Eddie Pearce: The fast life and hard times of 'The Next Nicklaus'
- By Jason Sobel
- Mar 12, 2013 1:00 PM ET
Eddie Pearce is speechless, which is a story in itself, because Eddie Pearce isn’t speechless often. No, the man known as Fast Eddie for his entire adult life didn’t earn the nickname because he works at a deliberate pace. Instinctively a people person, he claims, “I’ve never met a stranger in my whole life.” He’s quick with an anecdote and never shy with an opinion. At this moment, though, the words won’t come. He hems. He haws. A complicated answer is necessary, even for this simplest of questions.
“Do you have any regrets?”
It is a valid query to ask of a man who has lived Eddie’s life. Not that anyone else has. He is one in a million. Or maybe he’s just like the rest of us, which makes his story all the more fascinating.
You see, Eddie (pictured above right) was a golfer. Well, not just a golfer. The golfer. Sports Illustrated once deemed him “The Next Nicklaus." His buddies agreed with the magazine – and his buddies knew a thing or two about talent.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with as much talent as him,” says Ben Crenshaw, himself a two-time Masters champion. “Eddie had such a gorgeous, powerful swing. He could just hit the most beautiful shots you’ve ever seen.”
“Eddie had as much talent as anybody I’d ever seen,” agrees Lanny Wadkins, Pearce's teammate at Wake Forest and a 21-time PGA Tour winner.
“This was a guy who was going to win frequently and win majors,” maintains accomplished amateur Vinny Giles, who also served as his manager. “He was going to be one of the best players in the game.”
Forget the spoiler alert: It never happened. Eddie never became The Next Nicklaus. Hell, he never became Eddie Pearce, if you listen to the stories. He broke into the professional ranks with reckless abandon in every way imaginable. Others sacrifice a burgeoning social life for the good of their career. Eddie made no such sacrifice. He balanced both worlds equally – or more to the point, he produced a perfect imbalance.
Eddie never won on the PGA Tour, but he had a great time doing it. To this day, ask any contemporary about him and two images quickly spring to mind: He was more talented than any of them and he enjoyed the nightlife more than any of them. Those two images led to a third: He never lived up to expectations. As Wadkins says, “He was the can’t-miss kid who missed.”
Now pushing 61, Eddie thinks back to those years. The unfulfilled potential and near-misses, the wild parties and tales of revelry. He lived life on his terms, even if those terms ruined his career. All of it leads to one simple question today.
“Do you have any regrets?”
He pauses for a few moments, then attempts to offer a response.
“You know … I think it all comes down to …”
His voice trails off. Fast Eddie needs a minute to figure it out. He needs to review all those years that seem to have flashed by in a moment.
If Eddie Pearce wasn’t a golfer at birth, he became indoctrinated into the game soon afterward. His father, Wes, was a professional at Forest Hills Country Club, just outside Tampa, Fla., and by the time he could walk, little Eddie would join him at the course every day.
Back then, the course was owned by George and Babe Zaharias – the same Babe Zaharias who had earned All-America honors in basketball and won two track-and-field gold medals at the 1932 Olympics. Oh, she also happened to dabble a bit in golf, too, winning 41 career women’s professional tournaments, to this day making her among the most decorated players of all time.
All of which explains how as a toddler, wreaking havoc around the course on wobbly legs, the first time Eddie (pictured right at age 8) ever touched a golf club was when the Hall of Fame player placed a putter in his hands and joyfully let him smack a few balls around the Forest Hills greens.
Babe died when Eddie was just 3, leaving him no visual recollection of her impact on his young life. George remained as a “father-figure type of guy” and he, along with Eddie’s own father, helped create an early interest in the game that was easily forged by a swing unparalleled in his age group.
“I was good; I was really good,” Eddie says with no discernible cockiness. “I played my first tournament when I was 6 – the National Pee-Wee in Orlando at Rio Pinar. By the time I was 8 or 9, I probably played in five, six, seven tournaments, not counting local stuff. It was like a tour. Once I turned 10, I was traveling out of state. Every year I played the Future Masters, I won. I was a legend in that thing.”
Don’t take his word for it. Others can back those claims.
“He was so much better than everybody else,” says lifelong friend Phillip Reid. “He and his dad basically taught me how to play golf. He was like a little Tiger in that sense that he grew up playing. … I don’t want to say he was the Michael Jordan of golf, but some people just have that gift to play better than everyone else. He had that gift.
