After a hardscrabble life as a Tour journeyman, Augusta's own Jim Dent hit it big and paid it forward
By the mid-1980s, the PGA Tour was in its waning days as a traveling circus, and Jim Dent was doing a slow fade himself. In '86, Dent, a son of black Augusta, played 29 weeks and made $34,342. He continued to hit it long, but so what? He had never won on Tour, and he was closer to broke than flush. Still, for 15 years or more, Dent played the tour, a meaningful phrase in his day, when the Tour was an unending road game and a way of life. He was a survivor of long odds and already half a legend, and his unlikely second and third acts were still to come.
He had a childhood from a lost time. He was born in a farmhouse in the countryside outside Augusta and grew up in a shotgun shack on a narrow street near the city's downtown, a wood structure with a metal roof that summer storms turned into a pounding drum.
His family owned a piece of land that today is part of Champions Retreat Golf Club. (It was sold for a song, long before the course came around.) The Dents raised and slaughtered hogs. They hunted and fished and grew fruits and vegetables. Jim Dent, country strong all his life, chopped a lot of wood.
His mother died when he was a young boy, and his father died about six years later. (Tom Dent's funeral arrangements were handled by kin at Dent's Undertaking Establishment.) With his parents gone, he was raised by an aunt, and by golf. He learned to play as a caddie at Augusta Country Club and Augusta National, where he worked a half-dozen Masters. He could play those private courses, at least now and again. The Augusta Municipal Golf Course, he could not, not in the '50s. The Patch, as it is known, wasn't open to blacks then. Years later, in Act III, he tried to buy the place.
Gradually through the '60s, Dent started playing tournament golf, and in '69 he won the National Negro Open. (Hubert Green was in the field; the tournament was open to anybody.) His first traveling partner as a Tour rookie in '71 was Pete Brown, a four-time winner of the National Negro title himself. Brown also won the 1970 Andy Williams--San Diego Open. (That victory did not carry with it an exemption into the Masters.) Traveling between stops, Pete liked to sleep and Jim liked to drive. A perfect match.
"Big Boy," as Dent was widely known on Tour, was a large and dark-skinned man, with a flat nose and reddish cheeks. He had possibly the least sinister mustache in the history of facial hair, but he was prone to spells of deep grumpiness. He was particularly tough on caddies, complaining about yardages and leaving clubs wherever. Also, he'd moan about bounces, a trait that will never endear you to your fellow players. But he didn't have a mean bone in his body, and he was always welcome in caddyshack card games. Players loved talking with him. Jim Dent -- you can't buy a blunter name -- had that gift for getting to the nub of things: Tour purses, unfair pin placements, off-course scandals. Got down on it indeed.
His birthdate was a point of confusion. For years the annual PGA Tour media guide listed the date as May 11, 1942. Then, for the 1983 edition, it changed to May 11, 1939. Later it became May 9, 1939. He played the first round of his senior tour career on May 12, 1989, in a three-day event in suburban Philadelphia. He was tied for the lead after two rounds but finished three shots out of a Chi Chi Rodriguez--Dave Hill playoff, which Hill won. Dent made $21,800. Act II was under way.
In his years on the regular Tour, Dent drove a balata ball with a wooden wood prodigious distances. His natural shot was a baby fade from a closed stance that Hogan would have surely recognized. His power seemed effortless, and his enormous hands were softer than your childhood pillow. He was fast getting to the ball and stood over it for an eyeblink. Trying to figure out why he never won on Tour, caddies and players would cite his haste and wondered if he had the head for tournament golf. By that logic he became some sort of genius when he got on the senior tour. He won six times in his first two years and 12 times in his first 10. In the 22 years he played the Champions tour, from 1989 to 2010, he won more than $9 million. He made millions more from Callaway, in endorsement money and stock options. Can you imagine a better second act?
I've covered some of Dent's tournaments. I've caddied in groups in which he was playing, and almost 30 years ago I made one long-haul drive with one of Dent's caddies. What I'll say here is what anybody who has ever stood on a Tour driving range will tell you: Golf will never see the likes of Jim Dent again.
Pete and Margaret Brown live on the outskirts of Augusta. To get to their house from downtown, you drive by Augusta National on Washington Road, make a right on Furys Ferry, a left on Evan-to-Lock, turn on a smaller road, then a dirt road, and before long you have arrived at a three-acre clearing with two houses on it. Both are owned by Dent. When I was there, on a spectacular late-February day, a boxy Mercedes was parked in front of one of the homes, a large late-model, two-story dwelling. Dent has seven children (from two marriages and one relationship), and one of his daughters lives in that house with her husband. On the edge of Dent's property, and surrounded by wilderness, is a small, one-story house with a dormant driveway. That's where Pete and Margaret live. Jim Dent is the Browns' landlord, but only in a manner of speaking.
