Is it true, "Terrible" Tommy Bolt is asked, that you once walked
off the course during a rainy Houston Open because, you said, you
were wearing clothes that were worth more than you could win?
"That's true, yes, sir," says Bolt. "Why stay out there and ruin
good clothes when you're only going to make 50 or 100 dollars?"
This is an article from the May 21, 2001 issue
How about this, Tommy (Thunder) Bolt? At the Philadelphia Daily
News Open one summer you hit a four-iron to a two-tiered green,
the ball landing on the lower level and then, as planned, hopping
onto the upper deck and jerking to a stop a couple of feet from
the stob. Because this work of art received no response from the
fans, you said to your caddie, "Is that a gallery behind that
green or an oil painting?" When your caddie confirmed that it
wasn't an oil painting, you said, "If those folks don't
appreciate ol' Tom, then go pick up that ball because ol' Tom is
going home," and you withdrew. That happen? "I never said, 'Go
pick up that ball,'" says Bolt.
During his 27 years on the Tour, from 1946 to '72, Bolt withdrew
from a goodly number of tournaments--and threw an even larger
number of clubs. The photograph of him rearing back to heave his
driver during the opening round of the '60 U.S. Open (page G16)
is a classic. Before Rasheed Wallace set records for technical
fouls, there was Tommy Bolt, the original Bad Boy of golf.
Even today, the 83-year-old Bolt's reputation for rage remains
intact, a fact that disturbs and amuses him. "I wasn't the only
one out there who threw clubs," says Bolt, who won 15 Tour
events, including the 1958 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, where the
Open will return June 14-17. "When Arnold Palmer started, he
didn't know which way to throw 'em. Winnie [Palmer's wife] was
always going back to retrieve 'em. I'd say, 'Arnold, throw 'em
ahead of us, and we'll pick 'em up on the way.' Hell, anybody who
hasn't thrown a club isn't serious about the game."
To be sure, temper is to the golfing nervous system what lava is
to Vesuvius, and Bolt was not the first or the last Tour player
to storm off the premises in mid-round, swear magniloquently, or
bury, bend and break clubs in anger. He became the archetype of
golf rage because he erupted with more panache than his
contemporaries. When Ed Furgol tomahawked an iron into the turf,
he was the picture of a man furious not only at golf but also
with the world. When beefy Clayton Heafner WD'd from a tournament
moments before he was to hit his opening drive because the tee
announcer mispronounced his name, no one was particularly sad to
see him go because his perpetually squinched, beet-red face
reminded fans of their last case of cramps.
Bolt, though, was a cartoon. Tall (5'11"), with Marine
Corps-erect posture, he had a swagger. He stood with his head
cocked, which accentuated his prognathous jaw. His teeth were
usually clenched and didn't widen a millimeter as the soily
language spewed from between his quivering lips. He dressed
impeccably. No rumpled mounds of material formed on the tops of
his spikes, and his outfits included a pair of color-coordinated
shoes. Bolt wasn't into Day-Glo colors, but neither was he one
for basic browns.
Bolt's tantrums were fun to watch, as good as burlesque, and in
the spirit of the "take-it-off!" chant, galleries would egg him
on. "In Hartford one year Tommy was being ragged by the gallery,"
says Gene Littler. "He'd finally had enough, and after marking
his ball on a par-3 hole, he did a slow 360 all the way around
the green, cursing the crowd as he went."
Those who played with Bolt, though, have mostly kind words for
the man and warm memories of him. "We all enjoyed him," says Mike
Souchak. "There was no meanness in him, and he came up with so
many funny lines."
Bolt's way with a phrase was another thing that separated him
from other temperamentals. Says former PGA Tour tournament
director Jack Tuthill, "In Mobile one year the course didn't have
much grass and was soaking wet from steady rain. Someone asked
Tommy if he had misread a green. He said, 'How in hell can you
Bob Rosburg, now an announcer for ABC, says, "We're walking to
the first tee in the Club Pro, in Phoenix, and it's starting to
rain. Tommy says, 'As soon as I lose the crease on these pants,
I'm out of here.'"
Says Dave Hill, "In a tournament in Milwaukee, on a long par-3,
the first day I hit a two-iron on the green. Bolt hits a driver
on the green. Next day--same hole, same conditions--I hit a
two-iron again and so does Bolt. I ask him, 'How come a driver
yesterday and a two-iron today?' He says, 'I didn't feel as
Then there was the time the Detroit Free Press got his age wrong,
saying he was 49 instead of 39. When told by a Free Press
reporter that the mistake was a typographical error, Bolt fired
back, "It was like hell! It was a perfect 4 and a perfect 9."
Where did Bolt develop his flair for drollery? "When I was a kid
selling newspapers around Shreveport, you did whatever you needed
to do to get that nickel in your pocket," he says. "Those were
hard times. If a guy said he couldn't read, I'd say he didn't
have to. He could just smell the paper because it printed a bunch
of b.s. anyway."
Bolt's reputation for tantrums and one-liners tended to obscure
from the public how good a player he was. "[Ben] Hogan told me he
thought Bolt was the finest ball-striker he had ever seen," says
Tuthill. "He also told me not to tell Bolt he said so."
