Tiger Woods was on his way to winning the 1997 Masters by 12
shots. Fuzzy Zoeller, who had won his green coat 18 years
earlier, was coming out of the clubhouse at Augusta National, his
fourth round long done, a drink in his left hand (just water, he
says). Tiger was a 21-year-old cablinasian, his invented word to
explain his varied ancestry. Fuzzy was 45, a basketball player as
a schoolboy, a hunter as an adult, a good ol' boy from Indiana
who could call his black friends crude names to their faces and,
as happens in locker rooms and fishing boats and at racetracks
and taverns, the friends would laugh because they knew the Fuzz
and knew the man didn't have a hating bone in his body.
Fuzzy walked through the little knot of reporters and TV crews
that gathers every day during the Masters under the shade of a
sprawling oak between the clubhouse and the 1st tee. He stopped
for a chat, of course. In those days he always had time to talk.
He looked at the scoreboard and said, "Pretty impressive. That
little boy is driving it well, and he's putting well. He's doing
everything it takes to win. So you know what you guys do when he
gets in here? You pat him on the back and say, 'Congratulations'
and 'Enjoy it.' And tell him not to serve fried chicken next
year. Got it?" He snapped his fingers, started to walk away and
then turned to deliver one last line: "Or collard greens or
whatever the hell they serve."
Twenty seconds. That's all it took for Fuzzy Zoeller to turn his
life upside down. "I paid the price," he says. He turned 50 on
Nov. 11 and next year, after 27 seasons on the regular Tour, will
become a fixture on the Senior tour, playing in about 20 events.
"Believe me, it cost me a lot."
The chicken line was supposed to be funny. Moments after uttering
it for the cameras, Zoeller replayed his comment in the
champions' locker room, where the attendants were all black and
the attendees all white, and the line was well-received by both.
It was a joke rooted in the quaint Augusta National custom of the
defending champion's choosing the menu for the champions' dinner
held on the Tuesday night of the tournament. In 1989 defending
champ Sandy Lyle, a Scot, ordered up haggis. In '97 Nick Faldo,
an Englishman, served fish and chips. Had Bruce Fleisher ever won
the Masters, he no doubt would have served bagels and lox at his
champions' dinner because all Jews eat bagels and lox at every
November 26, 2001
Was Zoeller's commentary rooted in a racist stereotype? Of course
it was. Was it offensive? Of course it was. Did it reveal the
core values of the man who spoke it? Not a bit. Tiger Woods knew
that, and so did his father, Earl. Oprah Winfrey and the Reverend
Jesse Jackson, who seized on Zoeller's comments, did not.
Zoeller failed the first rule of comedy: Know your audience.
Zoeller thought he knew his audience--white sportswriters, many of
whom had been covering his act for two decades. When he said
"tell him not to serve," he didn't need to add at the champions'
dinner. Fuzzy knew the writers were familiar with the customs of
that dinner. He also knew that the reporters were part of the
fraternity, that he could count on them.
He was almost right. None of the writers there reported Zoeller's
comments. The journalists knew it was just Fuzzy being a joker;
no news in that. None of the TV crews used Fuzzy's commentary
that Sunday night either. They had a bigger story: a 21-year-old
African-American phenom's winning a tournament at which blacks
had been unwelcome for decades.
Fuzzy says that he didn't give the comments another thought--until
he got a call from his old pal Hubert Green a week later. "Did
you just see yourself on CNN?" asked Green, who had been watching
the Sunday morning CNN program Pro Golf Weekly. (Executives at
CNN, which like SPORTS ILLUSTRATED is owned by AOL Time Warner,
were unaware of the footage of Zoeller's comments until four days
after they had been uttered and decided to hold the piece until
the ensuing weekend. According to CNN, Zoeller was contacted
through his agent before the broadcast but declined to comment.)
"You better get your lawyer," Green added.
A son of the South, Green knew a thing or two about the
explosiveness of racial politics. Fuzzy did not even see a
firecracker. He told Green, "Aw, hell, I was joking."
Green is one of Zoeller's best friends in golf. They roomed
together on the road for 18 years. When you ask Zoeller whom he
will miss as he graduates from the junior Tour, as he calls it,
he cites John Daly and Vijay Singh. When you ask him whom he
looks forward to hanging out with on the Senior tour, he cites
Green and Jim Thorpe. Thorpe is black, and Singh, a Fijian, is
darker yet. Green is white, and Daly is whiter yet. By the anemic
measures of pro golf, that's about as colorful as a modern
foursome of touring pros gets.