“You know that movie ‘The Natural’ about the baseball player? Eddie was golf’s natural.”
As he grew older, Eddie only separated himself from his peers. He was head and shoulders above the competition.
“He just made the game look so easy at such a young age,” claims Gary Koch, who played with Eddie back then and would later become a six-time PGA Tour winner. “He would win some of the junior tournaments by 10, 12, even 16 shots in two rounds. He looked like a little Tour player – the swing, the way he carried himself. It was pretty remarkable.”
If there were an official record of the best high school golf teams ever, the C. Leon King High School Lions of the late 1960s would rank near the top of the list. The team consisted of Pearce, Reid and another top amateur named Brian Hawke until they were joined in their junior year by Koch, who had just moved into the area from Sarasota.
“The very first high school match that I played in with them, our four scores were 31, 32, 33 and 34 for a nine-hole match,” recalls Koch, now a television analyst for NBC Sports. “So yeah, we were pretty good.”
Perhaps even more impressive is that the foursome did it without a true coach. Officially, the school’s head football coach held the position, but he didn’t know anything about golf. Instead, the team had a local dentist, Ralph Tennant, who served as chauffeur, chaperon, financier and caretaker. He also bought dinner for the boys at the same Italian restaurant after every victory, which turned out to be every match, because the team never lost.
In the state championship, the quartet tallied a two-day total of 579, a Florida record which stood for three decades.
How good were they? Through junior golf, a few of the team members were friendly with players from the Georgia championship-winning team in Columbus. The two teams decided to have a home-and-home series, with the Columbus kids first coming to Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club, home course of the King High squad.
“We beat them by 52 shots,” Pearce says with a laugh. “They didn’t even invite us back to their place, so that was the end of that. That’s how good we were as a team.”
Not that it was all work, no play. Far from it, in fact. While Reid, Hawke and Koch would beat balls at the range in preparation, Pearce would show up minutes before their tee time – and still beat 'em on the scorecard.
“He was like a god to us because he was that good,” Koch says. “It came very easy to him. I can remember when we were 15, 16, 17 years old. We’d be up early, practicing all morning, then go play in the afternoon. Well, Eddie would show up in time for lunch, hit 15 balls and beat every one of us easily.
“It started at a young age that the discipline and the work ethic that is needed for most mortals to succeed in pro golf never really got established.”
If Eddie was preparing himself for a PGA Tour career on the course, then he was similarly ready for that life off the course, as well.
“He was a pretty good ringleader as far as doing stuff that we shouldn’t have been doing,” Koch continues. “One day he organized his own personal skip day. We all skipped school – and of course, we all got caught. But for some reason, Eddie was like Teflon; stuff didn’t quite seem to stick. He would get caught, but he had a personality like Lee Trevino. Very outgoing, always smiling, always knew how to snow people over. We got caught red-handed, but somehow or another, he went to the principal’s office and got things squared away. We all got off scot-free.”
The other players may not have been Beaver Cleaver by any standards, but Eddie Pearce was the team’s own Eddie Haskell – if Haskell could hit a 1-iron 220 yards to a tucked pin.
When he was a junior in high school, Eddie started hanging out at Bardmoor Country Club, located not too far away in the town of Largo. The course was a gambler’s paradise. Men such as Leon Crump, J.C. Goosie, James Black, Bill Harvey and Martin “The Fat Man” Stanovich helped create an environment where money changed hands early and often – and plenty of it.
As a young prodigy, Eddie’s skills were recognized early. Lloyd Ferrentino, who ran the course, started backing him in matches. If Eddie lost, Lloyd would pay off the bet. If he won, though, Lloyd would give him a 40 percent share, which amounted to more than an allowance for a teenage kid.
In his senior year, Eddie had enough credits that he needed to take only one class, meaning he could be at Bardmoor by 9 or 10 every morning. Games usually ranged from $100-$1,000 bets, which meant that a good day on the course could net more than a little walking-around money.
There was one week in particular during which Eddie kept playing Stanovich in a series of matches. This was 1969 and The Fat Man, a much heralded hustler two decades earlier, was 52 and needed some strokes from the high school kid.
“We played for a solid week and he couldn’t beat me,” Eddie recalls. “My end of the 40 percent was around $22,000. I was cocky and knew what I could do.”
After the last of those matches – and with the $22,000 firmly in his pocket – Eddie retreated to the practice range to work on his bunker game. Within a few minutes, The Fat Man came by and asked for a chance to win some of his money back.
