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A Man Of Action Always instigating, always intimidating Jim Thorpe bet that being bad would one day turn into something very good

Jan. 28, 2002
Jan. 28, 2002

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Jan. 28, 2002

A Man Of Action Always instigating, always intimidating Jim Thorpe bet that being bad would one day turn into something very good

If someone offered you $5,000 to sink a 50-foot putt, you'd
probably still be lining it up. Not the guests of Foxwoods
Casino at a September outing at Pautipaug Country Club, in
Baltic, Conn. To these high rollers, five grand is a tip for the
keno girl, and given the chance to win that much on the green of
a par-3 hole, they took turns nonchalantly slapping at the ball.
Jim Thorpe had a wisecrack for each of them, but the action
didn't interest him. He knows a real wager when he sees one.
Hadn't one of his four brothers lost his house gambling? "Don't
come see me when they barbecue you," Thorpe had warned him.

This is an article from the Jan. 28, 2002 issue Original Layout

Thorpe won $1.8 million last year on the Senior tour--the most
money he has earned in 24 years as a touring pro--but when
Foxwoods asked him to glad-hand 29 foursomes of guys with lavish
hairdos and busting belt lines, he wasn't going to say no,
because when his own life was in the dumper not so many years
ago, Foxwoods bailed him out with an endorsement deal.

When Thorpe represents the casino at mix-it-ups like the one at
Pautipaug, he projects a gamer's warmth like heat from a stove
and has a way of getting things--a game, a bet, a bit of
b.s.--going.

"Are we on for tomorrow?" a tall, white-haired man yells from
across the green.

"Yeah, man!" Thorpe shouts back. Then he sits in his cart and
studies tomorrow's pigeon. "That guy," Thorpe quietly says, "he
steps up to the table and asks for a half-million credit line. A
half million! This is some crazy world, man."

Anyone who has spent a lifetime hustling is at ease around
people, but don't let Thorpe fool you into thinking he's just
kidding. He'll stomp you when the game calls for it. He left his
footprints on Tom Jenkins at the Kroger Senior Classic in
September. Two behind Jenkins, the leader, on the par-5
finishing hole, Thorpe ripped his second shot, a three-wood, 245
yards over water to within a foot of the hole and made the putt
for eagle. Beating Jenkins in the playoff was but "a formality,"
says Thorpe. To the other Seniors, Thorpe's shot was the best of
the year. "Any time you can hit a three-wood to a foot when you
need to," says fellow pro Bobby Wadkins, "that's pretty damned
sporty."

Competitive juice means a lot to the six-foot, 220-pound Thorpe.
He says he likes "puffing up my chest and sticking out my butt"
and physically intimidating whomever he's playing with. A decade
ago, during a round with Tiger Woods--still a skinny
amateur--Thorpe puffed himself up like a blowfish until Curtis
Strange finally said, "Thorpie, it should be the other way
around. He should get pumped up when he sees you playing."

Thorpe likes to wade in with his big chin and massive shoulders
and hover over you as he crushes your fingers in one of his XXL
hands while giving you a bone-numbing shoulder massage with the
other. The U.S.'s Ryder Cup record would have been different had
Thorpe been on the team in the 1980s. He loves to go one-on-one.
He won the Tour stop in Tucson two years in a row, in '85 and
'86, when it was a match-play event, and went toe-to-toe with
Jack Nicklaus at the '85 Greater Milwaukee Open. Then in the '87
U.S. Open he blew out his left wrist trying to hit a shot off a
tree root. After surgery his golf drifted downward while he
clung to the high life. At age 42 Thorpe lost his Tour card,
having won $1.9 million.

Then on Feb. 1, 1999, Thorpe turned 50. In the three seasons
since, he has won $4.3 million and four Senior events. He has
two Mercedes in the garage of his new 5,000-square-foot,
four-bedroom house in the Heathrow development north of Orlando.
Padding around the house recently, Thorpe stopped and asked,
"Can you imagine what my daddy would have said? In one year I
made a million, 800,000."

