Zoeller: When the laughter died

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Fuzzy Zoeller readies for his final Masters, site of 30 great years and one regretful day.

Fuzzy Zoeller was about to leave the champions’ locker room and tee off in the 2008 Masters when he entered the gaze of Arnold Palmer. The four-time winner asked his friend, “What in the hell are you doing?” Zoeller understood and wasn’t offended. “You’re exactly right,” he responded. “What am I trying to prove out there?”

Golf’s playful character from southern Indiana would miss the cut, as he has every year but one since 1998, and grasp that enough is enough. The addition of age to his body and yardage to Augusta National combined to eliminate fun, the staple of his modus operandi.

And so at 57, Frank Urban Zoeller Jr. will play the Masters for the final time next month. Daughter Gretchen, one of his four children and a former college golfer, will caddie. Three decades ago, in 1979, he got a “chill” driving down Magnolia Lane for the first time with his father. As electrical charges go, that was the appetizer. That week Zoeller became the only player to win in his first Masters appearance since year two, 1935.

Thirty years, a pair of nice familial bookends. In between were nine other top-25 finishes, countless stories told, jokes cracked and relationships forged. In between, too, were remarks aired in 1997 that scarred the golf funnyman and prompted Gretchen to say, “I think more people recognize him for those 30 seconds than for what he’s done for 30 years, and that’s really, really sad.”

One man’s lowest moment would come on the same turf as his highest. Though bottom was rooted there in what he calls a “joke that went bad,” Zoeller’s love for the place isn’t diminished. He values the 1979 Masters slightly more than his 1984 U.S. Open victory. Ask what Bobby Jones’ invitational means to him and he pauses and says, “Everything. That green coat is like a magic carpet.”

• • •

Tommy Tolles doesn’t remember what others do from April 13, 1997. He shot 67 the last round and finished third, 13 strokes behind Tiger Woods. Tolles called the round his “most memorable in golf.” The reason, he said, owes not to the score but the “royal” treatment from “present company.” Playing partner Zoeller shot 78 and fell to a tie for 34th, but you’d never know it by Tolles’ account.

“Fuzzy drew up a history of Augusta for me,” said Tolles, now 42 and a conditionally exempt but injured member of the Nationwide Tour. “It was a story that started on the first tee and ended on the 18th green. He knew everything, stories about so many players. He knew it was my first Masters, so he wanted to make it enjoyable. It was the most entertaining time I’ve ever had in golf.”

Tolles is among many who say Zoeller may have made more people feel good about themselves than any other golfer.

“I’ll only remember the 31/2 hours with him that day,” said Tolles, runner-up at the 1996 Players Championship. “While a lot of players wear their emotions on their sleeve, Fuzzy is whistling at 68 and at 78. And that day he treated me as royalty. I owe him more gratitude than I could ever imagine. I’d swing the club, put it in the bag and listen to the next story. He left me with so many memories.”

After the round, Tolles’ cheery-but-disappointed tour guide had about three vodka tonics and was eager to leave, according to a friend, when he was asked about Woods’ performance. Woods shot a record 270, won by 12 and became the youngest Masters champion.

Zoeller complimented Woods’ game, citing his excellent driving and putting, and said he was doing everything it takes to win. “So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here?” Zoeller said. “You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year (at the Champions Dinner). Got it?” He smiled and walked away before adding, “or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”

His remarks went unnoticed for about a week until a CNN editor reviewed the interview. Long known as one of the game’s comedic ambassadors, Zoeller was branded by some as a racist, and the furor was exacerbated when Woods, then 21 and with a different agent, didn’t respond to an apology for three days. The incident cost Zoeller loss of endorsement deals and inflicted emotional wounds.

Now, Tolles sees the matter in the context of time frames used in weighing a man’s character.

“It’s 30 seconds against 30 years,” Tolles said. “For me, it was about 3 hours, 30 minutes. Fuzzy could go on a mass-murder spree and I’ll remember how he treated me for 18 holes at Augusta National. But the general public didn’t see what he did for me. If that tape had been erased, you never would have had the 30 seconds; you’d just have the 30 years.

“I just wish it hadn’t involved Fuzzy Zoeller. He got a bad rap and has done so much for the game. No ill will was intended. It was blown out of proportion. I feel bad because no one came to his defense. They wanted to crucify him, and he was hung out to dry. . . . That’s not the person Fuzzy is. People outside of golf viewed that as upsetting. But that’s not who he is.”

• • •

When Zoeller took his power draw to power-draw-friendly Augusta National in 1979, his goal was to make the top 24. But after a few practice holes, he told Hale Irwin, “This course was laid out for me.”

What’s more, Zoeller was assigned caddie Jariah (Jerry) Beard, who starting in 1957, would loop there for a quarter century. Beard coached the rookie shot by shot. “He led me around like a seeing-eye dog,” Zoeller still says. The golfer’s faith was such that he never bent down to read a putt.

Zoeller had played well coming in, having won his first Tour title at the San Diego Open. That initial look and Beard’s knowledge increased his confidence. Seventy-four holes later, he defeated Tom Watson and Ed Sneed on the second hole of the tournament’s first sudden-death playoff, making an 8-foot birdie putt after an 8-iron approach from 150 yards at the 445-yard 11th.

When Zoeller’s ball came to rest on that green, Beard repeated what he had all week: He read the putt from the fairway. “That’s a right-edge putt,” Beard informed. “Concentrate on your speed.”

“He did that every time,” Zoeller marvels. “Every time. That’s pretty damn impressive – to stand there 180 yards or 150 away and the man’s telling you how the putt breaks.”