“Lloyd had told me not to get into side games with Stanovich,” he says, “but I was a really good bunker player.”
And so they started going shot for shot in a closest-to-the-pin competition.
“Martin said, ‘Let’s play some games in the bunker for $100 a shot,’” Eddie says. “Then it was $500, then $1,000. I was giving him 2-to-1. To make a long story short, I lost the 22 grand in about an hour. I was in shock. I go back to the clubhouse and Lloyd said, ‘You lost it all, didn’t you?’ That was just the culture, though. I just had to rebuild my bank.”
Not every talented young golfer was accustomed to that culture. On occasion, Koch would follow his buddy out to Bardmoor for a game, even against his better judgment.
“One time, things got a little interesting with the guys we were playing,” Koch remembers. “Lloyd Ferrentino would always ride around since he was backing us against whomever wanted to play. The game had been established – automatic 2-down presses. Well, we won the front nine, then Eddie made a birdie on 16 to go 1 up. We get to 17 tee and one of the guys we’re playing says, ‘We press.’ Eddie says, ‘You can’t; you’re only 1 down.’ Again, the guy says, ‘We press.’ So we look over at Ferrentino and he shakes his head no. ‘You can’t press 1 down.’ Well, the guy goes over to his bag and pulls out a handgun and says, ‘We press.’ So we look over at Ferrentino and he says, ‘OK, they can press.’ Showing how talented Eddie was, it had no effect on him at all. He went out and birdied 17 and 18 and we won the match and the press.”
Koch never again returned to the course, but Eddie simply shrugged it off as another day at the office.
“There were guns everywhere,” he says. “The guy thought I was hustling him, which I was. But that was the lifestyle. If you didn’t pay off, they’d hurt you.”
Eddie vividly remembers one instance where money never changed hands. In the clubhouse with Crump one afternoon, he was introduced to Tommy Bolt, winner of 15 career PGA Tour titles, including the 1958 U.S. Open, but known more for his vicious temper and vaunted club-throwing than anything else.
Upon hearing that Eddie was a formidable foe, Bolt challenged the youngster to a match.
“I was 8 under going to the 16th hole, which is a par 3. I’m already up about $1,800. I was drawing everything that day and drew another one to 8 feet on that hole,” he recalls. “Tommy said, ‘That’s it. We’re done. Get in the cart.’ I said, ‘Where are we going?’ He said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to play golf.’ Well, I laughed and said, ‘I’m pretty good right now.’ But he took me back and taught me how to fade the ball. The kicker to the story is that he stiffed me on the money. He said, ‘Chalk that up to experience – that’s your fee.’”
If experience is what Eddie was seeking at Bardmoor, he received it in spades.
The lessons on the course, though, were superseded by those off of it. Being at the club afforded him a chance to grow up quickly – maybe too quickly – by hanging around men of ill repute who were two and three times his age.
“I was around it all the time,” he says. “I would stay there and run errands for those guys. There would be bags of money sitting around, just bags of it. They had a guy named Michigan Slim running numbers. He had money stashed all over St. Petersburg. If he needed some, he’d ask me and I’d go to a house and pick up a paper bag with $30,000-$40,000 in it. That’s just what they did.”
As Koch realized even back then: “He became an adult early on, from gambling to drinking. It seemed to be easier for him to accomplish the types of things he shouldn’t be doing.”
As Eddie grew older, his legend grew larger. Not only did he have the reputation as a guy who could beat you on the course, he could beat you to the bar, too – not to mention out-drink you, stay out later than you and return the next morning to beat you on the course again.
In 1968, he won the U.S. Junior Amateur, joining a list that included the likes of Gay Brewer and Johnny Miller. Two years later, he was in contention at another prestigious event, the Eastern Amateur, not that a little thing like being in contention would slow him down at all.
“We had about a 10 a.m. tee time off the 10th tee,” Giles remembers. “Well, he came out about five minutes before our tee time, still had on a dress shirt with French cuffs and hadn’t hit a practice ball or been to bed. He teed it up on 10th tee, which was a par 5, and drove it 300 yards across a road that nobody could get to. Then he took a 6-iron and flew it 20 yards over the green, because he had no idea what he was doing yet.”
Eddie just laughs at the recollection. “I was up all night. They poured me out of the car onto the tee. I shot 31 on the first nine in that shirt, then I changed shirts and shot 35 – guess I probably shouldn’t have changed!”
Finishing his round some 90 minutes before the final group, Eddie figured he was done for the day and started partaking in his usual post-round celebration.
