The 20-time winner on the PGA Tour recalls life on tour before AIDS and how much money he would have made over his lifetime had he not famously missed a 3-foot putt to win the 1970 British Open.
How’s your game at the ripe old age of 77?
I have had a lot of problems with my shoulder. I had an operation that kept me out for about a year. I’m finally hitting it good and straight again. When I was on tour I hit it so straight that the guys said that the only time I left the fairway was to get a girl’s phone number.
What do you think of the Dustin Johnson’s ruling at the PGA last week?
Those things can happen. But I have never seen a gallery be able to walk in a sand trap before. Have you?
How much golf do you watch on TV?
I don’t make it a point to watch it, but if I’m at the golf course having a coke and I see the channel I’ll check the leader board.
The players today must bore you with their regimented routines and slow social lives.
We were party people in my day. We would have four beers in the bar and go out and play the next day. There was a lot of socializing. These kids today are practicing then going home and working out. It’s another world.
What about the girls?
There is no way you could possibly understand the things that went on out there with us. You still had to be careful about things, but keep in mind that this was a time before AIDS. All the women knew to find us in the best hotel that was near the golf course. They would come to the hotel and sit around and have a drink and dinner with you and then do whatever you wanted them to do. Nowadays the players scatter after they leave the golf course.
What was your pickup line?
I don’t know. I’m not bragging or anything. I guess I had the southern charm thing. I always tried to be a gentleman. I dated some of the most beautiful women in the world.
Did Arnie and Jack and that super-elite level of players hangout with the boys?
We were a family. We knew the wives names, the kids’ birthdays. We traveled in the cars together a lot. When I first started on the tour in the mid-50s, there were only six or seven guys that even had a car so we were all really close. Arnold Palmer was the first golfer to have a plane, but he never changed at all.
In 1961, you had your best year with five wins.
That year Gene Little beat me by one stroke at the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills and Palmer beat me in a playoff at the Phoenix Open. What would five wins in one season be worth today? Millions. I think I made $57,000 in my best year.
What do you think of all the length on the golf courses today? Whistling Straits played over 7,500 yards last week.
Actually the golf courses in my day played longer than they do today. Let’s say you hit a big tee shot of 270 yards and the hole is 430, leaving you with 160 yards to the green. Back then that could be a five or six iron. Today that’s a nine-iron or wedge.
Was Hogan as quite and gruff with you as he was with everybody else? You could make anyone laugh with your jokes.
Tiger is like Hogan. He had one thing to do and that was to win. I remember when I used to go up to Forth Worth to get him to sign autographs for my museum. We would meet for an hour over lunch and I can’t remember ever getting a conversation out of him. Byron Nelson, who was probably his closest friend, said he couldn’t recall ever having dinner with Hogan by himself. That’s the way Ben was.
You have a great collection of golf ephemera.
I have one of the greatest collections in the world. The first President Bush says he’s never seen anything like it in the world. I’m trying to find a museum or sports bar and restaurant to display it.
You were born in some tough Depression years in tiny Cedartown, Georgia in the northwest part of the state.
I tell people that I was born so far back in the woods that I thought my name was Get Wood until I was eight-years old. Because my dad was always telling us to go get some wood.
You took up the game during World War II?
We had a little 9-hole golf course there in Cedartown. I started looking for balls when I was 8 or 9 years old. There were no golf balls then. They stopped making them. All the rubber went to the war effort. If you could find a golf ball back in those days you could sell it for $1.50 to $2.00. If it was a new ball you could get $2.50 for it.
No golfer with the exception of Jimmy Demaret has been a more flamboyant dresser than you. How did your affinity for flashy clothes start?
I gambled a lot in high school and as I made money I bought clothes. In high school I would pay 25 cents to get my jeans dry cleaned without the crease in them. When I came on tour all the sharp dressers like Ben Hogan wore black pants and white shirts. I got into the colors because I always had the flair. I was the first guy to get into the colored shoes. I coordinated my outfits long before anybody else on tour. My underwear would even match with my outfit. Everybody calls me the peacock because of the colors.
You ever think how different things would have been in your life had you made that 3-footer to win the 1970 British Open?
I would say conservatively that missing that putt cost me $200 million over my lifetime. Over the last 40 years I’ve thought about that putt more than anything. I used to joke that I could go as long as five minutes without thinking about it.