In 1979, he was the first rookie in nearly a half-century to win the Masters, becoming golfs equivalent of a made man. Almost 20 years later, the fast-walking, faster-talking, self-styled ambassador cracked an ugly joke on his way out of the tournament that has haunted him nearly every day since.
Lifes not a bowl of cherries, Zoeller said Friday, walking off Augusta National after 30 years as a competitor for the last time. You know that.
His daughter Gretchen, one of four children and a former college golfer, was toting his bag. They hugged on the 18th green, where moments earlier, Zoeller was treated to a standing ovation. Both of them were fighting back tears.
It came at the end of a farewell tour that Mayor Deke Copenhaver kicked off Monday by handing him the key to the city. Ever the funny man, Zoeller couldnt resist a promise to return, if only because he already knew where the good bars in town were.
Im going to be at the mayors house tonight, he said. So I know where his bar is at.
You wont find golfers like 57-year-old Frank Urban Zoeller anymore, unless you count his pals on the 50-and-over Champions Tour, and maybe never will again. He was one of the games few remaining showmen, a little like Dean Martin, only inside the ropes. Hed throw off jokes between shots during a round, then throw down a vodka tonic or two afterward.
No one was counting in 1997, when Tiger Woods wrapped up a historic win here and Zoeller, whod finished tied for 33rd, suggested what Woods should serve at the Champions Dinner the following year, when the defending champion chooses the menu.
So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? Zoeller said then. You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?
He smiled and walked away, then turned back and added, or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.
Friends have said those 30 seconds obscured 30 years of good will. Zoeller lost some sponsors, but even worse, those close to him said he became more guarded, even in their company. You wouldnt have known that watching Zoeller making his final circuit.
He cracked jokes with the members in green jackets on the first tee and most every one afterward. He lit a cigarette halfway down the first fairway, threw the butt down before skidding a 7-iron to 10 feet below the flag and didnt bother to line up the putt before narrowly missing.
He didnt line up any of his putts during his 1979 win, either, but for a different reason. Zoeller hadnt even seen Augusta, let alone practiced here when he teed off in the first round. But as was the practice in those days, he was paired with a local caddie and followed every direction almost on faith. He described Jariah Beard as a seeing-eye dog leading a blind man around the course. It wasnt far from the truth.
Beard was one of the best caddies at the club, so experienced he could read putts from the middle of the fairway. Zoeller started the final day six strokes back, but leader Ed Sneed bogeyed the final three holes, setting up a three-way playoff between those two and Tom Watson. On the second extra hole, Zoeller chased an 8-iron to 8 feet below the pin and Beard simply said, right edge.
All these years later, Zoeller still doesnt understand why none of his fellow pros hire a local caddy, a practice that Augusta National officials dropped soon after his win. His daughter Gretchen may not know the course the way those men do, but she knows her father. On the third tee, with Woods putting on the seventh green a few dozen yards over his right shoulder, Zoeller pushed his tee shot into a pine tree on the right. By the time he and Gretchen reached the ball, barely 150 yards down the fairway, a small crowd had gathered and they fell into a familiar routine.
Last time I looked, she said, trying to pump him up, there are no pictures on the scorecard.
Damn, Zoeller said. I hit the fairway. What the hell?
Pulling a club, she said, Im caddying for a diva.
Without a practice swing, Zoeller knocked the hybrid club 200-plus yards down the fairway and off they went. A few hours later, he walked into the scoring hut and signed for a 76, which left him at 155 and 11 strokes over the cut.
I hope everybodys had fun, because Ive enjoyed my ride, Zoeller said. I can tell you that. Now its time to step aside and let some other young kid come in and win. Hopefully, they will, too.
With that, he headed off toward the clubhouse and the locker where his own green jacket hangs. He plans to come back for the par-3 contest every year, then take a seat on the upstairs porch next to Arnold Palmer and watch the kids struggling with the wide green jigsaw puzzle that Zoeller put together correctly on his first try.
Whether his memories of the place fit together as easily, only he will ever know. But something he said before heading out to play Friday, knowing it was his last go-round, suggested he was ready to try.
When youre playing well, Zoeller said, you remember everything. Maybe thats the funny thing about professional golfers. They also have the ability to forget the bad stuff.