“I had three or four beers, then all of a sudden these guys are folding. I thought there was no chance of that, but I got into the playoff,” he says of joining Steve Melnyk, Tom Kite and Morris Beecroft in extra holes. “I couldn’t feel a thing, but I played in that playoff. I lasted two holes and that was it. Didn’t win.”
This was right around the same time he was graduating from King High School. While he never had plans to remain in college for four years, Eddie did enjoy taking spirited recruiting trips with his teammates to everywhere from the University of Florida to the University of Houston. Eventually swayed by every golfer’s idol of that era, he accepted the Arnold Palmer Scholarship to play at Wake Forest.
Rather than mail in his signature to the school, efforts were made to give the signing more attention. Both Palmer and Gary Player were competing in a PGA Tour event in Orlando and a member of the local Tampa chapter of the Kiwanis Club had set up a charity exhibition match between the two at Longboat Key Country Club the following Monday morning. Instead of a one-on-one match, Eddie and Koch were invited, with the past and future Demon Deacons comprising one team and the two Garys as the other.
“He had just turned 18, I was still 17,” Koch recalls. “It was pretty amazing – playing with arguably two of your heroes was a big deal. We were really nervous. Well, I was probably a lot more nervous than Eddie; he had played on bigger stages than I had.”
Despite the presence of two of the game’s legends, Eddie often wound up stealing the spotlight that day. There were many holes on which he outdrove all three of his playing partners – and one hole where he really made a splash. Literally.
“I hit it by the canal on this par 5 and we were even in the match,” Pearce says. “Arnold said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to hit it.’ So I took off my shoes and socks and climbed into this canal. I dug it out and hit it to 4 feet, then made birdie to win the hole.”
Player and Koch won the match when the former eagled the final hole, but Eddie may have left the most lasting impression that day.
“I remember both of them saying to Eddie, ‘We look forward to seeing you on Tour,’” Koch maintains. “Not sure I ever heard that, but Eddie certainly did.”
Long since having grown accustomed to being the most talented player wherever he competed, Eddie enrolled at Wake Forest and found himself among a triumvirate of incredibly skillful players, including Jim Simons and Wadkins, who would finish T-5 and T-13, respectively, at the 1971 U.S. Open while still playing collegiately.
He had no interest in remaining there too long, though, and despite pleas from Palmer, Eddie (pictured right at age 20) left school after his sophomore year. Figuring he was good enough to join the PGA Tour immediately, he went straight to Q-School. When he didn’t make it, “that slipped me into a coma.” He soon joined the Tampa-based National Tournament Golfers Association, which was believed to be the first mini-tour anywhere in the country.
Competing alongside the likes of Tom Kite, Andy North and Calvin Peete, his ball-striking prowess remained while other parts of his game stalled.
“Ray Charles was a better putter,” says Frank Reynolds, who helped run the tour at that time. “I don’t know if it was the yips or what, but he just couldn’t get the putter online to get it to the hole.”
In particular, Reynolds recalls one round at Orange Tree Golf Club in Orlando. Eddie hit all 18 greens in regulation that day, including reaching one of the par 5s in two. He finished with an 81.
Normally, though, putting woes didn’t seem to affect his score that much. As proof, Eddie returned to Q-School prior to the 1974 season with his buddy Crenshaw, initially to first stage in Pensacola, Fla., then final stage in Myrtle Beach, S.C. If this had been Bardmoor, the two of them would have won a hefty amount of cash. Crenshaw finished first and Eddie was close behind in second, each of them with his card secured for his rookie campaign.
Even against stiffer competition, the superlatives came quick and easy. Other players were in awe of what Eddie could do with a golf ball – especially with his long irons, producing high-arcing blasts that evoked visions of Nicklaus.
“You could throw a ball down on a concrete road and give him a 1-iron and he’d pop it right onto a green 220 yards away,” Giles says wistfully. “You’d just shake your head and go, ‘How the hell can he do that?’ He was just that good.
“Crenshaw was in the same class with Pearce, but quite honestly – and Ben is a good friend of mine – Eddie was a better player than him.”
Wadkins got a first-hand look at those talents during their one year at Wake Forest together and was blown away with what his teammate could do.
“He was the first person I ever saw who had the ability to hit it 30 yards more off the tee anytime he wanted to,” he recalls. “He was a big, strong guy with a handsy golf swing, but he could really, really hit it. He could flight it, he could hit shots, he was a good driver of the ball. I didn’t see any weaknesses in his ball striking.”