For years the Browns -- Pete and Margaret and their six daughters -- lived in a lively modern home in the Baldwin Hills section of Los Angeles. Dent was often a visitor, looking for glimpses of Ike and Tina Turner on his way. (Baldwin Hills was known as the black Beverly Hills.) The Browns lost that house, and everything in it, in a fire in 1979. They moved to Dayton, where Pete became a club pro. While there, two daughters died of cancer. The medical bills were overwhelming. The emotional costs were worse. Mrs. Brown says heartache contributed to a series of strokes her husband has endured, and today Mr. Brown is pretty much bedridden.
The Browns married when Margaret was 17 and Pete was 19, kids from different sides of Jackson, Miss., and almost 60 years later it's obvious that Mrs. Brown worships Mr. Brown and their life together. He moans, and she comes running. Her spirit is indomitable. Guests, doctors and visiting nurses are always struck by it, and it inspires Dent every time he returns to Augusta from his home outside Tampa. The Browns have been living in that house, at no charge, for two years now, courtesy of Dent. He has invited them to stay there for the rest of their lives.
The interior, tidy and comfortable, is decorated with little lighthouses. On one wall is a portrait of Jesus, with dark-brown skin. On another is a painting of Augusta National's 12th green, which Dent last putted on in the '60s, on a caddie day. Various shelves house paperback novels, some tournament memorabilia, a few photo albums. Mrs. Brown was thumbing through one of them when she said, "Dent's been so good to us." That's how she and Pete refer to him. "He's been a wonderful friend."
On a living room shelf is a bound copy of an interview that Rhonda Glenn, a longtime USGA media official, did with Mr. Brown in 2011. Soon after their sessions, Glenn told one of Dent's longtime golf friends, Jerry Osborne, about the Browns' financial and medical conditions. Osborne called Dent. Dent called the Browns and offered the house. "Time to get out of the cold," he told them. "Won't be no snow in Augusta." The moving costs came to about $6,000. Tiger Woods sent a letter and a check for $3,000. When Glenn called Dent to laud him for his generosity, he was almost speechless. She was struck by his deep humility.
Mrs. Brown led the way from the living room to Mr. Brown's bedroom. He'll be 80 next year. He was once enormous, but age and illness have exacted their toll. His body is in pain, but his mind is clear.
I asked Mr. Brown what his life was like in Jackson in the '40s and '50s. "It was not a good place to grow up," he said. "You were limited in what you could be and where you could go." He imagined Dent's boyhood in Augusta was about the same. I asked him if he had ever been to Augusta National. He hadn't, and he had no use for the place, too old and ill to bother with false niceties. When I asked him about Dent's days on the Tour, Mr. Brown said he was hurt by impatience and a lack of concentration. He said Dent was indifferent to practice. He remembered his moodiness. But if Jim Dent left any ill will in his wake, Pete Brown didn't know about it. "Everybody loves Dent," he said.
Jim and Willye Dent, a lawyer, have been married for nearly 25 years, and 18 years ago, when they were not kids, they adopted a newborn girl from the Bahamas. Four years later they adopted twin newborn boys from Florida. Dent continues to drive his kids to school, to lessons, to church. He will accept no praise for giving these kids the lives they have. "My aunt took me in," Dent said. "All we're doing is the same -- paying it forward. We're having fun."
He wants nothing for his remarkable third act. He doesn't want a plaque for adopting these three kids. He doesn't want a testimonial dinner for the gifts to his church, Revealing Truth Ministries. He certainly doesn't want to be recognized for giving the Browns a place to live. You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.
"Pete was a hell of a man, a strong man," Dent said. "You wouldn't find a better man than Pete in the day. To me, to give something back to somebody, it makes me feel good."
We were sitting in the grillroom at Rogers Park, a city course in Tampa that Dent likes to visit, sometimes to play or use the range, but more often for the card games. It was a stormy Monday in mid-March. A lot of Dent's stories are from a Tour that no longer exists, populated by black players and caddies, many of them from Augusta, Jackson and Dallas. Dent remembered the good times he had playing night golf with Brown on a lighted par-3 course in Jesse Owens Park in Los Angeles, Brown using a home-bent 60° wedge long before Tom Kite made the lob wedge famous.
He's astute. When he couldn't come up with Rickie Fowler's name, he said "that kid they're trying to turn into a superstar." You could see how his mind thought in images. Talking about Steve Elkington's inane tweets, he put his finger to his tongue like he was dipping a pen in ink. Talking about a wealthy banker at Augusta National for whom he caddied, he adjusted a phantom tie.
