Booze, Birdies and Bags of Cash: John Jacobs Did it His Way

October 23, 2014

John Jacobs has lost his way. He's behind the wheel of a cart at Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert, Calif., barreling down a path that links the sixth and seventh holes of the Mountains course. He's bringing up the rear of his pro-am fivesome and suddenly finds himself at a crossroads amid a welter of bridges and tunnels.

"Where the f— am I?" he mutters. For Jacobs, this is not an uncommon oath.

Over the last half century he's made a career of going off-course and in the wrong direction. You've heard of shanked drives? Jacobs is a shanked golfer.

William Blake to the contrary, the road of excess does not always lead to the palace of wisdom. With Jacobs, it led to the palace of excess. "J.J. is a medical, psychological and mythical miracle," says the equally miraculous David Feherty, a kindred spirit. "He's the only man I know who has glued himself to his own car in his garage and had to spend the night there."

Jacobs was the original golfer gone wild. Gary McCord, his biggest fan and sometime sidekick, once said, "We all know the good-looking guy in school who got in trouble and talked his way out of it. You know, the last guy at the party and the first guy you dared to do something. Well, J.J. is the mother ship."

Jacobs is affable and profane, with a dry sense of mischief and a white beard that dusts his chin much as salt rims a margarita. He is, at heart, an aging Rat Packer, projecting an unflappable nonchalance spiked with amused self-parody.

Regrets? Jacobs has a few. And as the years go by, the reasons for regret become glaringly apparent. A free-swinging power hitter who loves to go for broke, Long John Jacobs was the golden youth whose high promise was betrayed by his base appetites. He's the aging voluptuary who threw it all away.

"I think John Jacobs had more raw talent than anyone I ever saw," Arnold Palmer has said. To that, Lee Trevino now adds: "If J.J. had my brains, the SOB wouldn't have just won majors, he'd have won everything. J.J. could have been the biggest of them all." But somehow, J.J. never was. While playing the PGA Tour from 1968 to 1980, he never won an event and never finished better than 80th on the money list.

"When you're 25 you think, I'll win a tournament by the time I'm 30," he says. "But being 25 lasts about an hour, and suddenly you're 30, at which point you tell yourself you'll get it together by the time you're 35. Well, pretty soon you're 40 and you think, 'Where did those years go?' It sounds stupid, but I didn't care about winning or losing. I just wanted to make a little dough and have a good time. Maybe I was afraid of success."

The Hep Cat found a second life on the Champions Tour, where he won five times, the biggest prize the 2003 Senior PGA Championship. "I did well because by then I'd learned the value of practice," he says. "In my old Tour days, I'd never even know where the driving ranges were." Those five victories are deceiving, he insists. "I probably had 50 other chances to win [as a senior golfer], so it's not like I'd gained much in the way of self-knowledge. It's not like I was nervous. I'd just get tired and run out of gas. I guess the guy upstairs thought, 'Oh, well. I'll let him win a few times even though he's f—— everything up.'"

Jacobs is now 69. His first wife, a Brit named Valerie, died of cancer in 2010, and they had no children. Late last year he remarried and settled in Palm Springs. The crinkly curve of his forehead, the steady eye and the semicolon posture are not so different from the photos of a young Jacobs circa 1975, when he was outfitted by Jantzen, the clothier that supplied him with steamer trunks of shirts, 90 at a clip. Although he is no longer exempt, he plays in a handful of senior events each year, and he's still got game. Despite his errant roadstering on the paths, he and his amateur partners won the pro-am at Bighorn, which was worth $5,000—or barely enough to cover the wine bill.

Jacobs has always been a generous host, packed with well-rehearsed tales, some of which may even be true. At his favorite Palm Desert hangout, Castelli's Ristorante, he tells them more or less nonstop for four hours, pausing only for sips of Cabernet and forkfuls of chicken cacciatore. Though names, facts and dates (particularly dates) tend to blur incomprehensibly in the kaleidoscope of his reminiscing, Jacobs is an entrancing, beguiling storyteller.

His is a tale of drinking, hookers, convertibles, hell-raising, and bags of loot. And sometimes all of the above.

