Green Giant

Regarded as an overachiever during a late-blooming career on the regular Tour, putter nonpareil Loren Roberts was transformed into a superstar the instant he turned 50
March 13, 2006

When you talkabout the best putters of the modern era, CBS analyst and Champions tour playerGary McCord was saying in a recent locker-room interview, you really need twolists: the great putters who win multiple majors, and the great putters whomake a handsome living because they can putt. In the first group you have JackNicklaus, Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson in their primes, BillyCasper and Gary Player. (But not Ben Hogan.) In the second group you haveGeorge Archer, Ben Crenshaw, Brad Faxon, Morris Hatalsky, Justin Leonardand--it almost goes without saying--the great man himself, the Boss of theMoss, winner of the first three Champions tour events of 2006 and bridesmaid ofthe grueling 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont, during which he slapped around afour-wood to Ernie Els's whistling two-irons. We're speaking, of course, ofLoren Roberts, the best 50-year-old golfer in the world.

It's going to be a monster year for the Mossman. In fact, since turning 50 lastJune, the golfing pride of San Luis Obispo--the town that time forgot inmid-state coastal California--has played in 10 senior events, winning four andfinishing no worse than 11th in the others, earning $1.8 million in theprocess. Roberts is a modest man, but he did say this at a recent Championstour event, "There is no way I'm going to compare myself with Tiger Woods,but I do think I know something now about how he feels, because everytournament where he plays, you know he's there thinking he should win, and onthe Champions tour I know if I play the way I'm capable of playing, I shouldcontend."

You listening, Hale Irwin, Jay Haas, Peter Jacobsen et al.? By the standards ofthe soft-spoken Roberts--you could easily see the man in a cardigan--those arefighting words.

Roberts will meet up with Woods a few times this year. Senior golf's newestsheriff had considered playing next week at Bay Hill, where he was absolutelyTigeresque for a while. (Roberts won there in 1994 and '95, two of his eightPGA Tour victories.) They'll both be at the March 23--26 Players Championship.And come September, they'll both be at the K Club outside Dublin for the RyderCup, where Roberts will be one of U.S. captain Tom Lehman's two assistants,along with Corey Pavin. And if Cap'n Tom plays his way onto the team--he's 11thon the points list--that will mean heavier responsibilities for the assistants.But don't worry about Roberts: He can handle a walkie-talkie and drive a cartat the same time.

The assistant'sjob has been his for years. Starting in the early 1980s, Lehman, Roberts andDavid Ogrin were three young, broke golfers trying to find $30-a-night hotelsand their way in professional golf. They played practice rounds together, atedinners together and went to Bible study together. Over time they all made amark on the PGA Tour. Soon after Lehman won the British Open in '96, he andOgrin and Roberts were having dinner one night when Ogrin said to Lehman,"When they make you Ryder Cup captain, you have to make Loren and me yourassistants."

"I will,"Lehman said.

Eight years later,in November 2004, on the day after he was named captain, Lehman called Ogrinand Roberts to make good on his promise. Ogrin was no longer an active Tourplayer, and he gave Lehman an easy out, although Ogrin is still going to have arole (as yet undetermined) with the team. Roberts--who went 3--1 during hisonly Ryder Cup appearance, in 1995--gladly accepted. "My job," he says,"is to do whatever I can to make Tom's job easier."

It was Ogrin whocame up with the nickname Boss of the Moss, and it was Ogrin who came up withthis list of the 10 most overachieving Tour players of his era:

1. Tom Kite
2. Corey Pavin
3. George Archer
4. Mark McCumber
5. Craig Parry
6. Loren Roberts
7. D.A. Weibring
8. Bart Bryant
9. Wayne Levi
10. Ed Fiori

It may not be themost glamorous group of golfers you've ever seen, but do you think theiraccountants care?

For a while, inthe late '90s, there was a Boss of the Moss line of putters, but it never tookoff and it allowed Roberts to resume the life that suits him. He sells nothing,says little and lets his scores speak for him. "He's so simple andsingle-minded," Ogrin says. "Good golfer, good Christian, good husband,good father."

Re Christian:Roberts is not one to sit in a postvictory press conference and talk about howthe good Lord helped him hole a putt down the stretch. On the greens, Robertsknows that he controls his destiny. But before every meal he quietly saysgrace. (On the course he's more voluble, muttering about and gesticulatingafter disobedient shots.) He has been a churchgoer all his life and wasbaptized at the 1993 Disney Classic when he was immersed in the shallow end ofa Disney World pool, with the Tour's traveling chaplain, the Reverend LarryMoody, officiating.

Roberts neverseems to be in a rush. "You won't find a more accommodating guy outhere," says Graeme Courts, Roberts's caddie, who sometimes has to remindhis boss that his swing wants to go down and through, even with the driver,even with the putter. Especially the putter. Percy Boomer, a prominent Britishprewar golf instructor, used to emphasize that one should drive as one puttsand vice versa. Roberts says the same thing.

