2005: Oakley’s Believe It or Not
As if he were mired in some bad movie, Pete Oakley stood on the 17th green at Hualalai Golf Club in the opening round of last week’s MasterCard Championship not believing what he was seeing. On a day when his peers on the Champions Tour were going low, Oakley watched yet another one of his putts graze the edge of the hole and somehow stay above ground.
As he dejectedly made his way off the side of the green, a friendly islander asked him how he was doing. “Not too good,” Oakley said. Then he paused and smiled. “But hey, it’s Hawaii.”
It sure was, and Oakley, the bantam, bespectacled 55-year-old former club pro, was right in the middle of the action. It wasn’t too long ago he was manning a pro shop counter at a place called The Rookery back home in Delaware, peddling balls and gloves to his members. Of course, that’s before he caught magic in a Claret Jug last July, holding off Tom Kite and Eduardo Romero to capture the Senior British Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
Talk about hitting the lottery. Now Oakley holds a ticket to stand on the same range hitting balls next to Tom Watson and Lee Trevino. He played a practice round last week with Gil Morgan. He was paired for two tournament rounds with Gary Player.
Shoot, he’s even got his own page in the 2005 Champions Tour media guide – wedged between Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer.
“I guess this is still going to take a little time,” said Oakley after struggling to an opening 75 on a day when 29 players in the select 37-man field broke par. Only one player, the 75-year-old Palmer, shot higher.
“It’s the first time I’ve been here, and all the stars are out,” he said sheepishly. He made a quick mental note. “That’s another thing I’ll try not to do this year: Stargaze.”
Truthfully, how could you not? Envision yourself as a little-known bit actor who toils for years in nondescript roles in some tiny community theater. Then one day Clint Eastwood invites you to be in one of his movies and you dash out to the mailbox to find you’ve been invited to the Oscars. Welcome to your new life on golf’s red carpet.
That’s basically Oakley’s real-life motion picture. Mind you, he’s not complaining about the chance to play no-cut events for guaranteed money every week. He’s just wrestling a little with his sudden fame.
Anything at all you miss about the pro shop counter, Pete? Anything at all?
“No, nothing I miss about the shop,” he shoots back quickly between pounding range balls. “Well, maybe one thing. The calmness of it compared to being out here. But I feel really blessed. I thank the Lord every morning.”
As name-driven as the Champions Tour has been through the years, it also has beamed a bright spotlight on its share of unwitting Walter Mittys. Who can forget the cigar-chomping Larry Laoretti hoisting the U.S. Senior Open trophy, or former steelworker Walt Zembriski making it big, or Tom Wargo going toe-to-toe with the Nicklauses and Weiskopfs of the world? Jim Albus made the move from the pro shop to the big time in the mid-1990s.
And today the Champions Tour has Dana Quigley, the latest
to evolve from club pro to bona fide star.
“He’s the ultimate,” an admiring Oakley said of Quigley. “He’s a stud out here.”
This time last year, Oakley was playing something called the Jerry Tucker Tour. But months later he wrote his own Ripley’s Believe It or Not chapter at Portrush, becoming the 10th player in Champions Tour history to go from open qualifier to champion in the same week. As great as it is to watch the Palmers and Players still competing, golf always can use a new story, and more than any other pro tour, the Champions Tour has provided the stage.
“That gives us a great accent,” Watson said. “They’re the spice of this tour in a lot of ways, because of the stories of how they got out here, how they won. There are always great stories when you have people come out like Pete Oakley. He has a smile on his face – and he should have a smile on his face. He’s playing golf for a living and he’s enjoying life . . . and he’s a heck of a player.”
There are certain traps Oakley must avoid as a newcomer to the Champions Tour, and we’re not talking about on-course bunkers. For starters, to go with his new introduction on the first tee (“Open champion”), Oakley was convinced he had to live up to new expectations with his game. So he began to tinker with his swing. This offseason he was in the midst of trying to set the club earlier, with more wrist cock, in hopes he would gain length. Fortunately, some of his old buddies talked sense into him.
“They told me, ‘You’ve been playing the way you’ve been playing for 55 years, and you’ve got to be an idiot to try and change that,’ ” Oakley said. “I was playing poorly (last fall), and I was trying to be somebody else. I just need to go ahead and hit my little low ball. I might not be able to go for all the pins these other guys go for, but that’s OK. I’ll be playing my game.”
Oakley’s caddie, Rob Dean, notes Oakley’s positive attitude helps him at least a shot per round, and he’s confident his player will be fine as he embarks on the best journey of his life. At the MasterCard, Oakley rebounded from his opening 75 with rounds of 69-72. Having worked for Laoretti and Wargo, Dean knows the inherent challenges an “outsider” such as Oakley faces in trying to break into this storied fraternity of legends.
“Pete doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Dean said. “Somewhere inside he knows he beat the best players in the world at the British Open last summer being just Pete Oakley. I hope that resonates. He doesn’t need to be anybody different.”
For now, being “just Pete Oakley” is a pretty cool gig.