Dent recalled his experiences caddying in the Masters, working for Bob Rosburg, Bob Goalby, Marty Furgol and Frank Stranahan, who wouldn't let him touch his grips. "He was afraid I might get grease on them." He said when he caddied for members at Augusta National, he was called boy, but it never bothered him. But when the caddies in their 50s, 60s and 70s, all of them black, were called boy, Dent wondered, "When they gonna become a man?"
Dent goes to the Masters most years, but he wasn't there for what he considers maybe the greatest tournament, when Tiger won his first green jacket, in '97. "Going out in 40 on Thursday, and winning by, what, 12? Sheet." Three years later, Dent said, "Tiger had the perfect swing -- the Hogan swing. Now his swing is all over the place." He says Woods lost an important piece of himself when he made a public apology in 2010 for his serial infidelity. "He should have held his head high," Dent said, noting other famous players with fidelity issues who felt no need to make a camera-front mea culpa.
"I wouldn't want to walk in Tiger's shoes," he added. "I don't know if I could handle it." He seems to have a profound understanding of the central dilemma in Woods's life: "You want people to know you, but you don't want to pay the price."
The next day Dent and I drove from his home to a public course outside Tampa called Heritage Isles, where he owns a golf school with a teaching pro named Rick Bradshaw. His business partner likes a round, stress-free swing, and Jim Dent is his Exhibit A. Bradshaw has a collection of worn-out, marked-up and taped instruction books -- by Hogan, Percy Boomer, Jimmy Ballard, Homer Kelley and others -- and during our visit Dent studied closely various pictures. He's still a student of the swing.
But his success on the senior tour had nothing to do with swing changes and everything to do with comfort. He liked three-round tournaments with no cut on short courses with wide fairways, where the par-5s were par-4s for him. He liked playing with money in the bank, a stable home life and a modern club and ball that didn't require him to be so perfect. The pressure was off. Dent fiddled with a Big Bertha 9-iron from the bag of one of Bradshaw's students. The company line is that the Big Bertha name came from a World War I howitzer, but people have said for years that Ely Callaway, a regular at Augusta National, named it for Dent's sister Bertha. "That was never true," Dent said. He smiled cryptically. "Ely Callaway, he was a hell of man." He helped make Jim Dent rich.
After about two hours we drove back to Dent's house, in a nook of Florida countryside where the fresh strawberries from roadside stands will stain your shirt and fingers. He lives in a modern mansion, pretty much, with a long driveway and stately trees. Portraits of Willye and Jim hang in the giant, airy living room, and the rest of the house is filled with evidence that active teenagers live there.
When I asked Dent about the media-guide age change, his easy demeanor never wavered. "When I got on Tour, I wanted to be younger," he said, "so I changed it." He made himself a 29-year-old Tour rookie. "But when I saw the senior tour coming, I wanted to get my real age in there."
Dent told me he was a member of the class of '61 at Lucy Laney High, an all-black school in downtown Augusta. Based on a 1938 birth year, that would have made him newly 21 when his class graduated. I asked him if he was older than most of his classmates.
"Yeah," he said. "School was fine, easy. But the working and caddying and whatnot."
He didn't elaborate, and I saw no point in pressing the question. Dent presented the Tour with his Georgia birth certificate 25 years ago, and Ponte Vedra was satisfied.
"Chi Chi kept telling everybody that my age was wrong," Dent said. They had been good friends. "But Dale Douglass said, 'There ain't but one thing wrong—he's whipping our ass.'" In time, Chi Chi and Dent resumed their friendship. Everybody loves Dent.
In the '60s, Dent and some friends and cousins would travel by bus from Augusta to Atlantic City. They lived together in rooming houses and got jobs where they could. Dent worked for several years at the Smithville Inn, near Atlantic City, starting as a busboy, eventually becoming a waiter. Martin Luther King Jr. and his marches were a million miles away for Dent. (Now he reveres King.) Dent started playing with good players, black and white, at Mays Landing, the Atlantic City Country Club and other Jersey courses. He started playing for money, his own and, better yet, other people's. It was a long apprenticeship.
After they played together for the first time, in the mid-'60s, Brown said of Dent, "That mo-fo can hit the ball." Dent took that compliment to the bank.
Whenever Brown was in New Jersey, he'd look up Dent. At one point, when Brown flew off to play the Tour, he entrusted Dent with his cream-colored Cadillac. "I was surprised," Dent said, "'cause I always learned there are three things you don't lend: Your money, your wife and your car."
Turns out, you can lend a friend a car. You can lend a true friend a car, a house, an ear, a hand.