Big Play Long-hitting Jim Thorpe relied on a simple wedge shot, not a heroic try for the green, to win the first major of his career

May 05, 2002

Jim Thorpe looks like a linebacker and launches drives into the
stratosphere, but it was sound strategy and an airtight wedge
game that led him to victory at the Senior tour's Countrywide
Tradition, in which he beat John Jacobs on the first hole of a
playoff. Thorpe's playing partners in the final round, Jacobs
and Bob Gilder, made mental blunders at the end of regulation on
the 553-yard par-5 18th at Superstition Mountain, leaving
themselves difficult wedge approaches. Each player could do no
better than par. Meanwhile, Thorpe birdied the hole with a play
that showed why setup shots are so crucial to a good short game.
Thorpe, who carries 48-, 54- and 57-degree wedges, laid up with
a seven-iron to 123 yards, leaving himself a full wedge in--the
ideal play in a high-pressure situation. He stiffed the shot
(above) to force the playoff with Jacobs. Playing the same hole
in sudden death, Thorpe drove into the rough, and his instinct
was to blast a three-wood at the green. "We make more birdies
laying up," caddie Tony Shepherd told Thorpe, who acquiesced and
hit a four-iron, leaving a 65-yard third shot that he dropped
seven feet from the flagstick. "I hit 50 wedges warming up this
morning, because it always boils down to that kind of shot,"
Thorpe told SI on Sunday evening.

MINOR LEAGUE The Senior tour calls the Tradition a major, but
the event had all the atmosphere of my club championship. Midway
through the final round ABC showed a segment about a jocular
clinic the players had conducted earlier in the week. Sorry, but
I watch Letterman for humor; I want golf on Sundays. It was also
a shame that the tournament ended on a hole so weak and wide
open that Thorpe could spray a pair of drives and still make two
birdies. Instead of leaving the 18th hole as a ho-hum par-5, it
should've been shortened by 75 yards and played as a stout par-4
demanding excellence from tee to green.

SMOKE ALARM The Senior tour is supposedly polishing its image,
but one of its worst problems persists: smoking during
competition. It was unprofessional and appalling--not to mention
unhealthy--of Jacobs to torch a cigar during the playoff. How
are we supposed to take these guys seriously as athletes if
they're chomping on cigars?

POWER SOURCE Jacobs and Thorpe dispel the myth that you need a
big range of motion to be a big hitter. They have two of the
shortest (not to mention unorthodox) swings I've seen but are
among the tour's longest players. (Jacobs ranks second in
driving distance, at 285.6 yards, while Thorpe is 10th at
277.1.) Each player derives power from the enormous torque he
generates through the hitting area, thanks to powerful arms and
fast hands.



When laying up to wedge distance, Jim Thorpe tries to leave
himself a full swing because, he says, "That's when you're at
your best." Indeed, leaving yourself a full swing is important,
but another key to a successful approach wedge is getting on top
of the ball--not under it--by striking with a descending angle
of attack.

This steep angle generates a lot of spin, ensuring that the ball
will stop dead on the green, like both of Thorpe's approaches to
the 18th hole on Sunday at the Tradition. Address the ball with
a narrow and slightly open stance, shift your weight toward the
target, and be sure your sternum is aligned slightly ahead of
the ball (A). During the backswing keep your weight shifted
toward the target and keep your sternum parallel to or slightly
ahead of the ball (B). Doing this helps you make crisp contact.
On the downswing maintain the angle of the right wrist you had
at the top of the backswing as long as possible (C) and drive
through the ball. Also, just before impact your hands should be
ahead of the ball. A final tip: Learn the maximum distance you
can hit each wedge by blasting buckets of balls at full power.
Even Jim Thorpe has to hone his feel at the range.

Spearman is director of golf at Manhattan Woods Golf Club in
West Nyack, N.Y., and one of Golf Magazine's Top 100 Teachers.