It wasn’t long before the rest of the PGA Tour would come to understand that about Eddie Pearce, too.
It’s one thing to not own the talent or the nerves or the necessary intangibles needed to win golf tournaments. It's quite another to own all three and simply never see them come to fruition in the winner’s circle.
Eddie may have made his own luck on the golf course, but he was particularly snakebitten, even dating back to his amateur years. At the 1971 U.S. Amateur, he was standing next to Crenshaw behind the 18th green at Wilmington Country Club, already done with his round and trailing by one stroke with the leader on the final hole. That leader was Gary Cowan – who just happened to also be Eddie’s roommate for the week.
They watched as Cowan hit his drive into a fairway bunker, only to see it hop into the trees, nestled in some dense rough. Some 150 yards from where the ball rested, Crenshaw whispered to his buddy to get ready for a Monday playoff. Already trying to plan which slacks he would wear, Eddie watched as Cowan hit a 9-iron well short of the green that bounced and bounced and rolled and rolled and somehow, inexplicably, dropped into the hole. Forget bogey for a playoff. It was an eagle to seal a three-stroke win.
“Talk about getting hammered, that night was unbelievable,” Eddie remembers. “That was a great win for him, but he had to carry me up the stairs afterward.”
It was a feeling to which Eddie would become accustomed throughout his career – losing in dramatic fashion and being carried upstairs.
His first event as a full-fledged PGA Tour member was the 1974 Hawaiian Open. Eddie would have won that week, joining an exclusive list of players to triumph in their first tournament after Q-School. Would have – except for one little problem.
“Jack Nicklaus wasn’t even supposed to be playing that year,” he says. “Barbara wanted a painting from Hawaii or something, so he said, ‘I might as well play.’ Would have changed my life if he hadn’t.”
Indeed, the man deemed “The Next Nicklaus” finished next to Nicklaus.
Later that year, Eddie opened with scores of 68-68 at the Tallahassee Open to trail leader Allen Miller by two strokes entering the weekend. Well, Friday night his high school teammate, Phillip Reid, who had played for the golf team at nearby Florida State, invited him to his house for a night of debauchery.
“I won’t tell you what happened there, but we had a party, let’s put it that way,” Reid says. “We ate dinner, drank a few beers and I took him back to where he’s staying. The next morning I went to Panama City and somehow his clubs came with me. They were in the trunk. I didn’t even know about it until we started unpacking stuff.”
No problem. Using borrowed clubs, Eddie posted a 2-under 70 that day, then got his sticks back from Reid before the final round and claimed another runner-up finish.
For his rookie season, he finished a respectable 43rd on the money list. The next year, he came in 39th. If you look at only the numbers, he was well on his way to a long, successful PGA Tour career. Eddie’s potential, though, was always based on much more than numbers.
There are 1,000 ways to explain how Eddie Pearce enjoyed the nights of being a professional golfer even more than the days, but none can put it as succinctly as his friend Roger Maltbie, who says, “Eddie did whatever the heck Eddie felt like doing at that particular moment.”
That often included doing things that most of his peers would never consider, let alone attempt.
In his rookie season, Eddie played the PGA Tour event in Las Vegas – his first journey to the City of Sin. As was usually the case with him, evening turned into night and night turned into dawn. This time, dawn turned into daytime and Eddie was still partying.
“I was at the casino all night, just drinking and having a great time,” he remembers. "I started gambling, playing the dice, playing blackjack. Before you know it, it didn’t make any sense to me, but I see [PGA Tour official] Jack Tuthill. At that point, I’d had the dice in my hands for 18-20 minutes, so I was up big time. He said, ‘What are you doing? Do you know what time it is? It’s 11:00.’ Well, I was supposed to tee off at 8:30. I said, ‘You see these chips? This is a lot more than the prize money in the tournament.’ I gave him a $500 chip and said, ‘This should cover my fine.’
“I didn’t know what else to do. He just shook his head. Nobody could do anything with me. People tried, but I was just impossible.”
Wadkins, his college teammate, blames the lack of an authority figure. There was no coach, no father figure to look after him on the road and Eddie always gave into the temptation of the nightlife.
“When he did leave to turn pro, he had no one to sit on him,” Wadkins maintains. “You take a guy who is a little immature to begin with – probably a lot immature – and into drinking and smoking weed and stuff, I think his life was just too out of control.”
Eddie contends that he was more enamored with drinking than any illegal drugs.