Fifteen wins is a lot for someone who didn't go on Tour until he
was 28, and Bolt's victories came on big courses. Bolt's first
was in the 1951 North and South Open at Pinehurst No. 2. He also
won tournaments at Riviera, Colonial and, of course, that Open at
Southern Hills, where he led wire to wire. "I birdied the very
first hole," says Bolt, "and when I picked the ball out of the
cup I said to myself, I wonder who's going to finish second?" His
three-over 283 beat runner-up Gary Player by four shots.
Between 1951 and '57, seven rounds of 60--the magic number in
those days--were shot on Tour. Five of them came on hardpan Texas
bullrings, and another on a short resort course in Virginia. The
only 60 shot on a formidable track was Bolt's, in the second
round of the '54 Insurance City Open at 6,800-yard Wethersfield
Country Club near Hartford.
Bolt's best year was 1958, when, in addition to the Open, he won
the Colonial National Invitational and finished seventh on the
money list with $26,940. He played into his 50s--in the '71 PGA,
when he was 52, he was tied with Jack Nicklaus for the lead after
63 holes and came in third--but he'll be best remembered by Baby
Boomers for his role in the six-hole playoff of the '79 Legends
of Golf, the tournament that launched the Senior tour. Bolt and
Roberto De Vicenzo got into a birdie duel that Bolt further
enlivened when, after topping a second straight De Vicenzo birdie
putt, he pistol-pointed a take-that finger at his rival. On the
next hole De Vicenzo returned the gesture when he birdied on top
of Bolt. It was all in good fun, and made for terrific theater
and excellent golf. (De Vicenzo and his partner, Julius Boros,
finally defeated Bolt and Art Wall with a sixth straight birdie.)
Bolt's big-league talent, combined with his aesthetic sense,
might explain his temper. "I was a perfectionist," he says. "If
things didn't go right, I got frustrated. I like everything in
order. Like I dress, that's the way I want to play golf."
Says Souchak, "He hated not pulling off the beautiful shot he had
in mind. He walked off the course with chances to finish third or
fourth or fifth, because that didn't mean as much to him as
playing pretty. Hogan was always fussing at him to just go out
and play, to forget the bad shots. But Tom couldn't do it. It had
to be right artistically."
Would Bolt have won more if had he maintained his cool? "He used
his temper to his advantage," says Jackie Burke Jr. "It took his
mind off the game and kept him from choking. He'd get mad, and
that would rivet his mind to the job."
Says Billy Casper, "The idea that he couldn't deal with
imperfection is on the mark, but he also developed a reputation
for his temper and felt he had to keep it up. He was an
entertainer. He loved being on stage."
Bolt admits, "I've got a little ham in me. I want people to see
me hit good shots. I'm a John Barrymore, man. I'm an actor."
Says Bob Toski, "When he won the U.S. Open, in the locker room
before the presentation ceremony I congratulated him, and he
said, 'Mouse, you watch ol' Tom. I'm going to walk down those
stairs so slow, they're going to lay a two-stroke penalty on me.'
There's this long flight of stairs from the clubhouse to the 18th
green at Southern Hills, and sure enough, he almost walked
sideways keeping those blue blazers waiting. He was making an
Nowadays Bolt's temper is about the only thing for which he's
remembered. Bolt needed a persona with which to secure his place
among the game's notables. "After a while the temper was his
calling card," says Bob Goalby, "and he began to play on it. It
was a way to get attention, which was hard to do when Hogan and
[Sam] Snead were the stars of the day."
He played the card well. Today Bolt lives with his wife of 44
years, Mary Lou, rent-free in a three-bedroom house a block away
from the course in the upscale Black Diamond Ranch development in
Crystal River, Fla. He earns his keep by playing golf with
potential home buyers and by hanging around the clubhouse and
telling stories. Bolt also keeps an apartment in Cherokee
Village, Ark., 20 miles from the 600-acre farm he owns in Evening
Shade, on which he has raised cattle and where he and Mary Lou's
only child, 41-year-old Tommy, lives with his wife and two
Despite his age, Bolt still plays the Grand Champions
super-senior circuit--four one-day tournaments for players 70 and
older, with a guarantee of no less than $12,500 an event per
player--but don't get the idea he's hurting for money. "I ain't
rich, but I ain't poor," he says.
Bolt reads the Bible every evening and is no longer the hard
drinker he was. "I drank my share," he says, "but now I only have
a glass of wine with dinner."
Overall, life is good. Only one thing is missing: a spot in the
World Golf Hall of Fame. Bolt feels it would be a long-overdue
recognition of his talent as a golfer, not as a hothead. His
chances are long, though, and lengthening. On the last vote, in
May 2000, he had only 20% of the 65% of the votes needed, and no
one has gained votes as each year passes. When it comes to the
sanctification of athletes, the Bad Boys, even if they really
weren't so bad, seldom get to heaven.
he had to keep it up. He was an entertainer. He loved being on
forget the bad shots," says Souchak. "But Tom couldn't do it."