Finally Smokin' After years of frittering away his talent, John Jacobs rekindled an old romance and began to light up the Senior tour

March 15, 1999

You have your choice of exotic starting points when you write
about John Jacobs: Santa Anita Park in the late '60s; the 1st
tee at Saigon Country Club during the Vietnam War; the Monte
Carlo Casino in the late '80s. But the life that Jacobs enjoys
today as a two-time winner on the Senior PGA Tour dates to that
summer day in 1975 when he met Valerie Lennard, a divorced
Englishwoman with two children, on a yacht in Marbella, Spain.

The owner of the yacht, a friend of an American hotelier who had
befriended Jacobs, was a character right out of F. Scott
Fitzgerald. "I don't know where he got his money," says Jacobs,
telling the story, "but he was married to a hooker, and there
was Dom Perignon everywhere."

How did Jacobs know the host's wife was a hooker? "He told us,"
Jacobs recalls. "He said, 'I'd like to introduce you to my wife,
the hooker, and our little bastard kids.'"

This long-remembered line still amuses Jacobs, but it was the
other woman, the aristocratic Valerie, who caught his eye that
day. He invited her to dinner, but she declined. He invited her
to lunch the following day--with her children--and she accepted.
But Valerie wasn't really interested in the charming but
dissolute American golf pro. As she explains today, "I was going
out with this very nice German prince."

Well, you know how these grand romances turn out. Twenty-two
years later, John married Valerie and found happiness in a cozy
house on a lake in Scottsdale, Ariz.

There is some disagreement about how John Jacobs spent those 22
years of on-and-off courtship. Golfers who played the Asian and
European tours in the '80s remember him as a gallery favorite
who won long-drive contests and partied away his future. "He
probably had too much fun," says Brian Mogg, a former touring
pro who now teaches at the David Leadbetter Academy in Lake
Nona, Fla. "Many of us expected to find JJ dead somewhere in the
middle of Asia." Others gleefully tell Jacobs stories that slip
in and out of the time frame: how he gave golf lessons in Saigon
to the wife of the notorious South Vietnamese premier Nguyen Cao
Ky; how he won and lost thousands handicapping horse races in
Southern California; how he went AWOL from the Army for two days
in 1964; how he flew to Vietnam in a business suit, surrounded
by fellow soldiers in battle gear; how he wiped out on a
motorcycle in Thailand in '84 but played with a broken right leg
the next day and went on to top that season's Asian tour money
list.

"I feel very uptight about those stories," says Valerie Jacobs,
sipping iced tea in a Florida clubhouse while her husband warms
up for a tournament round. "I've known John since he was 30, and
none of those things have happened since I've known him."
Specifically, she rejects the notion that her husband is an
unrepentant boozer. When it came time to celebrate his victory
at the MasterCard Championship in January, "We drank tea in our
hotel room," Valerie says, adding, "I'm a teetotaler. I'm never
drunk. Why would I marry somebody who was?"

She knows, of course, that her husband encourages the stories.
Like a latter-day Dean Martin, he spins yarns of Far Eastern
excess ("The problem is that Asia is so f------ hot; two beers
and you're drunk") and tournament torpor ("I could play, but I
was always more concerned about getting to the next party").
Competing in a recent pro-am, the engaging Jacobs entertained
his amateur partners with self-deprecatory jabs and Rat Pack
humor. He joked with former major leaguer John Kruk about binge
drinking, saying, "At least in Scottsdale they've got
streetlights to help me get home."

"It's bravado," says Valerie. "He's never behaved in a way to
embarrass me."

Which is not to say that Jacobs hasn't dismayed Valerie and
others during his hit-and-myth career. "He just never had any
discipline," says his older brother, Tommy, winner of four
events as a professional and the runner-up to Ken Venturi in the
1964 U.S. Open. "I could tell you story after story." With a
smile, he adds, "I'm not going to."

The record book tells it almost as well. Despite being one of
golf's longest hitters and a wizard from deep rough, John Jacobs
won only $119,776 on the PGA Tour from 1968 to '80. He finished
second five times but couldn't motivate himself to practice.
Instead, he bet on the horses, lived off the largesse of wealthy
patrons and viewed life through a shot glass. "He's a wonderful
guy," says Tom Watson. "I just don't think his lifestyle was
conducive to playing winning golf."

At the very least Jacobs deserves a footnote in golf history for
his ability to play while impaired. When he crashed his rented
motorcycle in Thailand, racing down a flag-lined road from the
tournament course after the third round, players who ran to his
aid were surprised to find him alive. "He looked pathetic at the
hotel that night," recalls Mogg. "His chest was wrapped in
bandages, he was dragging his leg, and there was blood on his
face."

The next day Jacobs stunned everyone by showing up for the final
round. To accommodate a swollen ankle, he cut the top off a golf
shoe and taped the spiked sole to his foot. Then, having drunk a
bottle of vodka since dawn--"Enough booze will numb you"--he
went out and played. "My first drive went 20 yards," he recalls.
"My leg was numb, and I was still in shock." Somehow Jacobs
scraped it around in 74. Already popular with Asian galleries
for his long-driving feats, he achieved hero status with wins in
the next six weeks in Taiwan and Japan.