“It was the '70s, there was a lot of that around,” he says. “[Marijuana] was available, but that wasn’t my problem. My problem was the hours, and the lack thereof, and the Dewar’s. I drank a lot of scotch.”
How much? Well …
“I once drank a 100-year-old bottle of scotch coming back from England,” he admits. “What would that be worth? I had it on me and it was a five-hour flight. I ended up drinking the whole bottle. It was good! When we landed, they just kind of helped me off the plane.”
“Eddie would say, ‘I like this wine, bring us every bottle you’ve got,'” Reid recalls. “And so we’d sit there and drink every bottle and enjoy ourselves.”
As part of his duties as manager and friend, every few months Giles would sit down with Eddie and explain how things were getting too out of control. Eddie would nod, he’d agree, he’d say all the right things. And later that night, he’d be right back in the nearest bar.
“Eddie never turned down a party,” Giles says. “He was a free spirit in an era where if you had his talents, he was going to always have a lot of temptations out there – people pulling at him, wanting to be around him. Eddie wasn’t very good at saying no. They had a lot of temptations out there and he never turned down much of a temptation. He loved to party and have fun.
“If you pick one thing, he had a tremendous lack of self-discipline.”
In modern-day golf, professionals are said to be on the same team only if their super-agents have negotiated multi-million-dollar contracts to wear the company's clothing and play like-minded equipment. Back in the 1970s, it meant something completely different.
As Giles says of Eddie and Maltbie, a five-time PGA Tour champion and current NBC television analyst: “They were on the same cocktail circuit.”
Not surprisingly, that relationship produced more than its fair share of tales of carousing over the years. Anyone who has spent a night tossing down a few drinks with Eddie seemingly has a few stories and perhaps Maltbie is simply the best storyteller of that varied bunch.
He tells of one time when they were playing an event in Hattiesburg, Miss., and decided to hit a local watering hole early in the week.
“There was a place called Cash McCool’s,” he remembers. “There were brick walls all inside this place. For five or 10 bucks, you came in and bought your glass for the evening, then you could fill it up all night. Well, Eddie had already gotten a head start on the evening before he got there. We get in and we’re watching him. He pays his money, but it doesn’t register that he gets to fill it up. He says, ‘All I get is this glass?’ And he throws it against the wall. So the cops came and they took him downtown.”
As it turns out, Eddie was scheduled to play with the local judge in the next morning’s pro-am and they had already struck up a friendly relationship. So with his one phone call, Eddie rang his pro-am partner, who without hesitation sprang him from jail.
“An hour later,” Maltbie says with a laugh, “he was back in the bar!”
Turns out, that judge was a decent contact to have. A few days later, Eddie needed him again.
“I’m leaving town and I’ll be damned if I didn’t get pulled over for speeding,” he says. “I give the cop a driver’s license from another state, but it’s suspended and I go back to jail again. So I called the judge and he said, ‘I’ll be down there in a minute.’ He had to get me out twice in the same week.”
Somewhere, the principal at King High would have smiled to himself at this story. Eddie Haskell lives on.
There was another time in Hattiesburg when Eddie was going to play a money match during a practice round with Maltbie, George Cadle and Frank Conner.
“Eddie had gotten lit up the night before,” Maltbie recalls. “He gets to the first tee and he’s hungover, looks like he’s about to pass out. So we go, ‘Who wants Eddie?’ The other guys didn’t want to play with him, so I said, ‘I’ll take him.’ So we’re on the first tee and he tops one about 60 yards. We’re just laughing at him. Then we get to the next hole and he pops it up. Again, we’re just laughing and giggling. Well, then he goes out and birdies the next seven holes, shoots 62 and we just drilled 'em.”
The story elicits a throaty chortle from Maltbie, but comes attached with a warning: “If you think that was good, you should hear the ones I won’t tell you!”
If this were a movie, now is the time when the soundtrack would gradually dissolve from “Gimme Shelter” to the more indulgent “Ruby Tuesday.” It would be too poetic to compare the story of Eddie Pearce to a shooting star flickering across the sky, yet too casual to dismiss it as another quaint tale of wasted talent.
Eddie was a skillful player – perhaps the most skillful of his generation – but it never translated into a successful career. In 1979, he claimed his fourth of four runner-up finishes on the PGA Tour. By 1980, he couldn’t crack the top 200 on the money list, earning just $2,343.50; one year later, he won $2,653.50.
Making his 1982 season debut at the PGA Tour stop in Orlando, Eddie posted an opening-round 66, then went to a nightclub that night.
