He wasnt as successful in his career PGA Tour. He had to go through Monday qualifiers until the all-exempt tour came into effect in 1983, and he was a terrible qualifier. On those occasions when he actually got into a tournament, he usually did quite well. But it was an ordeal just battling his way past 100 guys to get into the starting lineup. And it was an ordeal just keeping the money when he did earn it ' many of his checks went straight through to the casinos or race tracks. I dont think I owed the whole check, said Thorpe, but I knew I had the money when I got there.
Jim Thorpe has had a dozen or so careers in his 53 years college football player, General Motors plant worker, golf hustler, mini-tour player, black-tour player, finally the PGA Tour, just to name a few. He made the big tour in 1978, even was co-medalist along with John Fought at the qualifying school.
In 1985, though, Thorpe was all aces when it came to his career with the PGA Tour. That year he was golden ' he won two tournaments (Milwaukee Open and the Seiko-Tucson Match Play Championship) and lost a third in a playoff (the Western Open).
The year had started on a discouraging note for Thorpe. The first part of the season, he had tendonitis in his left wrist. I told my wife if I make $50-60,000, enough to make the top 125, I was gonna pull up for the year, he says.
So when the month of August rolled around, Thorpe had almost won his $50,000. He would have to make four or five thousand in the Western Open the first weekend in August, and that would be it for 1985.
Thorpe didnt look like he was going to make it after a first-round 75. He went to see a doctor that evening and got a cortisone injection to ease the pain. But that was when his career suddenly took a turn from a one-way ticket home ' to the best year of his PGA Tour career.
Thorpe came back from the cortisone shot to blister the course for a 66, easily sufficient to survive the cut. And by the time Sunday morning rolled around, Thorpe had a six-shot lead on everyone except one amateur ' an Oklahoma State collegian named Scott Verplank.
It rained throughout the day Sunday ' Verplanks 21st birthday ' and Thorpe never could catch his younger opponent, who was the first amateur in 36 years to win a tournament. On the third playoff hole Verplank finally won. CBS television commentator Steve Melnyk said the pressure on Thorpe was much greater than Verplank.
As good a player as Scott is, Melnyk said after the win, nobody really expects an amateur to come out and beat the best players in the world. Plus, theres just so many things going through your mind when you finally get into a position (as Thorpe was) to win your first tour event.
Thorpe agreed. Im not trying to take anything away from him because hes a super player, he said, but there was no money on the line for Scott. It was a walk in the park for him.
Thorpe did win the first-place money of $90,000, but he was to get a nasty surprise when he went to Cherry Hills the next week for the PGA Championship. He thought the first-place money would qualify him, but he was mistaken. The PGA ruled that he was ineligible since he hadnt actually won the tournament (at the time one of the categories of eligibility was a win in the year prior to the tournament).
I understand there are rules, but the PGA of America had an exemption available, and I felt I had earned it as low pro at the Western, said Thorpe. Nonetheless, he was obligated to leave Denver and the PGA, but that just made him more determined for his next success.
That came the next month, at Milwaukee. This time, there wouldnt be anymore almosts. This time, Thorpe ended all speculation with a resounding win. The man he beat wasnt an amateur ' it was Jack Nicklaus.
Thorpe, with an Ace bandage strapped around his ailing left wrist, shot a 62 in the third round ' which included a 29 on the front nine. That was low enough to catch Nicklaus. Then he kept it up in the final round to defeat Nicklaus ' and everyone else in the field ' and win going away.
It was a little telling of Nicklaus the man that Nicklaus sidled up to Thorpe during the final round and gave a little encouragement.
I was really feeling the pressure the back nine, said Thorpe. Jack came over to me and said, Try and take it easy, Jim. It will all be over soon.
It helped relax me, and when we came up 18, he motioned for me to walk up to the green ahead of him. He wanted me to know that the cheers were all for me. I know he had to be disappointed in not winning, but he was thoughtful enough to think me. Ill never forget that.
Then it was on to Tucson the last week in October, and a victory over Jack Renner in the Match Play Championship. Thorpe remembers the struggle of playing through the field one-by-one. He won the Match Play again in 1986, making two of the three regular tour victories head-to-head battles.
He admitted it was due partially to his gamesmanship. Example? A 1985 match with Dan Pohl.
I had Herman Mitchell (Lee Trevinos longtime caddy) caddying for me, Thorpe said in a recent Golf Digest article. I was 3-up on Dan and giving him some lip. All of a sudden Dan reversed the gamesmanship and broke my concentration.
Next thing I knew, were dead even. On the 16th hole we both chipped to about two feet. He gave me the putt. I was about to do the same when Herman said, Jim, dont give him that.
So I just stood there. I could tell be Dans body language he was expecting me to tell him to pick it up. But I didnt give it to him, he missed it, and I ended up winning. Herman said, Man, thats your game, talkin and jivin, getting into peoples heads.
By the time 1985 was over with, Thorpe had made nearly $400,000 ' $54,000 for Milwaukee and $150,000 in Tucson to go with the 90k he won at the Western. That was good for fourth on the money list. But he also had something even more important ' a new attitude.
Hes not a nice guy on the golf course anymore, said his wife, Carol, at the end of 1985. I mean, hes congenial, but hes got the killer instinct in him that all the rest of the winners on tour have ' the intensity. He didnt have that before.
The Greater Milwaukee Open will be played again this week, but without Jim Thorpe - he has taken his game to the Senior Tour. But he will never forget what it was like to be on tour before 1985 ' and what it was like during three wonderful months in 85.
I talked to some people who think I should be pumped up or super happy about the year, but hell, I paid my dues, man, said Thorpe. I worked hard. Ive been on the road with no money. Ive been on the road with flat tires. You name it, and, you know, its happened to me.
So, when I won, it was a pleasant sight to see coming. But I really wasnt that surprised. All through the year I played on the tour, I played well enough to win. It was just that someone else played better.
But not at the end of 1985. For three months, Jim Thorpe was king of the golf world.
Jim Thorpe's Bio
Full Coverage of the 2002 Ford Senior Players Championship