Peter Jacobsen could do his George Bush for you, with a smooth
necktie of a voice, or he could do his Greg Norman, with lips
pursed in a baby-man expression, or he could do his flight
attendant, explaining with a pair of bugged-out drill-sergeant
eyes how to use a seat cushion as a flotation device. But these
days the person Jacobsen does best is himself. The impressions
of others are strictly optional now, something to liven up the
Monday outings and entertain the wealthy cigar-chompers so he
doesn't have to keep saying, "Boy, you got all of that one, Ray.
Outdrive me again and I'm going back to the clubhouse." Jacobsen
doesn't have to be funny anymore. He can just be good.
You want to see an imitation? Jacobsen is doing an excellent
impression of the No. 2 low scorer and the leading money winner
on the PGA Tour. Going into last weekend's Colonial, Jacobsen
had won two tournaments and $870,321, with back-to-back titles
in February at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the
Buick Invitational of California. He has also finished second
twice and third once. He is among the top-10 players in seven of
the Tour's 10 statistical categories, and with a scoring average
of 69.61 he has a chance at every award from the Vardon Trophy
to PGA Tour Player of the Year.
This is a sudden and profound about-face for the 41-year-old
Jacobsen, who has been better known as a Tour jester than as a
top player. A hilariously accurate mimic, Jacobsen has endeared
himself to players and fans alike with his imitations of Arnold
Palmer's lurching swing and Craig Stadler's sagging belly. But
one luxury of Jacobsen's success is that he no longer has to be
so relentlessly good-humored. Recently a TV reporter provoked
him in an interview by asking where all of this winning sprang
from. "You're not this good," the reporter said. "When are you
going to wake up?" Jacobsen treated the question lightheartedly,
but it ate at him. A day later he confronted the reporter and
chewed him out so vehemently that even the famously intemperate
Curtis Strange, standing nearby, was taken aback. "You know
what?" Jacobsen says, proudly relating the incident. "I am this
Still, it's valid to ask not why Jacobsen is suddenly winning
but why he hadn't won more before now. Up to this season he had
scattered four Tour victories over 18 years, a meager number
according to some estimations of his talent. He suffered a
winless stretch from 1984 to '90, and another one from '90 until
this season. His career paled next to that of his old friend
Strange, a two-time U.S. Open champion. "As far as winning,
Peter's been an underachiever," Strange says. "And that's not a
knock, it's a fact."
Mike (Fluff) Cowan has caddied for Jacobsen for 17 years--one of
the longest caddie-player relationships on the Tour--and not
solely because he likes Jacobsen. Cowan is a near-scratch golfer
and a respected analyst whom other players seek out for swing
checks. "I've known all along this was going to happen," Cowan
says. "If I didn't think he was as good as he is, I would have
gone on to another bag a long time ago."
Sitting in his house in the hills above Portland, near a window
that looks out on a backyard putting green complete with
bunkers, Jacobsen can only guess as to why he has come into his
own after all these years. "I've been asking myself that," he
Well, for one thing, he has acquired some composure. That much
is evident as he sits peacefully in a sea of noise and
confusion. The Jacobsens are remodeling their four-bedroom
brick-and-glass house. (They began the project before his recent
spate of success. "Would you please win something?" said Peter's
wife, Jan, at the start of the year. "This is getting
expensive.") Jacobsen decides to add to the tumult around him by
strumming on his guitar, a gift from his new best friends,
Hootie and the Blowfish, the latest princes of the Top 40 and
avid golf fans. As Jacobsen strums, a refrigerator is being
delivered, and Jan discovers that the cat has thrown up on the
The backyard is the site of another recent crisis. A rabbit
hutch is empty because Flopsy, the former tenant, died of a
heart attack in Jan's arms. That trauma occurred the morning of
the third round of the Houston Open, on April 29, and was partly
responsible for one of Peter's few poor scores this year, a 78.
So today in all its chaos is just another day in the Jacobsen
household. Throwing on a pair of moccasins, no socks, Peter
climbs into his four-wheel-drive to visit his office at Peter
Jacobsen Productions, his sports promotions and management
company, a sprawling suite with 22 employees that is one of his
four businesses. En route he punches in a CD and chatters about
everything from golf to alternative rock to his children. The
Jacobsen progeny are a trio of striking redheads as quirky and
energetic as their dad. Amy, 14, is musically inclined; Kristen,
13, is a brain; and Mickey, 10, is a constant mimic. All are
eerily precocious. "My kids," Jacobsen says with pride, "are
odd. They're expressive."
Jacobsen has CDs in the glove compartment, stuck in the door
sleeves and tucked under the visors. But he never plays a song
to its end. He hums one refrain and then punches fast-forward.
