A LESSON FROM GILBERT'S DEATH
This is an article from the Feb. 2, 1998 issue
Nowhere is the cigar craze more evident than in golf, where it's
almost impossible to play a round or hang out in the grill room
without encountering smoldering stogies. Lighting up may be
trendy, but smoking remains as dangerous as ever, a fact driven
home by the death last week of Larry Gilbert, whose
rags-to-riches story ended tragically because of his smoking
Gilbert, who was 55 when he died from lung cancer on Jan. 21,
was a hero to the nation's club pros. Although he had enough
game to play the PGA Tour--he won three National Club Pro
Championships and played in several U.S. Opens and PGA
Championships--Gilbert opted to remain in his native Kentucky
running the shop at the Champions Golf Club so he could be near
his family. In 1993, after having been the medalist at the
Senior Q school the previous fall, Gilbert and his wife, Brenda,
took the last $4,000 out of their bank account and gambled that
Larry could compete against the best players of his generation.
In only his second start Gilbert won $12,000, and he went on to
earn $516,000 as a rookie. Last July, when he won his first
Senior major, the Senior Players Championship in Michigan, his
career earnings soared to $3.2 million.
In late August, after getting a physical before playing in the
Bank One Classic in his hometown of Lexington, Gilbert learned
he had lung cancer. He didn't tell anyone because he didn't want
to put a damper on the final Senior tour event in Lexington (the
tournament couldn't meet the Tour's demand to up the purse to at
least $1 million) but dropped off the tour the next week to
undergo further tests. The results were dire: The cancer had
spread throughout his body and was inoperable.
Gilbert had started smoking at a young age. During his years as
a club pro he preferred cigarettes, but when he joined the
Senior tour, he became good friends with stogie smoker Larry
Laoretti and soon switched to cigars. Gilbert did an
advertisement for Te-Amo, which gave him free cigars, and he was
seldom seen on the course without a cigar clenched in his teeth.
"Like a fool I thought they wouldn't be as bad for me as
cigarettes," Gilbert said in September, "but the day they told
me I had cancer I put 'em down and haven't touched one since. I
had just gotten a box of my favorite cigars. I gave 'em away."
On July 13, 1997, the day he won the Senior Players, Gilbert, a
strong, broad-shouldered man who was known for his booming
drives, had a cigar in his mouth as he approached the last
green. Once there, he took a puff and swiped a hand across his
eyes to wipe away the tears. Moments later, after the victory
was secured and he had hugged his wife, Gilbert was
congratulated by Jack Nicklaus. That choked him up. "That was a
moment I'll treasure as long as I live," Gilbert said.
No one could have imagined that would be only 192 days.
YOUNG GUNS BECOMING A FORCE ON EURO TOUR
At this time a year ago, European tour veterans were bemoaning
the dearth of new talent on their circuit, especially when
compared with the number of young players making a mark on the
U.S. Tour. The old hands are no longer concerned. Not only did
the kids from the Continent play a key role in Europe's Ryder
Cup victory--Thomas Bjorn (age 26), Darren Clarke (29), Ignacio
Garrido (25) and Lee Westwood (24) accounted for six of 14 1/2
European points--but they also won several tournaments and
climbed in the World Ranking. Westwood has come the furthest,
winning three times, including a victory over Greg Norman at the
Australian Open in November, and rising to 21st from 64th at
this time last year.
Additionally, a group of fresh-faced Europeans who didn't make
the Ryder Cup team also improved. During the week of the match
in Valderrama, 26-year-old Gabriel Hjertstedt became the first
Swede to win a PGA Tour event, the B.C. Open in Endicott, N.Y.
Also, Ireland's Padraig Harrington (age 26) teamed with Paul
McGinley (31) to win the World Cup in Kiawah Island, S.C., in
November. Before the year was out, Westwood's soon-to-be
brother-in-law, Andrew Coltart, a 27-year-old Scot, won the
No one at last week's European tour opener in Thailand was
surprised to see Coltart, Westwood and Germany's Alexander Cejka
(age 27) tie for fourth and Harrington tie for eighth. "The
standard of European golf rose considerably last year, thanks
mainly to our young players," says Colin Montgomerie. "They've
proven they can compete on the world stage."
THE HOLE STORY ABOUT THE 5TH AT PEBBLE BEACH
The 5th hole at Pebble Beach Golf Links has always been the mole
on Marilyn's face, an awkward little par-3 lacking in aesthetics
as well as shot value. When the Pebble Beach Co. announced two
years ago that it was going to build a new number 5 along
Stillwater Cove, the praise was unanimous, especially with the
U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open coming to town in 1999 and 2000,
respectively. Lately, though, all anyone around Pebble can talk
about is the oak tree that sits smack in the middle of the
proposed site for the new green and is due to be removed when
ground is broken in April.
