The Phil Who Could Have Been Jack

June 3, 2008

The living room of Phil Rodgers’ San Diego bungalow looks like a memorabilia shop — full of relics of a career that was and another that might have been. A large framed photo of Cypress Point adorns a wall covered in tartan wallpaper. A thigh-high winner’s trophy from the 1955 International Jaycee golf tournament stands near the patio door. A plastic Masters cup rests on the coffee table. But the real conversation piece hangs above the television: a 1963 Sports Illustrated cover that features a flat-topped Rodgers flashing a toothy grin. The cover line reads: PHIL RODGERS, THE BRASHEST MAN IN GOLF.

The story painted Rodgers, then coming off a brilliant amateur career and a two-win rookie season on the PGA Tour, as a dazzling talent, but also as arrogant and quick to critique other players’ swings. Deeper into the article other details emerged of Rodgers’ temper, his notorious brushes with the Rules, and the irritating habit he had of leaving his record player blasting when he wasn’t home. “What annoys some pros most of all,” the article noted, “is that this year Phil Rodgers may be every bit as good as he thinks he is.”

Rodgers wasn’t. Not in 1963, and not during his 20-year Tour career. With just five wins and no major titles, Rodgers was an all-too-common phenomenon in a game where the difference between grinders and greats can be paper thin: a can’t-miss kid who largely missed. “I had a good career, although it wasn’t what I wanted,” Rodgers, 70, says today, his eyes glazing over. “I probably talked myself out of being a great champion more than I talked myself into it.”

But that’s just one unfortunate chapter in the Phil Rodgers Saga, the odyssey of a prodigious teen who honed his touch by playing blindfolded; a bumptious pro with a decadent streak; a revered teacher who helped revive Jack Nicklaus. Indeed, of the sundry Tour pros San Diego has produced, Rodgers may be the most colorful, a compelling concoction of gruff and gregarious, inhibited and insightful, with more tales than the Brothers Grimm. In other words, the kind of guy you’d want to sit down with to eat steak.

The old pro orders his filet like an old pro. “Rare and lightly charred,” Rodgers barks over the din at Donovan’s, a mahogany-paneled steakhouse near the La Jolla home that Rodgers shares with Karen, his wife of 22 years. Rodgers doesn’t talk, he growls, and his once-blonde hair is now brown and wavy, an odd side effect of the medication he takes to repress the chronic myelogenous leukemia with which he was diagnosed in 2003. “I’m extremely fortunate,” Rodgers says of the success of his meds. But he’d rather discuss something else, like what’s for dinner.

Food has always been one of Rodgers’ biggest passions, and it’s evident in his side order: a baked potato smothered in sour cream, chives and bacon; his wine selection: a $200 Martinelli pinot noir; and his waistline. During his eating prime, a typical breakfast included toast, fried eggs, hashed browns and a steak. “Probably the most famous story about Jack and me is when they changed the menu at the Masters,” Rodgers says. It was 1960 and he and Nicklaus were amateurs, bunking in the Crow’s Nest. “We’d have a filet for breakfast, a New York [strip] for lunch, and a Chateaubriand for two at dinner,” Rodgers says. “They finally came to us and said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You can only have one steak per day.’ “

Rodgers and Nicklaus shared more than a taste for beef. They looked so much alike early in their careers — blond, fair and sturdy — that fans often approached Rodgers for Nicklaus’s autograph. The confusion was compounded because they were golf’s two hottest prospects, though only one would live up to the hype. “I wanted to win more, but something always stopped me,” Rodgers explains today. “I couldn’t do what my mind wanted me to do.” Maybe because his mind wanted him to do too much.

Rodgers earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in swing theory before most kids had their first set of clubs. He took up the game at Presidio Hills, a San Diego pitch-and-putt where the pro made Rodgers wear a baseball cap with a pencil taped to its brim. “He told me to point the pencil at the ball and never take it off there,” Rodgers says. “That helped teach me coordination and balance.” Rodgers also learned a valuable lesson while working as a caddie for “LoBall” Johnny Wilson, one of California’s biggest bookmakers: “Don’t ever play anybody who’s any good,” Wilson once told him, “because there’s always someone worse than you who wants to lose money.”

Those kinds of players weren’t especially difficult for someone of Rodgers’ caliber to find. “Looking back,” says Deane Beman, who often crossed paths with Rodgers on the junior circuit and later on the PGA Tour, “it is clear to me that Phil was the best player I’ve ever seen at 15 years old. He had course management and creativity and all the shots. He was better than Tiger at 15.”

Rodgers inherited his imaginative style from the late Paul Runyan, a cagey, 29-time Tour winner who started working with Rodgers in 1953 after Runyan took a job at La Jolla Country Club, where Rodgers caddied. Runyan often made Rodgers play blindfolded. “Then he’d tell me what he wanted me to do, why he wanted me to do it and how I should do it,” Rodgers says. The drill instilled touch, feel, and audacity. “Runyon always told me that it was a sign of weakness to play a safe shot,” Rodgers says.

Rodgers’ prodigous rise and relationship with Runyan opened doors. At 10, he teed it up with Ralph Guldahl. At 13, he played with Sam Snead. Then came rounds with Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. “The only kid who probably had as much information as me was Butch Harmon,” Rodgers says.