Crazy? More like desperate. Jacobs says he played with a broken
leg because he had to; the tournament director had told him he
had to finish if he wanted to collect a $2,500 bonus for a
third-round double eagle.

Those who knew Jacobs say that the money probably didn't leave
Thailand with him. He was the classic golf bum, a nomadic pro
who spent freely when he had cash but owned little more than his
clubs and clothes. Says Mogg, "He'd leave a 10-buck tip for a
two-dollar drink."

The chaos-in-slacks that was John Jacobs seemed an unlikely
suitor for Valerie Lennard, the only child of a London clothes
manufacturer. "I was wrapped in cotton wool all my life," she
says, alluding to a childhood spent in elegant homes and a Swiss
finishing school. When their romance began, she would spend two
weeks out of six with Jacobs in America, the longest she felt
she could leave her boys with a nanny. "It wasn't viable," she
says. "Each time it was like a holiday romance."

They drifted apart, but when John played in the 1984 British
Open, they met again and rekindled the flame. In 1990, her
children now grown, Valerie moved out of her house in London and
into a condo she owned in Scottsdale, where she and Jacobs lived
like characters in a far-fetched romance novel. Two years ago
they married and moved into a house on the water that John paid
for with cash. Valerie now handles their money, and except for
one lapse--John bought a quarter share of a horse with Gary
Player while she was in England--he has lived happily on an
allowance. "He's not a teetotaling saint," says Tommy, who owns
and operates an upscale executive course in Palm Springs,
Calif., "but there's much more stability in his life."

John's golf game has benefited from the change. In little more
than three years on the Senior tour he has won almost $2.5
million while leading his peers in driving distance in '97 and
'98. Tall and straight as a drill sergeant, he shows little wear
from his almost 54 turbulent years (his birthday is March 18),
save for some white hair and a magnetic bracelet on his right
wrist.

The practice tee still holds no allure for Jacobs, but he no
longer rushes from the locker room to the lounge after a round.
Parties? In the past year the closest thing to a big night out
for the Jacobses has been dining out with fellow Senior Bob
Duval and his wife, Shari--and even John can't make that sound
naughty. Rock and roll? John snorts. These days he gets pumped
up for a round by listening to opera on the car tape player.

"When you're a kid, you think you're never going to grow old,"
he says, smacking fairway woods on the range. "Didn't make a
million? You'll make it next year." He stares at the ground.
"All of a sudden, 15 years has gone by, and you can't sleep at
night."

In hindsight, it was the kid who couldn't sleep at night; hence,
Jacobs's youthful gambling and carousing. "The main difference
between Johnny and me," Tommy, 10 years older, explains, "is
that he never had the influence of a mother." Margaret Jacobs
fell ill when John was eight and died of cancer when he was 12.
His father, Keith, who ran a golf course for the parks
department of Montebello, Calif., kept him in line, helping him
to a solid junior career. (John won the Southern California
amateur at 21.) But when John left home in 1963, he lacked a
compass. He spent three days at USC before bugging out. He
joined the Army two months later but went AWOL from Fort Hood,
Texas, to play a high-stakes calcutta in Mexico and had to be
brought back by MPs. In Saigon he played golf by day and partied
with American generals and Vietnamese politicians at night,
wearing mufti so they wouldn't know he was only a specialist,
fourth class.

His gift--and his curse--was that he was likable. High rollers
at the track gave him money to bet with; theater-chain owner Syl
Enea and his wife, Yvonne, became a surrogate family and let him
live for free at a hotel they owned in Concord, Calif.; Valerie
took him to the south of France and introduced him to European
society. "I had a ball," Jacobs says. "I didn't do much better
with no money than I would have if I'd had money."

Still, those who love Jacobs can't resist speculating on what he
might have accomplished. His brother thinks he could have won
major championships. Ray Floyd, who partnered with Jacobs in the
'70s at the Walt Disney World National Team Championship,
admired John's powerful swing and asked, "Why aren't you making
a hundred thousand a year?"

Valerie can only shake her head. "John knows he squandered his
talent and his youth," she says. Then she smiles and adds, "But
if he hadn't been squandering his talent, I wouldn't have met
him, would I?"

So now, when you write about John Jacobs, you can end with a
scene of domestic tranquillity: JJ at home with Valerie. His
feet are up in the stern of the pontoon boat tied up out back.
He has a cigar in his mouth and maybe a glass of wine at his
side. The desert sun makes everything look golden.

"Every time we come home, he's got tears in his eyes," says
Valerie. "He finally has roots."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL F. GERO/SABA COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Power hitter Always known for his length, Jacobs led the Senior tour in driving distance in '97 and '98. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PAUL F. GERO/SABA Home at last Valerie brought stability to John's life, and has kept him on the straight and narrow.

"I could play," Jacobs says in recalling his days in the Far
East, "but I was always more concerned about getting to the next
party."

"John squandered his talent," says Valerie. "But if he hadn't
been squandering his talent, I wouldn't have met him, would I?"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)