“I got hammered and went walking through a rock garden. I got in there and started running for something and slipped and fell,” he recalls. “That was the last year I played.”
A broken arm may have provided the excuse for an early retirement at the age of 30, but a noticeable lack of desire was the real career killer. From the time he was a teenager, Eddie understood that certain temptations were counteractive to his performance, but those temptations still won out every time.
“There’s no question he liked the nightlife,” Crenshaw maintains. “I think he knows how he hurt himself for that long period. It was something that he battled. We could certainly see it; we sympathized with him. All I can tell you is we saw the shots he hit and it was better than anybody could conjure up. … It was sad to see his desire wane and go away.”
“He was young enough and obviously good enough that you thought at some point, he’s going to say, ‘Screw this, I’ve got to grow up and mature; this is the goal I have and where I want to be,'” Maltbie says. “But that never happened.”
Even if the years of partying didn’t directly cause his downfall, he can point to the process by which it took its toll.
“I just kept doing it and doing it and doing it,” Eddie admits. “Finally, it got to the point where it started to affect my game – especially my putting, because of my nerves. I didn’t have a handle on my game enough to fix it, because everything I’d ever done was natural. So I started working with people, then I started thinking more and that was completely my downfall. I had never thought about swing planes before. I just hit the ball. And so the more I thought about stuff, the worse I got.”
As Maltbie says remorsefully, “Just all of a sudden, he was gone.”
During his playing days, Eddie was sponsored by a Ford dealership in Orlando that was run by “some really good guys.” He liked them, they liked him. More importantly, they liked what they saw in him. He was personable, affable and an innate salesman.
Now retired from the game – “When I quit,” he maintains, “I gave away my clubs and didn’t play any golf” – he needed to enter the workforce with a real job. The former sponsors at Ford got him involved in a San Diego-based company that would assist car dealerships in becoming more profitable.
“I skyrocketed pretty quickly and became a sales manager my first year,” Eddie says. “I’d take over dealerships, turn them around and move on.”
Sometimes he stayed for a month or two. Other times, if he liked the town, he’d stay for longer. Eddie and his third wife, Linette, to whom he’s still married, took a liking to Corpus Christi, Texas, and remained there for three years. While they lived there, he befriended a man named Gary Ganain, who knew all about his playing days. Unbeknownst to Eddie, Ganain applied to the U.S. Golf Association seeking to regain his amateur status, even going so far as to forge his name on the documentation. Eddie got his status back and Ganain got a partner for his club’s member-member in 1988.
It was the first time in six full years that he had touched a golf club.
Pretty soon, Eddie realized that his ball-striking prowess never left him during that absence. Little by little, he got the bug again. He started playing more – and he started playing better.
It wasn’t until his father grew ill with lung cancer, though, that Eddie decided to make any kind of comeback. Wes was the man who watched him whacking putts with the Babe at Forest Hills and saw him win those junior tournaments by double-digit margins and knew better than anyone else in the world what kind of talent Eddie possessed.
He asked his son to give the PGA Tour another try. One last wish from a dying father.
“Linette told me, ‘We can’t sit here and woulda, coulda, shoulda ourselves,” he recalls. “So I tried it and hit a few balls, played a few Ben Hogan Tour events, then went to Houston for Q-School.”
It didn’t come as easy as it had a decade earlier, when he and Crenshaw cruised through Pensacola and Myrtle Beach to claim their cards. There were flatbellies who could hit it a mile and youngsters armed with swing coaches and mental gurus. Eddie had to grind it out, fight for his dream. Or perhaps more accurately, fight for his father’s dream.
He needed to make two birdies on the final four holes at The Woodlands in order to reach the PGA Tour again. And you know what? The man who was so snakebitten throughout his career, who lost to 9-irons from deep rough and lost to players who weren’t supposed to be in the field and lost to guys who weren’t using borrowed clubs, finally didn’t feel the pain of rejection.
At 42, Eddie Pearce was a PGA Tour member once again.
“It’s a phenomenal story,” Giles beams. “He hadn’t played in any competition for every bit of a decade, then really came from nowhere to qualify. If you’d had Las Vegas making odds, I’d hate to think what the numbers would have been.”
It was just like the old days. Ironically enough, Eddie’s first start came at the Hawaiian Open – on the very same course where he finished runner-up to Nicklaus in his first start as a PGA Tour member 19 years and an entire lifetime earlier.