The education paid off. Rodgers landed a golf scholarship at the University of Houston, where he won every tournament he entered, including the 1958 NCAA Championship. When Houston, then a private school, pulled its golf scholarships a year later, Rodgers left for the Marines. He completed two years of service in San Diego and Yuma, Ariz., then drove to the 1962 St. Paul Open Invitational to begin his professional career. “I knew I could play,” Rodgers says. “I wasn’t really afraid of anybody.”

For good reason. When Rodgers fired a final-round, course-record 62 at the Los Angeles Open later that summer, he won by nine shots. Hell, he could have won the U.S. Open at Oakmont that same year if he hadn’t refused to take an unplayable lie when his ball lodged in a spruce tree in the first round. Instead, Rodgers took four swipes to get it out and made an 8. He eventually finished third, just two strokes behind — who else? — Nicklaus.

With early success came expectations. “People thought I was going to do that all the time,” Rodgers says of his torrid play in L.A. “That doesn’t happen. Only Tiger does that.” Rodgers had other near-wins at the majors, losing a 36-hole playoff to a white-hot Bob Charles at the ’63 British Open and a final-round lead to Nicklaus at the ’66 British. But how did a guy with his delicate touch and arsenal of shots not once close the deal at a major, or for that matter win more than five regular Tour events?

“If you ever watched him hit the ball,” Nicklaus says today, “if you watched his short game, if you watched him putt, you would say, ‘How could anybody ever beat him?’ But I think his real problem came from a lack of length.”

There are other explanations: Rodgers’ tendency to overthink; his swashbuckling style; his late-night carousing; his litany of injuries. And then there’s this: “I’m not sure that I could have handled being a major champion,” Rodgers says. “I couldn’t have handled the responsibility.” It’s a damning admission, and not one Rodgers likes to expound on. He’ll readily wax about the glory days with Jack, his weakness for fast cars and fine wine, but ask Rodgers why he never won a major and he’ll pause and sigh and scramble for words, a striking departure from what the old pro is like when you get him started on teaching.

It’s another flawless morning in Carlsbad, Calif., and Rodgers is seated on a practice range in the kind of black leather swivel chair you’d expect to find in a boardroom. A range staffer had wheeled out the chair as a joke, but it suits Rodgers, who barks out instructions like a Wall Street broker. His charge today is journeyman pro Jeff Brehaut, a Rodgers’ disciple of 18 years.

“You gotta get that left arm up, Jeff!” Rodgers says. “Get that bottle up!”

Brehaut is holding a 12-ounce bottle of Poland Spring and swinging it like a miniature golf club. When he gets to the top of his backswing, he releases the bottle, sending it tumbling through the air to Rodgers, who is sitting directly behind Brehaut. The drill is designed to get Brehaut’s swing on a more upright plane, and it seems to be working.

“That’s real pretty there!” Rodgers says. “Reeeeeeeally pretty!”

If Rodgers never met his potential as a player, he has exceeded it as a teacher, never more famously than in 1980 when his old pal Nicklaus forgot how to chip. “It was almost to the point where I had to putt around bunkers,” Nicklaus recalls. So Nicklaus beckoned Rodgers, and what was to be a two-day tune-up at Nicklaus’s place in Florida turned into a two-week transformation. “Phil totally revamped my short game and gave me confidence,” Nicklaus says. “It was a significant part of why I won the U.S. Open in 1980.” And, two months later, the PGA Championship.

Even as a kid, Rodgers was fascinated by the minutiae of swing mechanics, studying the moves of Runyan, Snead and Hogan as if they were holy scripture. His curiosity carried over to golf equipment, an interest he later applied at Cobra Golf, where he helped develop the three-wedge system and the “rusting” wedge (his “Trusty Rusty” wedge was an instant classic). Rodgers was wired for the game, both physically and intellectually, and he still thrives on infusing his aptitude in others, especially on the practice tee.

“He was a bulldog in that he’d sink his teeth into you,” says Fred Griffin, the director of the Grand Cypress Academy of Golf in Orlando, where Rodgers taught for two decades after retiring from the Champions Tour. At the Hills of Lakeway, near Austin, Texas, where Rodgers also taught, he once showed up on the range dressed as a drill sergeant. “Sometimes he’d swear at you,” Griffin recalls. “Sometimes he’d beat on you. But he’d always motivate and inspire you, and that’s what separates a great teacher from a good one.”

Rodgers’ Tour experience has also helped. “I know if I ask him about this hole, this shot, he’s been there and succeeded and failed at the same thing,” Brehaut says. “If I’m hitting a pitch shot to a pin on the top tier of a green, he’ll say, ‘I want your second bounce to be right here.’ That’s how precise he is. He teaches like no one else.”

That much is obvious in Rodgers’ home office, which is cluttered with teaching awards and certificates. On a wall by the door is a print of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Nicklaus and Rodgers at L.A. Country Club in 1962. “It’s amazing,” Rodgers says. “That photograph is in art galleries in La Jolla, Carmel, San Francisco. It’s all over. Those guys are still a very viable item.”

Rodgers is careful not to include himself in their class, nor would he want to be, he says. See, without the burden of being a major champion, Rodgers can teach golf, fly fish, and eat his steaks in relative anonymity. And that suits him just fine. “I’m a lot more comfortable where I am,” Rodgers says. “I may be disappointed that I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to, but I hate people bringing it up — ‘Oh, yeah, you were the runner-up at the British Open.’ I hate that. I didn’t do it. I didn’t get the trophy, so it’s over. Thank you very much.”