A cynic might say that Zoeller drops those four names trying to
show off his new political astuteness, to align himself with the
golfing division of the Rainbow Coalition. Spend a couple of days
with him, though, and you will find there isn't any new political
astuteness in the man. "I didn't think the comments [about Woods]
were so bad," says Zoeller, "but I regret like hell that I said
them. I've got nobody to blame but myself. I spoke too loudly,
and everybody heard me."
He hangs with Daly and Green and Singh and Thorpe because they're
just like Zoeller. They've sipped from the waters--and from some
other things--outside the gated community of golf. They're actual
people. Green is a hothead. Singh is moody. Thorpe is a gambler.
Daly is a (recovering) boozer. Frank Urban Zoeller is an Indiana
Earl Woods could hang with those guys, no problem. (One thing you
learn in the Army, in which Woods served for 20 years, is how to
hang with anybody.) He says, "I hope Fuzzy wins his first five
tournaments on the Senior tour." This from somebody who had
nothing to say about Zoeller in April 1997. Why is Earl rooting
for him? "Because it would be a shot in the arm for the Senior
tour," he says, "and it would be a shot in the arm for Fuzzy."
Woods then goes on a little rant, as if he has been thinking of
Zoeller and his predicament for years: "Fuzzy wasn't being
malicious in those comments. He's a habitual comedian. For that
he was crucified. I'd heard him say much worse things, but in
private settings. What did he say, anyhow? A joke about fried
chicken. A lot of people eat fried chicken. If blacks were the
only people who ate fried chicken in this country, the chickens
would sigh collectively and say, 'Thank God.'
"We're all prisoners of our own words, captured for posterity.
Growing up in Indiana in the 1950s and '60s, as Fuzzy did, I'm
sure he saw racial ugliness. Some respond to that with intellect,
some with anger, some by isolating themselves. Fuzzy's response
was humor. The problem with his comments is they were funny only
to a very select audience. I was appalled with the media
reaction, but I couldn't say anything. Who am I to tell the media
to back off from anybody? My voice would have meant nothing."
Zoeller doesn't feel that way. He believes one strong statement
from Earl or Tiger in 1997 would have "diffused the whole thing
in three minutes." Poor Tiger. All he wanted to do at the time
was enjoy his first victory in a pro major when suddenly he found
himself stuck between siding with Jackson or Zoeller over the
telling of a stupid joke. He responded with silence and continues
to. (He declined to comment for this story.)
When he met with Zoeller for the first time after Zoeller's
comments, at the Colonial Invitational in May 1997, it was "to
soothe the press's eye," Zoeller says. Woods was eating lunch.
Zoeller, who had already eaten, apologized for his remarks, said
he had meant no harm and extended his hand. Woods accepted it.
Then they spent 20 minutes talking about fishing. Zoeller told
him, "If you want to go someplace where the seas are small and
the fish are big, go to Costa Rica."
In those days, Zoeller was a high-profile fisherman. He had a
fishing show on ESPN that was sponsored by Kmart. For 13 years
Zoeller had an endorsement deal with Kmart, which sold sets of
Fuzzy Zoeller golf clubs at affordable prices, with Zoeller
getting a cut. Zoeller made serious money in his Kmart deal. By
the U.S. Open in June 1997, the fishing show was history and so
was the Kmart relationship. "I learned it was over by reading
about it in the paper," Zoeller says.
When Zoeller says he paid the price, he's being literal.
Nonetheless, he's a rich man. He lives with Diane, his wife of 25
years, and their four children, ages 12 to 22, on 200 acres in
Floyds Knobs, Ind., outside of Louisville. An hour away, he and a
friend have a hunting cabin on 500 acres. "I've done O.K.,"
Some Tour players say Zoeller has been a changed man these past
four years, not as much fun, not as loose. They say you can see
it in his demeanor and in his game. (Since that fateful Masters,
Zoeller has only two top 10s in 78 events.) He says those
observations are not wholly true. His game failed him because of
a degenerative disk in his neck, but that malady was cured
through surgery, in October 2000, and steroid treatments. Zoeller
says that he's more cautious in his public comments now, but in
his private life he's the same guy. What is hard, Zoeller says,
is knowing that millions of strangers "think I am a hating man
when I know in my heart I'm not, but I guess that's all that
He's looking forward to the Senior tour, playing with his old
buddies, flying around the country in his seven-seat Falcon 100
jet. For Fuzzy that's the only way to travel. He says, "You can
drink, smoke, fart, eat, put your seat in any damn position you
want." The man's a jokester. Anybody got a problem with that?
The line was supposed to be funny. It was well-received in the
champions' locker room, among black attendants and white
"I hope Fuzzy wins his first five tournaments on the Senior
tour," says Earl Woods. "It would be a shot in the arm for him."