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Bessie Is Still Game Despite advancing age and limited means, Al Besselink, golf's grand master of dolce vita, remains a man of action

March 11, 2002
March 11, 2002

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March 11, 2002

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Bessie Is Still Game Despite advancing age and limited means, Al Besselink, golf's grand master of dolce vita, remains a man of action

A lifetime in the game, and this is what it comes down to: a
$435-a-month room (with three TVs tracking three football games
in the fall) in a private home in a working-class neighborhood in
Miami, an $11 manicure (including a $2 tip) fortnightly, a
money-market account containing $5,000 ($30,000 until a recent
run of bad luck), and a 2002 PGA Tour money clip (with 12
Benjamins wrapped inside a single). The owner's name is engraved
on the clip in capitals: AL BESSELINK.

This is an article from the March 11, 2002 issue Original Layout

He removes the clip from his front right pocket as he approaches
the players' gate at Doral Resort and Spa last Thursday. "Same
as the one Tiger Woods carries," he says. The 77-year-old
Besselink made his last cut in a Tour event 32 years ago, but he
still pays his $150 annual dues to be a Tour member, and he has
the money clip to prove it. A security guard pops his head into
the car. "I'm a player," says Besselink, dressed in the manner
of an old pro, his blue cotton sweater washed once too often,
his black 12D FootJoys freshly shined. He's waved right in.

Besselink played Doral in the tournament's early days. He played
Pebble, L.A., Augusta, Colonial. He played them all. He won in
Havana, when Havana was swinging. Don't ask him when. "I don't
know years," he says. "I'm not a geologist." Geologist,
genealogist, gerontologist, whatever. He won in Sioux City, in
Madrid, in Caracas. He won 20 big tournaments around the world
in the 1950s and '60s, 200 if you count the piddling ones. In
'53, when he won the first Tournament of Champions, at the
Desert Inn in Las Vegas--that place was swinging--he got 10,000
silver dollars in a wheelbarrow, and gave half of it to the
Walter Winchell-Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. Big deal. It was only
money. Besides, he'd bought himself in a pretournament Calcutta
for $500 and made $22,500 and then gone straight to the tables.

Bessie has lived in South Florida since the late 1940s, when he
attended the University of Miami to play on its golf team, a
tall, brash kid from New Jersey with 39 months as an Army Air
Corps radio operator. He'll be inducted into the university's
sports Hall of Fame on March 14. He traffics in the same Miami
Elmore Leonard does: He knows where to find the better bookies,
driving ranges, Laundromats, diners. You can have the bars.
Bessie has never been a drinker. He can get you to Gulfstream,
the race track, from anywhere.

Doral, he never had any luck there. In 1969 he was playing in the
tournament and staying at the resort. After his Saturday round he
jumped in a cab and raced over to Hialeah to bet the nags. When
he got to the now defunct track, he realized he had left his
money clip and the $3,500 wedged in it on his bed. He called the
resort and asked somebody to secure the money before a
housekeeper doing the turndowns mistook it for a tip. Says
Bessie, "They said, 'No, no Senor Besselink, we don't see no
money on no bed.' I was stupid to call, but what are you going to
do?" Ernie Els earned $846,000 for his win at Doral last week.
Nineteenth paid almost $64,000. Bessie finished 19th the year he
lost his money clip and the wad in it and won $1,368.

Maybe you think there's a whiff of prejudice in that story. None
is intended. There's no hostility in Bessie, unless the subject
is Deane Beman, the Tour commissioner from 1974 to '94. During
the Beman era, three of Besselink's wins--the '53 Tournament of
Champions, the '56 Havana Open and the '57 Caracas Open--were
demoted to unofficial victories, reducing Besselink's official
PGA Tour title count from six to three. Most everyone and
everything else, he likes, Spanish-speaking people included. In
his neighborhood there's almost nothing but Spanish-speaking
people. "Beau-TEE-ful people," he says. He likes Jews. For 35
years he represented Grossinger's, the old Catskills resort.
"Beau-TEE-ful people."

