What is Sammy Rachels doing making a living playing professional golf? Hell never know. The pride of DeFuniak Springs, which is a little community in the panhandle of Florida, Rachels is a 50-year-old who still believes he will wake up someday and find he was just dreaming.
I keep looking over my shoulder expecting to see the FBI, Rachels says. I mean, this is a great life. I know this cant be legal.
Sammy Rachels has had the same P.O. box all his life. He is married to Pia, whose father delivered him. He played the PGA Tour a little some 20 years ago, but a bad back eventually knocked him out for good. He took a club pro job close to home in Florida and discovered it was just what he had been looking for.
As he closed in on 50, he began thinking the what ifs of a million other guys. Suddenly, hes on the tour, won two tournaments, and last week played in the Senior Tour Championship as one of the top 31 money-winners this year.
Hes the guy down the street in a pair of jeans, old Chevy cap, and a beard. He won in Nashville, then at Napa Valley, and he can hardly believe its happened to him. The Nashville win alone paid him $240,000.
First of all, they have a pro-am and I took home free shirts, free balls, free seats, all kinds of stuff, said Rachels. I said, I just won a quarter of a million dollars. I dont need this stuff now. Where were you guys a year ago?
Rachels has a hard time believing it. He never will. Hes a country boy, and he never will get used to the champagne-and-caviar life.
Never, he said emphatically. I mean, I am not a secure player. Im not a confident player. I think Im a fairly confident person with who I am ' if that makes any sense.
But I think I could win five tournaments in a row, and the sixth tournament Im afraid Im going to duck-hook my tee ball. And thats the way I feel.
Rachels still doesnt have a club contract. This particular day, he was wearing a white shirt with an Adams Golf logo and a Titleist cap. He isnt paid to wear any certain brand, the shirt just happened to be clean ' not necessarily a prerequisite - and he grabbed it.
I use their irons, he said of Adams. But I dont get paid to play anything. Not a dime from anybody. They gave me shirts, and Im glad to wear them. Tour motto: if its free, get three.
His nearest neighbor lives in the Florida panhandle a mile from him. Its a quiet life, a good life, one not prone to make him supremely self-confidant in the world of big-time athletics. He thought the hillbilly life would be his life until he breathed his last. And then
I made myself not think of doing this until I was well past 49, he said. Im sure I was afraid I would fail. In a little pond, I could still be a big fish if the pond were small enough.
A couple of little club pro things there, I was still the guy to beat. But sustaining play for a whole week? My first tournament when I went back out to play for a week, I nearly died. Thats just because I played so little golf for so long. There were a lot of years when I would play 20 rounds in a year.
Rachels paused a moment to reflect on the good fortune that has befallen him this year. Could it really be? Naw, it couldnt really be ole Sammy.
Its not like I thought I couldnt win, but I just never entertained the thought that I could win a tournament on the Senior Tour, much less two of them, he said.
He didnt think he could win, but he thought he could earn lots of money by panhandle Florida standards. That would be, oh, about $50,000 or so a year. If he could make $100,000, he could live life like a king. So he would take the leavings for a couple of years and steal away into the night with whatever earnings he could before returning to the life of a little club pro.
I did think I could $10-20,000 em to death, said Rachels. Thats the prime area of motivation for doing it to begin with, was a mercenary attitude. I knew how much money I was making working. And I could make more than that very, very easily out here. You could come out here and make $400,000 a year and they would call you a failure. That was a lot of the logic I used to make me practice and play hard.
So he was shocked beyond belief to win not just once, but twice, against the Hale Irwins and Tom Kites and Tom Watsons. This is Sammy Rachels, gentleman hillbilly, not S. Tindol Rachels III, golfer extraordinaire.
You do that thing where you can be silent and thought a fool ' or you can speak up and confirm it. As long as I wasnt playing, I could still be real good. It gets easy not to play. You get a lot of respect, as long as you dont come out here shooting 80s all the time, he said.
Sammy and Pia turned and left Gaillardia Country Club and its rows of million-dollar homes. They had things to do. It was time to find a place to park the motorhome. Life is good when you dont require many things to clutter it up.