to earn $25,425 in '67. Two years later he won his first
tournament, the rain-delayed Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Fla.,
edging Deane Beman on a Tuesday. ``Of course, no one knew about
it,'' says Colbert. ``By the time we finished, the only person
around was the shoeshine guy, waiting for his tip.''
Colbert won three more tournaments over the next five years, and
life got easier. In 1975, he began working with Jimmy Ballard, a
swing doctor from Pell City, Ala. The collaboration yielded the
finest golf of Colbert's career. But he was already suffering from
the back problems that would severely limit his playing time from
1976 to '78. With an eye toward life after professional golf --
this was before people realized there needn't be any such thing --
Colbert, in 1974, accepted a spot on the Tournament Policy Board,
a post he held for 14 years.
Much of the board's work during that time involved the creation
of Tournament Players Clubs. Colbert had the opportunity to work
with ``players'' of a different stripe: the chairmen of Coca Cola,
the Eaton Corporation, Westinghouse, Citibank. This experience served
as Colbert's primer on the Art of the Deal. ``I got my M.B.A.
sitting on that board,'' he says.
Colbert had a yen to get into the golf course business. There was
yen to be made in the design and management of private courses,
but, he says, ``guys like Palmer and Nicklaus had worked that
street pretty good.'' Colbert decided that his future would be in
In 1980 a friend informed him that the lease on a ratty municipal
course in Las Vegas had expired. The course had gone to hell under
the previous leaseholders, making the city reluctant to farm it
out again. Colbert flew to Vegas 23 times, wooing the director of
Parks and Recreation, members of the city council and the mayor,
telling them, ``You have a chance to help make it great.'' In the
end they were swayed by his enthusiasm . . . and the $450,000
letter of credit he wangled out of a Kansas City bank.
Colbert got the course and he got to work, overhauling the
irrigation system, refurbishing the clubhouse and replacing the
greens. He talked his old friend Ron Fogler, a club manager from
Manhattan, Kans., who also happened to be a chef as well as a PGA
pro, into joining him and running the course. Colbert's business
career was off to a nice little start.
In 1984 a second Las Vegas course, this one county-owned, became
available, and Colbert pounced. He dubbed the course Desert Rose
and borrowed $1.1 million to make improvements, including the
rebuilding of two flood channels. After all, the course sat in
what the locals called a ``100-year flood plain,'' meaning the
area floods about once a century. Colbert figured that you
couldn't be too careful.
That summer he played in his only British Open. As a treat, he and
Marcia returned on the QE2. At breakfast on the third morning of
the cruise, fellow passengers started commiserating with Colbert
about the terrible floods in Las Vegas. Colbert, who didn't know
what they were talking about, sprinted to a phone.
Floodwaters had destroyed a partially completed flood channel and
carried off hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of expensive
soil. Desert Rose needed $1 million in repairs.
One of the partners in the venture was Colbert's old friend and
fellow native Kansan, R.D. Hubbard, who had made his fortune in
glass manufacturing, then supplemented it by buying a bunch of
horseracing tracks. After the flood Hubbard flew to Vegas to
survey the damage. ``We'll just have to redo it,'' he said. Before
reboarding his jet, he wrote out a check for $200,000 and handed
it to Colbert with instructions to keep accounts current.
Hubbard's life-preserver loan would not last long. With Desert
Rose threatening to bankrupt his business, the survivor in Colbert
emerged. He became a traveling, negotiating, deal-closing dervish,
leasing three more courses in 12 months. ``I had to get three,
four and five to pay for number two,'' he says. Colbert's company
grew quickly. When he sold it four years ago to join the Senior
tour, the company, Colbert Golf Inc., had 23 courses, 700
full-time employees and annual gross revenues of nearly $50
Colbert chooses not to reveal how much the company sold for, but
it was enough to set him up for life. Still, as much as he thrives
on the competition on the Mature Tour, Colbert is more addicted to
the thrill of the deal. This year he will open 32 golf schools in
northern, cold-weather locations. Instructors will be certified by
his old friend Ballard. Again, Colbert will target a middle-income
clientele. The lessons, which will cost $99 and last three hours,
are being offered as an alternative to, as Colbert says, ``paying
$2,500 to beat golf balls for eight hours until your hands are
bloody, get your video and go home.''
And there are other irons in the fire. Five years ago Colbert
joined with four others in a partnership that owns the Sunrise
Golf Club, a private, 36-hole complex in Las Vegas. ``There was a
real need for something like this,'' says Colbert. ``The
next-closest club charges a $30,000 initiation fee and $800 a
year.'' Sunrise is cheaper by more than two thirds.
He has also stayed in the golf-course-designing business. At the
moment he has one course under construction in Vegas and three
more on the drawing board.
Colbert is accustomed to keeping several balls in the air. After
he quit the Tour in 1987, he joined ESPN. Colbert's willingness to
state his often strident opinions endeared him to viewers and to
his network bosses.
An excitable analyst, Colbert called 'em as he saw 'em, never so
succinctly as in 1989, when Dave Hill gave away the GTE Suncoast
Seniors Classic. Nursing a two-shot lead going into the 17th hole
on Sunday, Hill put his third shot into the water. Lying four,
Hill deposited his next shot into the drink, as well. Colbert's
cogent commentary: ``Jesus Christ, he hit it in the water!''
The three years he spent talking about his ex-peers forced him to
rest his back -- between running Colbert Golf Inc. and working for
ESPN he had little time to play golf -- even as it reawakened his
desire to compete. In 1991, after quitting ESPN and selling his
business, he joined the Senior tour, winning three tournaments and
earning the tour's oxymoronic Rookie of the Year award.
``It's taken me 30 years,'' he says, ``but I'm an overnight
He attributes some of that success to his personal trainer, who
works him like a dog, and some of it to memory lapses: ``All the
little idiosyncrasies in my swing -- I forgot 'em!'' he says.
And some of the credit goes to his newest, biggest toy, the
Sabreliner. Colbert played in 33 tournaments in 1994, and he is on
schedule to exceed that number in '95. Yet he is still able to
tend to his business and play a lot of lucrative private outings.
And having a private jet makes traveling a lot easier on his
As his jet whisked him across California last week, Colbert took
his seat -- right side, facing forward -- and made this
observation: ``In all the corporate jets I've flown on, this is
always the key seat. This is where the Man sits.''
Marcia rolled her eyes, just as she might have rolled them close
to 40 years ago when the cocky kid sitting behind her in school
would tap her on the shoulder and correctly predict the future.