A close look at Jim Thorpe's golf game reveals a defect so fascinating in its delicious horror that all hackers would give away their favorite putter to be so flawed. Thorpe hits the cursed pellet six miles. His problem is finding it.He is golf's Gatling gun, a scattershooter of alarming indiscrimination. Long and wrong, his misguided missiles often land in the next area code. He hits it 300 yards. In all directions.
So, you probably ask, how is it possible for this loose cannon to shoot a 66 in the first round of the U.S. Open? Isn't this the tournament so proud of its protection of par that it narrows the fairways to pipestem width to demand perfection off the tee? To have a Jim Thorpe leading the Open, isn't that blasphemy?
It is a wonderful story. The ninth of 12 children, Thorpe is a black who moved from North Carolina to Falls Church, Va., to play more golf. He is the first black to lead the Open in 85 years, a man trying to make the best of a second chance -- and we'll get to more of this in a minute, right after explaining how such a wild driver could get around Merion Golf Club without once banging a drive off Ben Franklin's tombstone, only 20 miles away and well within range of a Thorpe detonation.
A wild driver can get away with it here because Merion is an old, outdated course playing so short that this era's golfers don't need to hit a driver off the tee. On the 14 driving holes today, Thorpe hit six one-irons, two two-irons and one three-iron, leaving the wicked driver in his hand only five times (he missed the fairway three times).
As long as Thorpe has an iron shot to work on, he is a fine pro. Today he put six shots within 10 feet of the cup. When he knocked in a 30-footer at the 18th hole for his 66, Thorpe completed his first round under 69 since March. He has missed the cut in his last four tournaments and has won only $7,645 this year with a best finish of 46th at Phoenix.
So the design of Merion forced Thorpe into an uncharacteristically conservative game today, and he profited so nicely from the restraint that he got to answer, for the thousandth time, the question that is asked of him every time he shoots a hot round or has a good tournament (his best being a tie for second at Tucson two years ago). The question, of course, is "Were you named after Jim Thorpe?"
He looks the part. At 6 feet and 190, Thorpe has the physique of an NFL running back. He could pass, physically and facially, for Jim Brown. nBut this golfing Thorpe, 32, is an old football, baseball and basketball player who grew up on the Roxboro (N.C.) Country Club golf course, the son of the greenskeeper.
After one year as a running back at Morgan State in Baltimore, Thorpe gave up the game as "hard and dangerous, with a short career." He was 18, Thorpe said, when he first heard of the other Jim Thorpe, the Indian from Oklahoma who stuck with football a while longer.
"I don't think my mother and father knew about Jim Thorpe, but they have so many kids, they were running out of names," Thorpe said, laughing. "I got some books about Jim Thorpe and saw movies and found out he was a great athlete. Now, when people hear the name Jim Thorpe, they come up looking for an Indian. Then they think, 'Christ, he's dead.' And when they look up at me, they say, 'Hey, he's black.'"
For $10 a weekend, today's Jim Thorpe caddied at Roxboro. He and his four brothers (one, Chuck, was a tour player in the early '70s) would play golf everyday, very early or very late, to stay out of the members' ways. But it wasn't until he quit football at Morgan State that Thorpe became serious about making a career in a white man's game.
First he did some hustling.
"You would go to a golf course and sit around and pretty soon somebody would want to make a bet," Thorpe said.
Could a guy make a living that way?
"Oh, sure, we would play a $5 nassau."
Thorpe's broad face lit up at the memories.
"Sometimes," Thorpe said, "it would be $6."
Thorpe played on a black circuit, with stops in Cleveland and Atlanta, Nashville and Washington. He qualified for the PGA Tour in 1975 and lasted little more than two seasons before giving it up as a costly adventure into a world of "supermanicured fairways and superslick greens that weren't anything like what black players grow up on. All my money was going out and nothing was coming in, and so I dropped off to play minitours and satellites."
By then Thorpe lived in Falls Church with his wife Carol, who worked in the equal opportunity office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. As a Virginia resident from '73 to '78, he twice finished second in Middle Atlantic PGA tournaments. The Capital City tournament was a regular stop for him, as were occasional sitting-around trips to East Potomac Park.
"I didn't feel bad about losing my PGA card the first time," Thorpe said. "I wasn't ready. It takes blacks about twice as long to get used to the tour. It's not any racist stuff. We've got away from black-white and so on. I've always been treated like a gentleman out here. But it's all these super courses that we don't get to play much. We're always banging away on the greens, trying to get the ball to roll over bad greens, and out here we have to learn to stroke it."
When Thorpe, who now lives in Buffalo, requalified for the tour in '79, he came with a new attitude. "I always thought I just had to show up and not practice," he said."I figured I'd hit it 300 yards and it was easy from there on. Like right now, I'm having a very poor year because early this year I got away from working on my game, due to personal problems. Now I'm back working and practicing, and it is paying off some."
Then Thorpe went out to hit some one-iron practice shots, which is a nice thing to do, considering that the last time an unknown led the Open at Merion, his name was Lee Mackey and he followed a first-day 64 with a second-day 81.