There's somethingnot quite modern about him. Maybe it's because during his sophomore year ofhigh school the family's lone TV, a black-and-white Zenith, conked out andwasn't replaced. Or because his first swing coach was Olin Dutra, who won the1934 U.S. Open. Or because after he left Cal Poly--San Luis Obispo, his journeyto the PGA Tour began as an assistant pro working in the shop. There's not muchof that anymore. When Roberts was on the Australian tour in the late 1970s,he'd always play eight straight weeks. He's what Peter Alliss would call"the old dog from the hard road." Roberts is one of those guys who hasworked a lifetime to become an overnight success.

He and his wife,Kimberly, have been married for 23 years. They live near Memphis because of itscentral location and have two daughters: Alexandria, 19, an art major at SMU,and Addison, 14, an eighth-grader at a private school, where she playsvolleyball and lacrosse. Addison reports that none of her friends were overlyimpressed when her father began the season by winning three straight Championstour events.

But nobody's everdone it before! you say by way of protest. "They're like, It's nice andall," Addison says.

To be fair, thefather seems a little underwhelmed himself. "Technically, they'reexhibitions, right?" he said at last month's Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am inLutz, Fla., making the invidious comparison to four-round PGA Tour events."I think three rounds and no cut makes it an exhibition."

We're not sureabout that. He has to beat 77 other guys to prevail, and the winning checks arearound $250,000. Sounds pretty legit. And in the next year or two the Championstour competition will get considerably tougher. John Cook, Nick Faldo, FredFunk, Scott Hoch, Bernhard Langer, Mark O'Meara, Nick Price and Jeff Slumanwill be joining the tour the way Roberts did--ready to win.

There's someRodney Dangerfield in Roberts. At the '94 U.S. Open awards ceremony he wasfirst given the winner's gold medal by mistake, until it was snatched away fromhim and replaced with the silver. Over his career Faxon has given hundreds offree putting lessons to his touring brethren, but Roberts says he has nevergiven even one--because no one has ever asked.

If anybody didinquire, they would discover that Roberts is loaded with putting theory, a lotof it handed down from Dutra. During the Outback, which uses a pro-am format,Roberts read putts for his partner for 54 holes and he gave another amateur, aspectator who has desperate short-stick problems, a putting lesson.

Roberts likeslongish putters. His is a 36-inch model, about two inches longer than standard.He likes putters with little loft. His has 4.5 degrees, a degree less thannormal. He likes a heavy shaft. His weighs 152 grams, while the standard puttershaft weighs around 110 grams. Grips are personal, he says. His own is made ofthin, cracked, curling brown leather. Woods and many other great putters haveswing paths that evoke a swinging gate, where the putterhead starts square,then goes inside and opens on the backswing, returns to square at impact andcloses on the follow-through. Roberts belongs to the old straight-back,straight-through school. "I think of the putter shaft as a giant pen,"he says. "I'm trying to draw a straight line back with the pen and then astraight line toward my target." He doesn't like routines in which a playeralways takes, say, three practice swings. Roberts's idea is to begin takingpractice swings with his putter and to stop when he feels a good one.

Working with theamateur at the Outback, Roberts saw a plethora of problems but commented ononly three: The shaft was leaning too far backward and needed to be moreforward; the ball needed to be farther back in the stance so the golfer couldcatch the ball on his downswing, and the amateur needed to work on hisalignment. Some years ago, pre-Tiger, one of those self-appointed puttingscientists came out on Tour for a while and determined that only three golfershad near-perfect alignment: O'Meara, Lee Janzen and the Boss of the Moss.

At the conclusionof his lesson, Roberts gave a little exhibition. On the first putt he stoodover, he explained how you have to feel a putt, not be afraid to miss it--getinto the process and not the result. He was eyeing a 50-footer while talking.He made his stroke, and the ball climbed up a hill, reached its apex, made aright-hand turn, cruised down a hill and dropped gently into the cup. Everybodyaround laughed, he had made it look so easy.

Get used toit.

"I do know something now about how [Tiger Woods]feels," says Roberts. "On the Champions tour, I know IF I PLAY THE WAYI'M CAPABLE OF PLAYING, I SHOULD CONTEND."

"I think of the putter shaft as a giant pen,"says Roberts. "I'm trying to DRAW A STRAIGHT LINE BACK WITH THE PEN ANDTHEN A STRAIGHT LINE TOWARD MY TARGET."

TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by David WalbergMEET THENEW BOSS - In his first 10 starts on the Champions tour, Roberts has four winsand no finish worse than 11th. PHOTOJOHN IACONOMAJORMISUNDERSTANDING - After the playoff at the 1994 U.S. Open, Roberts wasmistakenly awarded the winner's medal. PHOTOUNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM - Instead of a rigid preputt routine, Roberts makespractice strokes until he feels a good one.