Sneed began Sunday five strokes ahead of Watson and six up on Zoeller. Zoeller looked like an improbable champion as late as 16 after Sneed, in the group behind, matched Zoeller’s birdie at 15. But Zoeller would birdie 17 and save par from 7 feet at 18 while Sneed bogeyed the last three on a pair of three-putts and a missed 6-footer.

Zoeller’s shot of the tournament was a 3-wood approach at 15, where he faced a 235-yard carry into a stiff wind. He pulled it off and made a two-putt birdie, but not before deliberation in the fairway. “I told him, ‘You gotta go if you want to win the tournament,’ ” recalls Beard, now 68 and a longtime waste-and-water operator at a local paper company.

Back then, an unwritten rule governed second-shot decisions at the 15th: If a player could see the fronting water, the green light was on and layup off. So Beard asked Zoeller if he could see water.

“Hell, no, I don’t see water,” Zoeller said.

“Get on my shoulders and tell me if you can see it now,” Beard responded before adding, “We gotta go.”

“All right,” Zoeller finally agreed. “Let’s go.”

That decision aligns with what Zoeller considers the foundation of his career. “I’m not scared to screw up,” the 10-time PGA Tour winner said. “Too many of these kids today are afraid they’re going to screw up. You can’t play this game scared.”

Zoeller and Beard remain united on why no other first-time contestant has won in the past 73 years. Beard says Tour caddies, who began working Augusta in the early 1980s, don’t read the greens as well as National loopers, adding, “That’s the whole key to the course.” Zoeller seconds the value of education. “There’s a lot of local knowledge, so there’s a positive in taking one of those caddies. To have that second opinion and know it’s right, there’s something to that.”

• • •

Fuzzy Zoeller also said this to Jerry Beard in 1979: “I’m gonna like this place. I won’t ever be unhappy here.” But remarks made on those same Augusta grounds 18 years later would make him unhappier than ever. Laughter turned to sorrow.

“I paid my severe price,” Zoeller says now. “It was a joke that went bad, and I’ll take it to my grave.”

He used two words in describing how he dealt with the pain: “Smiley face.” He has learned “time heals all wounds.” He says hee and Woods are “fine” and “friends.”

“I had pain that first week,” he said. “I couldn’t relate to that (perception of ill intention). I didn’t see it that way. It is what it is. I said it. I should’ve been a little bit more careful, but I didn’t think the way they thought. I still don’t to this day. But I paid it.”

Zoeller says he and black friends such as Jim Thorpe and Jim Dent on the Champions Tour “still joke all the time. They’ll say something and I’ll say, ‘Now remember, I did not say that.’ ”

Zoeller says he is more careful about what he says, and to whom. Friends and family see that more guarded person. And he sees a family that suffered. “The thing that upset me about the whole deal is what they were trying to do to my family,” he said. “That really pisses me off. My family was not involved in that.”

Daughter Gretchen, 25, said she and her three siblings were “looked at differently” and subjected to jokes about their father while in school. “They’d look at you and say, ‘You’re a racist as well,’ ” she said. “I’d say, ‘You don’t know me. How can you judge me?’ ”

She expressed more concern for the hurt her father absorbed.

“He doesn’t do anything bad,” she said. “So something like that kills you, knowing you didn’t mean anything bad. I think we lost a lot of that off-the-cuff Fuzzy because of it. I don’t think he’ll ever recover. He hasn’t changed as a person; he’s still the most unbelievable person who goes out of his way to do things for everybody. But I can tell he’s thinking every time he opens his mouth. He doesn’t want to feel like that again.

“I just wish he had stood up in 1997 and said, ‘I’m a comedian; it was a joke. I apologize and I’m moving on,’ instead of letting everyone crucify him.”

The man perceived as having made insensitive comments became the target of them. Though he remains a fan and sponsor favorite, he has heard “fried chicken” and “collard greens” slurs out of galleries.

“It always seems to be around the corner,” said his longtime caddie, Cayce Kerr. “It was a misdemeanor and they gave him a life sentence.”

Some suspect the furor would’ve been quashed quickly if Zoeller and Woods had the same management firm. Close pal Hubert Green, a Hall of Famer, calls the treatment of Zoeller an “absurd joke” and says the matter will “never be behind him.”

“If you talk to comedians, there’s a line you don’t cross, but sometimes you do cross it,” said Tour veteran Billy Andrade, who calls Zoeller his foremost role model. “And it really, really hurt him. But that’s not who Fuzzy is.”

Beard, who is black, also maintains his ex-boss “didn’t mean any harm. It was a joke. If he and Tiger had been playing, he might have said the same thing and they both would’ve laughed.”

• • •

When Fuzzy Zoeller won a mini-tour event in Savannah, Ga., years ago, his bar tab for those in the room was bigger than his prize money. A few years ago in Newport, R.I., a young fan asked for a glove and ball; Zoeller gave the kid his irons. Kerr says he has never heard Zoeller use the word “I,” and not once in “several hundred dinners” has the boss allowed him to pay.

He’s generous with playful barbs as well. Zoeller works a pro-am like Don Rickles and Rodney Dangerfield have worked a room. “There’s a reason you’re getting a stroke, Jimbo. . . . Bob, don’t ever give up the car business; play golf after work.” Banter and laughs run nonstop with amateur partners. He sings and hums through shots and whistles in between.

He just won’t bring that light-hearted touch to the Masters anymore. To the course anyway. The clubhouse is another matter.

“I’ll go back to the Champions Dinner and hang out,” Zoeller said. “I’ll be sitting up there with Arnold. You’ll see us. We’ll be up there BS-ing with everybody.”

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