Elbert Thorpe, father of 12, was the greenkeeper at a country
club in Roxboro, N.C., though he never got to play the course.
He probably would have been impressed with the accomplishments
of his fourth-youngest child, but not surprised. As members of
the Thorpe family are wont to say, Jim was always different. He
was the only son to go to college, leaving on a bus for
Baltimore when he was 18 with $2.50 and a paper bag full of
extra shirts. He played halfback and center on the Morgan State
football team for the 1968 season, but was injured and quit the
team, and school, after only a year. He survived by mopping
floors and working in a shoe factory. "I was different," Thorpe
says with pride, "because I had a lot of guts."

As he talks about his scuffling days, he pauses in the
well-appointed dining room of his high-ceilinged house and
reaches for a cigar. Polished wood humidors are stacked against
the wall like cordwood. The sight makes him grunt. "When you're
broke, you can't get a break," Thorpe says. "Make some money,
people give you all kinds of s---. People sent me all this stuff
here." He brandishes a hefty torpedo. "I was going to give this
box to a friend. He said, 'I can't do that. These are $90
cigars.'" Thorpe lights his with a $400 lighter--another gift.
"I took a whole pile of s--- to storage the other day," he says.
"I must have 50 Rolexes that I've won over the years."

Thorpe would be easily the most quotable guy on the Senior tour,
if his quotes weren't so magnificently purple. "We call him MF,
and I'll leave it at that," says Wadkins. Says another pro, Ed
Dougherty, "There's a lot of chin music out here. In 2000 in
Sacramento, he had won the week before, and I'm playing with him
in the final round. We get going pretty good, and the birdies
are flowing. He hits it to about 12 feet on 18 and has the
tournament won. He says to me, 'I could three-putt and win.' I
say, 'Jim, you three-putt, and I'm breaking your kneecap right
on the green.' The gallery didn't know what we were talking
about."

Dougherty, along with fellow Senior Dana Quigley, is one of
Thorpe's gambling buddies. They have been known to jump on a jet
on a Tuesday night in search of friendly tables. However,
Thorpe's friends say that his gambling jones isn't as intense as
it once was. During a tournament last year Hale Irwin paused to
watch Thorpe on the practice green. "With Jim it always used to
be, 'Where's the track? Where are we going to go?'" Irwin says.
"Now he spends a lot of time working on shots. What you see now
is a different Jim Thorpe." Irwin thinks about that for a
moment, then adds, "Or maybe he's the same and just fights it. I
don't know. His professional life is better because he has
leashed some of the demons."

"What he does can't be taught," says Dougherty. When Thorpe sets
up for his homemade swing, he hunkers over the ball as if he's
mad at it. His chin seems to retract, turtlelike, into his huge
shoulders. From this position he lets go with a violent lash,
handling the club like a whip. He ends with an twirling,
antihook follow-through. So violent is the transition at the top
of his swing that he has snapped ultrastiff, X-400 steel shafts
at the grip.

Thorpe built his muscles hauling mortar for bricklayers as he
grew up in a small house along the 2nd fairway of the Roxboro
Country Club. Elbert helped build the greens at the club and
maintained them for 47 years but didn't play golf because a
tractor fire when he was 29 left him with only one good hand,
his right. But Elbert, who died in 1994 at age 82, was strong
enough to pick up a 200-pound sack with that hand and sling it
over his shoulder.

The five Thorpe boys--Elbert Jr., Chuck, Bill, Jim and
Chester--caddied at the club, but to play on the course in those
last days of Jim Crow, in the early 1960s, they had to sneak on
at dawn or dusk and always stay out of sight of the clubhouse.
Their toughest competition came from the five Briggs boys, the
sons of a white sharecropper. Wade, Gene, Otis, Laborn and Zach
Briggs. Their matches were fast, fierce and loud.