He skims over several possible explanations for his newly
marvelous golf. He says he rededicated himself to the game after
he spent 1993 in the ABC announcing booth and discovered that
his love of show business didn't extend to on-camera work with
producers screaming in his ear. He stabilized his putting stance
after observing from the TV booth that too many players move
their heads with their strokes. He is finding it easier to
concentrate, perhaps because of maturity or because his children
don't require as much attention as they did when they were
small. Finally, and most important, his character has been
strengthened by coping with the losses of his younger brother in
1988 and his father in 1992 to terrible diseases.
What it all amounts to is this: At 41, Jacobsen has found
himself. "Peter's kids haven't grown up," says one longtime
friend. "Peter has grown up."
Jacobsen supposes that he perfected his impressions of top
players in lieu of being one himself. He was always around the
winners, teasing Johnny Miller, mimicking Palmer, chatting up
Lee Trevino and even playing an occasional round with one of
them as a contender. But he wasn't really among them. "I was
almost there, but not quite," he says. "Maybe inside I didn't
really think I could play at that level. Maybe I was the classic
Jacobsen began imitating star players as a boy growing up in
Portland. He thought if he swung like them, then naturally he
would play like them. Peter's father, Erling, was an insurance
broker by trade but a golfer at heart. Erling preached golf as
an ethic; he taught his children that the game revealed inner
character. Peter claims that the Jacobsen clan--including his
brothers, David and Paul; sister, Susie; and mother, Barbara--had
a combined handicap of 27. All three brothers played on the
Lincoln High team. Every day after school they would meet Erling
at the Waverly Country Club and play until dark.
After he reached the Tour, in 1977, Peter found that people
would reward him for his imitations. D.A. Weibring persuaded him
to perform for the crowd during a long-drive contest at the '78
Atlanta Classic--Jacobsen did three drives as himself, then one
as Miller, one as Palmer and one as Hubert Green. Occasionally
sponsors would offer him exemptions in exchange for
entertainment. More often he traded his impressions for other
perks. Do a clinic; get a courtesy car for the week.
"It was my entree," Jacobsen says. "It was a way to get
comfortable with crowds. And it was a way of gaining acceptance.
Maybe it got me to where Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus knew my
name. They'd say, 'That Jacobsen, he's got a nice swing, but
have you seen his impressions?'"
When Jacobsen founded the musical group Jake Trout and the
Flounders with fellow players Payne Stewart, Mark Lye and Larry
Rinker, his reputation as everything but a golfer was complete.
He was a singer. He was a comic. He was one of the Tour's
leading contributors to charity. He was twice a member of the
Tour policy board, a role many players eschew because of the
time commitment. He dabbled in myriad businesses, from course
design to manufacturing golf bags. He jammed with musicians and
table-hopped with show-biz celebrities, some of whom--Huey Lewis,
Bruce Hornsby, Jack Lemmon, Bill Murray--have become friends.
"Peter is very active, and in my opinion, at times he has
neglected his golf," Stewart says. "Maybe he just had to set his
Lemmon once told Jacobsen that to be a great actor you have to
be prepared to take off your clothes and turn around twice
before a roomful of people--slowly. As a golfer Jacobsen wasn't
confident enough to get naked. It was easier to be the king of
the comedy clinic than to be revealed.
And like most comedians, Jacobsen had a dark side that he hid
behind his incessant amusing chatter. He fell into the habit of
beginning his clinics and press conferences with the mocking
statement, "My name is Peter, and I am a golf addict." What
almost nobody knew was that Jacobsen's knowledge of addiction
was much more chilling.
Peter's younger brother, Paul, had drifted away from the family
in 1974, when he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a
graphic artist and did some modeling. He also became addicted to
alcohol and cocaine. Peter would get 4 a.m. phone calls from
Paul, whose rantings were fueled by drugs and liquor. In one
call Paul said, "You know I'm gay, don't you?" Peter said he
knew and had no problem with it. He did have a problem with the
drugs and liquor. "He had wild mood swings," Peter says. "He
would go from being my brother to a person I'd never met."
Peter alternated between wanting to comfort Paul and wanting to
kick him in the pants. He was tortured by his inability to fix
Paul's problems. At one point he helped Paul check into the
Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs, Calif. Finally, in 1988,
Peter got a call from his mother saying that Paul was
hospitalized with pneumonia. Peter hung up and told Jan. Both
immediately suspected AIDS. They were correct. Within two weeks
Paul was dead. Peter spent the last several days of Paul's life
with him at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Paul could not
speak because he was connected to a respirator, but at one point
he scrawled a note. "Peter, you can do anything," he wrote.
"Please make this go away."
Peter had not revealed his brother's problems while Paul was
alive, and he did not publicly discuss his death until two years
ago, when he devoted the final chapter of his autobiography,
Buried Lies, to Paul. Ever since the book's publication, certain
fans have rushed forward to inform Peter that his brother was a
sinner. Their cruel presumption baffles him. "My brother's death
was painful and confusing," he says. "He never complained, he
died with dignity. I'll never understand how somebody could make
a comment like that without walking a mile in another man's
shoes, whether you're talking about a drug addict, a homosexual,
a schoolteacher or a nurse."