Building golf courses, especially along the California coast, is
always a tango between the competing interests of
environmentalists and golfers, but only at Pebble Beach could it
involve New Age mysticism, the threat of terminally ill children
chaining themselves to trees and pitched dissertations on heart
This story goes back more than 80 years. While planning his
course, Pebble Beach patriarch S.F.B. Morse had tried to acquire
a 5.5-acre lot that was a perfect spot for a seaside par-3.
Thwarted, he was forced to build inland, and the 166-yard 5th
hole was born, featuring a blind uphill tee shot to a green
pinched by trees on both sides. In time, the shady, bowl-shaped
green would develop such drainage problems that it had to be
replaced for the 1992 U.S. Open.
When the lot Morse had coveted came up for sale in 1996, the
Pebble Beach Co. bought it for $8.75 million and commissioned
Jack Nicklaus to realize Morse's original dream. Among the many
bureaucracies that signed off on the project were the California
Coastal Commission and the California Division of Forestry.
All was going smoothly until December, when the San Francisco
Chronicle published an article under the muckraking headline
MIGHTY FIGHT OVER OAK and placed the age of the tree at 300
years or more. The story spread like kikuyu grass, and
tree-huggers began crawling out of the woodwork. Terre Noble, a
local whose '96 New Age CD, The Mists, includes a paean to the
embattled tree titled Old Oak, told Coast Weekly, "I was
attracted to the tree because of its age and wisdom. It's like a
grandfather to me." One Pebble Beach Co. executive even got a
voice-mail message that said seven terminally ill children from
the Make-A-Wish Foundation were going to chain themselves to the
tree. The call was a hoax but was indicative of the tenor of the
Fighting back, the Pebble Beach Co. asked Ralph Osterling, the
incoming president of the California Oak Foundation, to examine
the tree. He put its age at 125--supporting the company's
contention that the oak was a landscape tree planted by previous
owners--and said the tree's days were numbered because of root
fungus and heart rot. "Good forest management says it should
come out...and prevent the disease from spreading," said
Osterling. That pretty much sealed this old oak's fate, though
when Nicklaus comes to town this week for the AT&T Pebble Beach
National Pro-Am he's going to look at the viability of
reconfiguring the hole to spare the tree. He shouldn't waste his
The Chronicle article that started all the hullabaloo posed the
question, What's more important, an oak tree or a Jack Nicklaus
green? In this case our vote goes to the green.
THE SHAG BAG
Before Super Bowl XXXII, when was the last time John Elway and
Brett Favre battled head-to-head? Last April, on a Walt Disney
World golf course in the Quarterback Challenge. Elway whipped
Favre by seven shots, 75 to 82. "I can't beat him," says Favre.
"He's a scratch golfer. I'm maybe a seven handicapper. When I
play John, I'm fighting a war I can't win."...
Jesper Parnevik's win in Phoenix and Helen Alfredsson's victory
in the Office Depot tournament in West Palm Beach, Fla., marked
the first time Swedes have won Tour and LPGA events in the same
Ben Crenshaw shot 74-74 and missed the cut in Phoenix, his first
event since surgery last September to correct a broken toe in
his right foot. It's not Crenshaw's foot, however, that'll
likely keep him off the Tour until later this month. His wife,
Julie, is due with their third child on Feb. 12....
Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 British Open champion who attracted
worldwide attention for his subsequent slump--he made just one
cut in the past three seasons and shot a first-round 92 at last
year's British--announced that he has retired from tour golf.
"I've hung up my clubs and given up serious practice," he said
last week. "I want to be obscure and happy."
BELIEVE US NOW, JACK?
Last year we asked Jack Nicklaus if he agreed that Senior tour
players slow down dramatically after they turn 55. "I will not
dignify that with an answer," said Nicklaus. "That's
ridiculous." Ridiculous? Nicklaus, who turned 58 on Jan. 21,
finished a career-worst 58th on the Senior money list in '97, a
year in which he did not have a victory, and last week, for the
first time, he got shut out at the Senior Skins. Here is the
total number of wins, by age, on the Senior tour over the last
What do these players have in common?
--Davis Love III
They've lost sudden-death playoffs to Tiger Woods in pro
Holes won by Ray Floyd in the regular and Senior skins games.
Floyd, winner of last week's Senior version, has earned a record
$1.82 million in skins competition.