The Thorpes built practice greens in their backyard and strung
lights over them for night games. "We even had some of the
members' sons come over and chip on our greens," says Chester,
50, who caddies on the Senior tour. (Bill, 55, is trying to
qualify for the tour.) "No one could beat us. That's how we made
a lot of our money. When we were growing up, every time you saw
Jim he had a wedge in his hand. He was a hell of a wedge player.
He has big hands but soft hands with the wedge. He can bump it,
one-bounce it, sit it down or spin it back--whatever he wants."

In money games around North Carolina, Thorpe learned more than
checkup shots. He learned to love the action, and it became his
life's work. Of the hustling, he says, "It was something I had
to do. It was in my blood. It made no difference who you were, I
would give you a bet. I won 40 times for every time I lost."
Among the marks he was known as Super Duck.

By the mid-1970s Thorpe was living in suburban Washington, D.C.,
with his second wife, Carol, an intense woman who worked for the
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (Thorpe's
first marriage, which produced two daughters, ended in divorce.)
The first thing Carol had noticed about Jim were his tasseled
loafers, which in the disco days of platform shoes seemed
sensible. But this business of Carol's getting up at 6:30 in the
morning to take their baby, Sheronne, to the sitter and going to
the office while Jim went off in search of golf hustles with
people named Big Hoss and Throw In didn't seem so sensible.

"We were watching golf on TV on a Saturday afternoon, I'll never
forget it," Carol says. "They showed how much money they were
playing for, and I'm, like, 'Why aren't you playing in that
tournament?' He said, 'Well, those are the best golfers in the
world.' I said, 'If you're going to do this for a living, you're
going to have to be one of the best in the world.' He said he
needed to do this, this and this. I said, 'You're going to do
those things, or you'll be getting up and going to a job at
seven o'clock, just like me. O.K.?'"

After a couple of tries, Thorpe qualified for the Tour in 1978.
Driving around the country, he repeatedly listened to the tape
of the book Winning Through Intimidation. (When Mark O'Meara
heard that Thorpe tries to intimidate his opponents, he said,
"The only time Jim Thorpe intimidates me is when he wears tight
pants.")

Nothing got Jim more psyched for the Tour, though, than the
example of his older (by six years) brother Chuck, who had a
brief foray on the circuit in 1971-72. Says Jim, "When I was in
college and saw Chuck out there, I thought he had the greatest
life in the world: Travel, play golf in the sunshine, answer to
no-damn-body."

Today the mere mention of Chuck's name sets Jim's teeth on edge.
When he does talk about Chuck--who lives in Asheville, N.C., and
still plays the minitours--he speaks of a brother who could not
transcend his bad habits. Jim spits out the words: "Chuck. Was.
A. Big. Bulls------. To me, he was a user. My wife would jump
down my throat with both feet if she knew the money I've spent
on Chuck. We went four or five years where we didn't speak. A
lot of dumb stuff went down. But I learned a lot from him. He
was a great ballstriker, man. You have no idea what he could
have been versus what he is." Jim says he loves his brothers and
sisters but too often has had to deal with a sea of upturned
palms, and big hands run in the family.

Thorpe pauses at the trophy case in the living room. Among the
pieces is a small clock commemorating his second-place finish in
the 1985 Western Open, the tournament that thrust him into
national prominence, only not the way he wanted. Still looking
for his first Tour win, Thorpe lost in a playoff to a pale
college kid named Scott Verplank.

Thorpe hasn't forgotten. When Verplank's name comes up, he
responds with an obscenity. Walking by, Carol flashes a look of
reproval, but she knows her husband is given to this sort of
blunt assessment. (Another time, when she says that Lennox Lewis
is a gentleman, Thorpe corrects her: "He's a p----.")

Six weeks after that Western Open, Thorpe finally broke through
in Milwaukee, with a memorable win. He entered the final round a
shot up on Nicklaus, with whom he was paired. Thorpe had five
birdies in the first six holes and beat the Golden Bear by
three. On the 18th fairway Thorpe enjoyed the heady experience
of having Nicklaus say, "This walk is for you," and then hang
back so Thorpe alone could take in the applause as he strode
victoriously onto the final green. Significantly, Thorpe's
preparation for this showdown had been a long night at
Sportsman's Park in Chicago. He hadn't returned from the harness
races until 4 a.m.