At the same time that Peter was being wrenched by his brother's
addiction, he was becoming his father's caretaker. In 1984
Erling Jacobsen, who was divorced from Peter's mother in 1979,
went into the hospital for a simple throat culture and received
a diagnosis of cancer. When he was discharged, half of his
tongue had been removed, and he was unable to eat. From then on
he had to be fed through a tube in his stomach. As soon as
Erling could travel, Peter took him to the U.S. versus Japan
team competition. Peter packed up his dad and two weeks' worth
of Isomil, the soy-based protein milk that was Erling's food.
Erling had to be fed through the tube every four hours, so Peter
would set his alarm through the night.
"Peter tries to be all of these things to all of these people,
including a good husband and a good father," Stewart says. "When
you are all of those things, something suffers, like your golf.
So maybe he had his priorities in the right place all along."
Erling battled cancer for eight years. Peter took his father to
Hawaii, to the Masters and to the U.S. Open. He got Erling into
all of the pro-ams. Even ill, Erling was a solid nine or 10
handicapper. His last competitive round was at the 1992 L.A.
Open, with Jack Lemmon. Shortly afterward, Erling began to
succumb to the cancer. One evening toward the end Erling came
out of a morphine haze long enough to have a conversation. He
sat in his favorite chair at home, surrounded by his children
and their spouses, and called them each by name. Then he spooked
Peter by looking at a blank space and talking to Paul. Peter put
a club in Erling's hands, and Erling waggled it.
"What's the most important thing in golf, Dad?" Peter asked.
"Grip? Alignment? Tempo?"
"Sense of humor," Erling replied.
When Erling died, Peter lost his reason for playing golf.
Because he could no longer please his father by playing, he
lacked motivation, and it showed on the course. He played so
poorly in '92 that he lost his Tour privileges. The things that
were troubling him, he says now, "were my own life problems,
nobody's concern but mine. Whether you become an athlete or a
doctor or a lawyer, nobody says things won't happen to you that
Jacobsen spent much of '93 working for ABC and trying to regain
his desire and his playing card. He also had to get his own
health back. He had spent much of '91 and '92 feeling ill,
suffering from dizzy spells and nausea. He underwent surgery for
a chronic sinus infection, but the symptoms continued. An MRI
and a brain scan showed nothing. Finally, a homeopathic
practitioner determined that he had acquired an allergy to dairy
products. Then, after the sinus infection cleared up, Jacobsen
cut his right hand badly in a fall, and then he pulled some rib
muscles to spoil much of '94.
Meanwhile, Jacobsen continued to do clinics and play pro-ams and
dabble in businesses at his usual frenetic pace. In addition to
his aforementioned sports marketing and promotions company, PJP,
which handles events ranging from the Skins Game to the Far West
Classic basketball tournament, Peter and his brother David are
part owners of a turf- and fertilizer-distribution company that
employs 30 people. Peter also owns a golf-course-design company
with teaching pro Jim Hardy, and he has started an athletic
counseling firm called Sports Enhancement Associates with sports
psychologist Chuck Hogan, a close friend and mentor.
Jacobsen got himself physically and emotionally reorganized last
winter. One reason may have been a prodding he got from Stewart,
who lost patience with Jacobsen and lectured him during the
Scottish Open last July. "Peter, if you would only focus,"
Stewart said. "These other things are not your job. Golf is your
Jacobsen devoted his Christmas break to practicing and getting
physically fit. From November to January he lost 15 pounds,
running six times a week and lifting weights four times a week
with a personal trainer. He had been promising to get in shape
for 15 years. "For the first time he followed through," Jan
says. "He put himself ahead of everything else. There is
absolutely nothing different in his game. The difference is him.
He feels better about himself." Results came almost immediately,
with wins at Pebble Beach and San Diego.
Jacobsen will probably never be able to focus wholly on golf.
"He'd short-circuit," Strange says. Take the Pebble Beach
victory. By night Jacobsen table-hopped with Dan and Marilyn
Quayle, George and Barbara Bush, and Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan.
By day he played championship golf and organized a surprise
40th-birthday party for Jan: a celebration with 300 guests and
with entertainment by Huey Lewis.
Jacobsen's friends worry that his pace might interfere with the
splendid golf he is playing. Recently, Jacobsen and Strange flew
to a pro-am in Greenville, S.C. Strange implored him to take it
easy. "You could have a great year, the kind few players ever
think about," Strange said. "Give yourself a chance to have it."
Whether Jacobsen can do that remains to be seen. "I'm more
accepting of myself," he says. "I don't have the energy at this
point to try to be somebody I'm not. When you get to 40, you
know your lot in life. You're done trying to impress people."
Strumming at his guitar, he recalls something one of those guys
he used to imitate all the time, Johnny Miller, once told him:
"Sometimes success turns people into who they really are."