Before the tournament started, he played a practice round with Crenshaw, Wadkins and Payne Stewart – three of the game’s superstars – just a few years removed from playing the member-member with Gary Ganain.
“All of us were so excited when he re-qualified for the Tour,” Crenshaw remembers. “It was just like turning the clock back 30 years. It was just great to see.”
“There were a couple of flashes,” Wadkins says. “I actually thought he might still be able to play.”
It was too late, though. While Eddie had settled down by this time in his life, the lack of desire was still palpable when he played.
“When he got his Tour card, he fulfilled his obligation to his dad,” says Don Greenberg, who caddied for him during parts of that season. “That was very big for him. Everything beyond that was gravy.”
While he may not have been staying up through the night at casinos or crashing in nightclub rock gardens, there was still a semblance of the old Eddie that existed.
“He told me he had stopped drinking,” Greenberg recalls of a time they were leaving the PGA Tour’s venue in Houston to head back to the hotel for the night. “A few minutes later, we pull into a convenience store and he’s got a six-pack of Michelob. I said, ‘I thought you just said you stopped drinking.’ He said, ‘Yeah, hard liquor. This is just beer.’ Well, that six-pack disappeared in the 20-minute drive between the course and the hotel.”
Greenberg remained on the bag for about two or three months, but decided to call it quits after an incident at TPC-Avenel.
“We had a decent first round, then on Friday morning, the phone rang in my hotel room,” Greenberg says. “He said, ‘Greeny, bring your plane ticket to the course. Delta has a kiosk there.’ So once we’re playing the round, we’re going along well and Eddie birdies one of the toughest holes on Tour. He was going to be well inside the cut line. Well, the next hole is a ridiculous par 5. We go up this long staircase and he says, ‘Give me the driver.' I say, ‘There’s no place to hit a driver. This is a layup, then another layup.’ He says, ‘Give me the driver.’ So I give it to him and he hit it into the condos, about 80-90 yards out of bounds – and he was happy. He took double or whatever and it was like a weight was off his shoulders. He was just having a great time. Eddie just wanted to go back to Tampa.
“That didn’t sit well with me at all. I wasn’t going to bust my ass for a guy who wasn’t going to try on every shot in every event.”
If it sounds like Eddie wasn’t comfortable playing on the PGA Tour again and trying to compete full time, he wasn’t.
“When I look back, I never should have been out there,” he claims. “It was a mulligan for me, but it showed me how good those guys were. Maturity-wise, I was a different guy compared to the '70s, but the things that those guys do with a golf ball, I just wasn’t ready for it.”
He made just six cuts in 27 starts, with a best finish of 39th place. Eddie Pearce would play in one final PGA Tour event two years later in 1995, then that was it. His career was over. Again.
Now approaching his 61st birthday (March 16), Eddie is out of golf – for good this time.
He remains in the automobile industry, now in his fifth year as the general sales manager at Toyota of Henderson, just outside Raleigh, N.C. It may not be the life once predicted for “The Next Nicklaus,” but Eddie and Linette enjoy living in Youngsville and occasionally traveling to a place they have in Tennessee.
He still plays golf “about three or four times a year,” but says impending hip surgery is even limiting those numbers these days. Ask about retirement and he just laughs, as if everyone else has done it the wrong way.
“The way I look at it,” he says, “is that I was retired until I was 32, then I started working.”
He holds no jealousy toward any of his old buddies. Gary Koch, the guy who couldn’t beat him as a kid. Ben Crenshaw, the guy who didn’t own as much talent. Lanny Wadkins, the guy who couldn’t hit it nearly as far. Each has made a life for himself within the golf industry, the kind of guys who – in specific settings – still get hounded for autographs and asked to relive their glory days.
The only autographs Pearce signs are those on sales orders at his dealership. He is rarely asked to relive the old days, but when he is, Eddie is quick with an anecdote. That is, until a certain question comes up.
“Do you have any regrets?”
Fast Eddie is speechless for a few seconds, gathering his thoughts, trying to find the right words.
“You know … I think it all comes down to …”
He pauses again. Just for a few seconds, enough to make you think he really doesn’t know whether he has any regrets.
Then he speaks.
“Yeah, sure I do. Absolutely. I think the biggest regret is that I let down a lot of people. Every time I got knocked down, I landed on my feet, but I let a lot of people down who had a lot of confidence in me. People who had a lot of time invested in me, people who had great concern for me.
“As far as personally, though? I had a great time living that life. I lived it 120 percent. Man, I had a good time.”
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