He's especially fond of blacks. "Teddy Rhodes, Charlie Sifford,
they were some of my favorite guys," he says, referring to the
men who integrated the Tour. "I won the Joe Louis Invitational in
DEE-troit. I gave the champ a pair of blue-and-gray-suede
FootJoys. He wore 12D, just like me. He says to one of the guys
in his entourage, 'Put these in my locker. Give the boy 200
bucks.' I was the boy. He was beau-TEE-ful. Those colored people
should kiss his ass." Who knows what that last sentence means,
particularly considering that Louis has been dead for 22 years,
but it's meant as a compliment. Of his best friends, Besselink
will say, "Best damn son of a bitch I ever knew."

In the leisurely manner of a man who has seen it all, Besselink
descends the steps of the Doral clubhouse and takes in the scene
with his working eye. (He is blind in the left eye, from
radiation treatments two years ago to remove a tumor on his
nose.) A boy walks by carrying a sign bearing the scores and
surnames of three players in the tournament, one of which is
NICKLAUS. "That's the kid [Gary]," Besselink says. "About 10
years ago I was sitting out here in the sun, couldn't move
because I just had my knees replaced, and Jack sees me and comes
running over. He says, 'Bessie! Bessie! How you doin'?' That made
me feel so good."

Besselink is modest in a way you might not expect from a man so
tall (6'4") and big (245 pounds) and with such a nice head of
fluffy white hair. Back in his heyday his hair was thick and
blond and wavy, combed straight back. The writers were always
commenting on his hair. The ladies too.

On the practice green Jim McLean, Doral's director of golf, talks
to a Tour player, Michael Allen, who rolls putts with a
long-shafted wand. Besselink goes over to say hello to McLean,
who promptly introduces him to Allen, whose face lights up. Not
many players today can tell you anything about Besselink, but the
43-year-old Allen, no stranger to the good life, knows Besselink
was one of the grand masters of dolce vita.

When Besselink discovers that Allen is from the San Francisco
area, he tells him how another San Francisco golfer, Ken Venturi,
earned a spot in the 1964 U.S. Open by making a 10-footer on the
last green in the sectional qualifier. Had the putt lipped out,
Venturi would not have won the national championship that year.
Bessie saw the putt fall with his own two eyes, back when he had
exceptionally good sight. Allen is fascinated.

"I'm glad I met that young man," Besselink says later. "It gives
me something to do. I'll follow his career from now on." Bessie
is loyal that way. He has followed the career of Mike Donald, 46,
another denizen of the South Florida golf scene, for years.
Bessie and Donald play all the same courses--public, semipublic,
private--and know all the same people. Besselink can re-create all
the critical shots Donald played in the 1990 U.S. Open at
Medinah, when he was the runner-up to Hale Irwin. The week of
Doral, the two spend an afternoon together at Miami Shores
Country Club, a public course run by their friend Johnny La
Ponzina. Besselink goes to Miami Shores almost every day.

Donald has never married. Bessie, married and divorced three
times but never a father, recites his marital history to Donald
over lunch. One wife was the daughter of a Texas oilman. The
other was the daughter of a prominent Main Line Philadelphia
family. The third was the ex-wife of a well-connected Las Vegas
builder. "I don't ever hang around with no brokes," Besselink
says. "If you're a millionaire, I'll marry you tonight." One of
his wives gave him a beautiful watch. Years later, Besselink
says, he used it as collateral when he borrowed $5,000 from a
friend to pay off a gambling debt. The friend died of a heart
attack while engaged in some strenuous indoor activity. The
hooker stole the watch.

After lunch the two golfers go to the back of the range and check
out each other's action. Donald hits one crisp, drawing iron
after another, the way pros do. "When you get on the Senior tour,
I'll caddie for you," Bessie tells him. "You're going to make
millions. It's going to be so easy, it'll be like stealing,
stealing! Chipping and putting, that's what I want you to do.
Keep practicing chipping and putting. That's the game."