In the mid-1980s, Jacobs returned to the States from the Asian Tour with $180,000 in winnings. He, a pal and a couple of escorts they'd hired had a hotel-room bacchanal that featured a game of Rolling for Dollars. Naked. On the carpet. When Jacobs and his pal awoke, they couldn't find the cash; they figured the escorts took it. Jacobs's pal shrugged. "You know what, J.J.? You went to Asia with nothing, we had a good time for one night, f— it! Let's have a drink." Resigned, the pal opened the freezer to get some ice, and, lo and behold, there was the money, inexplicably stuffed in a gym bag and frozen. "We were so pumped we threw a lost-and-found party," Jacobs says.

Then there's the time he slept with the girlfriend of a mobster. And the time the mobster found out and went gunning for him. And the time he got arrested, or nearly arrested, in California, Mexico, Germany…

Perhaps the most outrageous yarn of them all involves getting pulled over by a state trooper and having to spread-eagle on the hood of a car. The prone, hungover Jacobs held aloft a California Highway Patrol badge he'd acquired from a well-connected friend for just such an occasion. The trooper inspected the badge, let out a long sigh and growled, "I'll let you go this time, Officer Jacobs. But I've gotta say, you're a disgrace to the force!"

Jacobs laughs uproariously at the memory. "I've led a really nice life," he says. "I haven't burned any bridges. Nobody says, 'J.J.'s an a–hole.' Nobody says, 'J.J.'s a hopeless boozer.' I'm not a sit-around guy who can't stop drinking. I only drink when I'm having fun." More than a few funny anecdotes involve the unfunny topic of driving under the influence. Jacobs surveys Castelli's with his searching, sea-blue eyes. "Sure, I'm ashamed of the drunk driving, but what am I gonna do?" Calm and comfortable this cool evening, the unpretentious trattoria has for decades remained relatively unchanged, just like Jacobs. They're both survivors from another era. And the stories keep coming.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Jacobs' biggest victory came at the 2003 Senior PGA Championship, at age 58.

In the early 1960s he was playing the Palm Springs Golf Classic—later renamed after Bob Hope—at Thunder-bird Country Club, where the head pro was Claude Harmon, whom Jacobs describes as "a mean guy." Jacobs was staying at the gilded home of Robert McCulloch, the tycoon who later bought London Bridge for $2,460,000, then had it dismantled and shipped over to Lake Havasu in Arizona, where it still stands. After one of the early rounds, a pool party moved on to a restaurant. Those facts are not in dispute. From there, things get hazy.

The next morning, Jacobs woke up on McCulloch's couch and realized he'd missed his tee time. "I went to the kitchen to cook breakfast. Some stranger appears and asks what I'm doing there. Turns out I'd been crashing on a couch in the home of McCulloch's next-door neighbor. I told the cops I'd only missed his house by one." Also, Jacobs's ride—a gleaming new Lincoln with big fins and a blue roof—had somehow ripped through a fence and onto the golf course, where it was found in a bunker, with four flat tires. "Claude Harmon wanted to torch the car right where it was," Jacobs says.

He insists he never gets into trouble on purpose. "S— happens!" he says. "It just happens." It started happening largely because his father, Keith, was the director of Parks and Recreation for the city of Los Angeles. Jacobs was three when Dad handed him a club. He hit his first 300-yard drive at age 13. He learned the ropes from his brother, Tommy, a former pro who played on the 1965 Ryder Cup team and won four PGA Tour events.

One thing Jacobs didn't have to learn was how to enjoy himself. A memorable odyssey came at a qualifying round in Detroit for the 1960 U.S. Junior Amateur. Jacobs was 15. "I'm already 6'2" and maybe 190 pounds, so I look a lot older than I am," he says. "I get off the plane from L.A. in my vanilla slacks and cashmere Pringle and see an old lady holding a sign that says 'John Jacobs.' I realize that the club is putting up all the kids in members' homes, and I think, 'Man this ain't gonna work!' I walk straight to the Hertz counter, use a fake ID to rent a Cadillac ragtop and, with my fellow amateur Bob Carson—who was then 13—riding shotgun, drive downtown to the Hyatt Regency. I check in with a fake credit card, buy a fifth of Scotch and pick up a 20-year-old girl. We all wind up at Cobo Hall, where we watch Dick the Bruiser wrestle. And Bob says, 'J.J., I thought we came here to play golf!' "