Thorpe's star rose, but he didn't attend to it with
Nicklaus-like resolve. It's rare for a Tour pro to live in
Buffalo, for instance, even if it is his wife's hometown. Nor do
many take up time-consuming hobbies like owning racehorses. At
one point Thorpe owned seven trotters that ran at Batavia (N.Y.)
Downs. When Carol looked closely at the vet bills one day and
discovered one for a hysterectomy for a horse that had died two
years before, the Thorpes knew they were in too deep. By the
time they bailed out of racing in the early 1990s, Jim's golf
had lost its magic.

"I kind of stalled," Thorpe says. "If only I could've met Vijay
Singh earlier." Thorpe repeats Singh's name with dramatic
gravity and then adds, "I met him, and--maybe because of
color--we hit it off and became friends. If I had met him
earlier, my career would have been twice, three times as good.
He does all the things I needed to do. We practice a lot, laugh
a lot." When it is suggested that perhaps Singh, a notorious
range-hound, could use a bit of Thorpe's attitude, Thorpe grins.
"I think so," he says. "Someone told me his wife said, 'I don't
think Jim is good for Vijay.'" Thorpe hates the could-have-beens
that are part of such talk. "I don't want to say I was a
mess-up," he says, "but as long as you learn from a mistake,
it's a good mistake. If you don't learn, you know nothing."

Thorpe, who opened the 2002 season by finishing 16th at last
week's MasterCard Championship, is likely to have a few more
successful years. After a career of playing from the rough, he's
playing from the fairway now thanks, he says, to a hook-proof
driver built for him by Callaway. ("I could hook a ball around
this house when I first started," he says. "I could stand in the
front yard and wait for it to come back to me.") Although he
drives for position and averages about 285 yards, he can push
the ball out to more than 320 when necessary, thus reducing most
of the Senior tour's par-4s to driver-and-very-lethal-wedge.

More important, Thorpe still possesses enormous stamina in an
arena in which many of his competitors are falling apart. He
names a would-be Senior star who not only suffers tendinitis but
also an infuriated wife ("He got caught with his pants down,"
Thorpe says) and is thus no star at all. Jim is happily married
to the hard-headed but doting Carol, and lives to teach golf to
his 13-year-old daughter, Charae, who calls him up on the road
and fires him up with a determined, "C'mon, Daddy, you can beat
those suckahs."

On the Senior tour what matters most is that you simply do not
burn out. The resumes and the picture swings matter not at all.
"Look at a guy like Allen Doyle," Thorpe says. "He's four feet
away from the ball, ungodly flat, his feet are turned the wrong
way, and he beats the s--- out of you! You say, 'How?'"

Thorpe laughs uproariously. "Now, this is a true story. Allen
Doyle, Dana Quigley and I come off the course and look for Tom
Kite. We go to the practice tee. We wanted to know which one of
us has the ugliest swing. We want to win this title! Kite
couldn't answer the question. He said, 'You know, Jim, your
swing is...and Allen, your swing is...but, hell, you're all
beating me! How can I say your swings are bad?'"

Thorpe puts a lifetime's worth of glee into his laugh because he
knows that his swing, like his career, like his entire life, may
not be perfect, but it can be overpowering.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKESCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN Snap decision To combat a frightful hook, Thorpe resorted to his whiplashlike follow-through.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES Family matters Thorpe spends more time these days with Carol (below) and Charae (right), but has little use for his brother Chuck (holding club, with their father, Elbert, in 1985).COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE THORPE FAMILY [See caption above]
"When you're broke," says Thorpe, "you can't get a break. Make
some money, people give you all kinds of s---."
Thorpe crushes your fingers in one of his XXL hands while giving
you a bone-numbing shoulder massage with the other.