Besselink pulls out a sand wedge from his big staff bag filled
with all manner of clubs, plus a ball retriever. (One of his
favorite activities is fishing balls out of ponds. Gives him
something to do, he says.) Donald watches with reverence as
Besselink plays perfect little pitch shots. "You've got great
hands," Donald says. There is no shake in them. "I like to fly it
low like that."

"Now they hit everything high," Bessie says. "I couldn't hit it
high. I hit it low, with spin." As Besselink plays the
pitches--worn balls, spotty grass, one working eye, two man-made
knees--it is evident what an athlete he was and is.

Four or five times a year, when he's healthy, Besselink plays in
various events, sponsored by the Senior tour, for legendary
golfers over 70. In a good year he might earn $50,000 playing
golf. He'll spend it all and then some. He has gambled since his
caddying boyhood. "If I couldn't bet, that would be terrible," he
says, sounding, for a rare moment, forlorn.

After visiting Doral on Thursday, Bessie goes straight to
Gulfstream, and when he arrives at the track, his gait,
suddenly, is leisurely no more. At Doral a horse owner, unknown
to him, approached Bessie and gave him a tip for the fifth race.
He also has a tip for the ninth, from the agent of Gulfstream's
leading jockey, Edgar Prado. At the track he checks in with
Frankie at the $50 window to see what horses Frankie likes.
Bessie also seeks the advice of the Old Man, the author of a tip
sheet. "I don't pick horses," Besselink says. "I get the best
information there is, always have."

Gulfstream is nearly empty, cold, windy, gray. Gulls swoop lazily
over the track. The afternoon has been going poorly, and now
comes an announcement, minutes before for the ninth race: "The
nine horse, Absentlee, will not be ridden by Edgar Prado."
Besselink doesn't look happy. "The only horse the agent gave me,"
he says.

After losing the ninth, Bessie is down $900 for the day. "The Old
Man's having a bad day too," he says. He bets conservatively on
the 10th and final race. He takes the favorite to win, and it
does. In victory--he wins $300--there isn't a hint of pleasure on
his face. His words say otherwise. "I'm happy," he says as he
leaves Gulfstream, stopping to buy the next day's Daily Racing
Form. "I'm happy I didn't lose everything."

He heads home, back to his room with the three TVs. His second
home is his car, a 1995 Oldsmobile Aurora with 106,000 miles. On
the backseat and floor are a pillow, many visors and shirts, two
pairs of slacks and several towels. In the trunk, amid dozens of
clubs, is a big cardboard box stuffed with magazine and newspaper
clippings and pictures.

It's all true, the whole life is true. It's all there in the box.
There's a headline: BESSIE SWINGS OFF COURSE TOO. There's a color
picture of Terry Moore, the 1950s starlet who was introduced to
Bessie, the accompanying story says, by Bing Crosby. There are
columns on Bessie by Red Smith and Walter Winchell, shots of
Bessie with Snead, with Hogan, with Ike. The stories refer to
oilmen, chairmen, millionaires. Always hang around the top of the
deck. That's one of Besselink's rules of life.

On Sunday, while Els is winning at Doral, Bessie is back at
Gulfstream. He has a tip for the eighth race. He bets Social
Place to win. Besselink loses again, but his luck will change
soon. It always has.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRIAN SMITH/CORBIS OUTLINE Old smoothy Besselink, 77, has lost an eye and both knees but not the swing that won him 20 titles worldwide. THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRIAN SMITH/CORBIS OUTLINE Daily double After a bite at DJ's Cafe, Bessie either plays cards at Normandy Shores Golf Course or goes to the races at Gulfstream.B/W PHOTO: UPI/BETTMANN-CORBIS Golden dome Bessie (left, with Bo Winsinger) used to get locks of attention.COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Remember me? Dropping in for the first round of the Genuity Championship, Besselink was thrilled when he was recognized by Allen.
"I don't pick horses," says Besselink of his handicapping
method. "I get the best information there is, always have."