When the tournament ended, the teen-aged Jacobs returned to the hotel. "The manager says, 'Sir, can we see your credit card again? It didn't register.' I hand him the card, he takes out a pair of scissors, and he cuts the card in half. I had no money. Zero. So I drive to Minnesota to see my brother, who's playing the St. Paul Open. I just want somebody to pay my way back home. On a lark, I bum $25 to enter the Monday qualifier. I make the cut. At the time, I was the youngest guy ever to qualify for a PGA Tour event. After the first round, I'm one stroke off the lead. I think, 'For chrissake! Am I doing everything right in life, or what?'"

After high school, Jacobs enrolled at USC. His college career spanned all of three days before he dropped out. "I was a fast learner," he explains. In 1964, at age 19, he enlisted in the Army. At Fort Hood, he became the unofficial base pro, teaching golf to officers and their families. A general didn't like Jacobs's attitude—or the fact that J.J. was sleeping with his wife. Going AWOL to play in an amateur event in Mexico was the final straw, so the general handed Jacobs his papers. His next assignment: Vietnam.

Jacobs had never heard of it. He figured he was going someplace exotic, like Tahiti. "I thought, How sweet is this?"

"I land in 'Nam with the 173rd Airborne. It's pitch-black, and we're put up in tents. The next morning I wake up to go to the latrine, and—whoa, baby!—I discover our tent is camped right beside the Saigon Country Club! For the next year I hustle golf and give lessons to the wife of Nguyen Cao Ky, the prime minister of South Vietnam—no, I never slept with her. I win the club championship and weasel my way to Thailand, where I represent Vietnam in the Asian Cup. An official eyes me and says, 'You don't look Asian.' I say, 'We grow 'em bigger in 'Nam.' "

Jacobs went on to earn just enough in his PGA Tour career, $119,776, to "cover tips and cab fare." As a touring pro, he rarely missed a tee time, but occasionally handed his blazer to his caddie on the first tee. One year at the Swedish Open, in the mid-1980s, a taxi dropped him off for his pairing with a young Steve Elkington. Still in his street shoes, J.J. gathered himself, hit his drive, and they were off. He donned his spikes walking up the fairway. On the par-5 third hole, Jacobs hit a fine approach and meandered his way to the green, where Elk asked, "Could I please have my wedge back?"

"How'd that get into my bag?" asked Jacobs, who used a different brand of clubs.

Jacobs's wayward ways eventually landed him back in the Far East, where he chased tournaments and long-drive contests. In 1984, he became the first American to win the Asian Order of Merit. Sure, Tiger Woods overcame a double-stress fracture in his left leg to win the 2008 U.S. Open, but when it comes to playing with pain, he's got nothing on Jacobs. "During an event in Thailand in '84, I eagle a par 4. The eagle is worth $2,500. That night, I celebrate by drinking and renting a motorcycle. I'm doing 100 down the club road when—wham!—I hit a flagpole. The bike is totaled, and my right leg is broken. Still, I show up for the final round. If I don't, the tournament officials won't pay me the $2,500." His leg was in a cast and a sandal golf shoe was fitted over his foot. "To kill the pain, I bring a bottle of vodka. My first tee shot goes 20 feet. The second one, 40. I still shoot 74."

This is the part of the story when the aging playboy is supposed to wax melancholic about talent squandered, imagining the legendary player he could have been, instead of the legendary partier he was. But Jacobs doesn't think that way. "I don't dwell on that stuff," he says. "I don't look back. I don't even look forward. I just wake up every day, without goals or a game plan."

Professional athletes shouldn't grow old. Jacobs, it's been said, never grew up. Yet surely, on the cusp of 70, he has a sliver of self-revelation to share—a lesson taught by life. What has he learned? He pauses, considering the question. "I've learned that scotch and vodka have a bite," he says. "While good wine goes down like Coca-Cola."