A Man Of Action

Always instigating, always intimidating Jim Thorpe bet that being bad would one day turn into something very good
January 28, 2002

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.

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.

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