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Fuzzy Reception Is a Good Thing

While others have attitude below par, Fuzzy Zoeller tees it up even when he's not swinging.

I understand there’s a lot of money riding on every shot—and God knows I’m in a foul mood when I miss a putt with nothing but a lousy Gatorade riding on the outcome of a match—but I’ve always wondered why so many professional golfers skulk around the course as if they were next in line for a root canal.

After all, these people are making a very comfortable living—at worst—by hitting golf balls on some of the most gorgeous swaths of landscape on earth. They work four days a week if they make the cut on the weeks they work. They’re their own bosses. Get free clothes, shoes, clubs and balls.

And when they turn in a relatively crappy performance, somebody hands them a check for tens of thousands of dollars. (I don’t even get a swig of the Gatorade.) When was the last time your boss said, “Jones, you really screwed up that project and we lost the account. Here’s a nice little bonus”?

I understand that you don’t succeed in the highest levels of sport—or almost any level above Little League, for that matter—without a highly competitive nature. And in the pros, you’ve got to be a perfectionist and therefore never satisfied. So we’re used to the game faces. Jack Nicklaus,  Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods ... we’re conditioned to close-ups of the game’s greatest champions scowling as if they were doing their tax returns—on April 14. Those Chilean miners trapped underground looked cheerful in comparison.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And, for the price of a ticket to the Toshiba Classic  Friday through Sunday at the Newport Beach Country Club, you can see firsthand a guy who seems to genuinely have fun on the golf course.

Just follow Fuzzy Zoeller.

Frank Urban Zoeller (F-U-Z, the Fuz, get it?) is a dying breed of professional golfer. At 60, he’s one of the game’s few remaining showmen, a throwback to the Rat Pack, a Vegas lounge act complete with cigarette dangling from lips, a guy who tosses off one-liners during a round.

Arnold Palmer has a drink—a mixture of iced tea and lemonade—named after him,  and Greg Norman has his wine, but how many golfers have their own brand of vodka? A lot of these guys wear hats and shirts that look like someone at NASCAR designed them, but the advertisements are mostly indecipherable acronyms for European banks—or maybe they’re hedge funds, I don’t know.

Not many—insert your own John Daly joke here—are sponsors for their own spirits.

About 10 years ago, I came to realize that Fuzzy and I were kindred spirits—both shooting from the lip and likely to end up with a taste of our own shoe leather—at Dove Canyon Country Club during the Pro Stakes Golf Championship, a made-for-TV event during what they call pro golf’s “silly season.”

This was five years before Zoeller uttered the comment that will forever define him in the minds of many. I don’t know Fuzzy Zoeller well enough to know if he’s a racist, but I’m willing to believe him that the incident was an attempt at humor that backfired horribly. When asked about a young Tiger Woods winning the Masters, he offered this suggestion for Woods, who, as defending champion, would pick the menu for the Champions Dinner the following year:

“You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?” Zoeller said, smiling. He started to walk away and then turned back and added, “or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”

See the video here.

Fuzzy grew up in an era when one of the most-watched shows on TV was All in the Family and head of the household Archie Bunker routinely went way beyond a fried-chicken joke. Maybe a lifetime of saying stupid stuff makes me a bit more sympathetic than most, but—as you can tell if you’ve read a few of these columns—I’m an extra-firm believer in making fun of myself and everybody around me, and I’m not always 100 percent politically correct, I’m sure.

And Fuzzy said a couple of things that evening in the Dove Canyon clubhouse bar that have resonated with me for years, especially every time I see a pro on TV wincing and grimacing as if he were giving birth.

“The young guys today, they play golf, go to the hotel, have an iced tea … it’s a terrible way to live,” he said, waving a vodka tonic and smiling. “Those guys have got to loosen up and enjoy the life they have. Enjoy the game. Smile.”

Shortly after winning the U.S. Open in 1984, Zoeller underwent back surgery. Lying in the hospital for two weeks, unable to move, helped him gain perspective. “You start to wonder if you’ll ever walk again,” he said. “I was figuring I’d have to get a lunch pail and real job.”

Zoeller routinely chats with the galleries during his rounds, irritating more than a couple of his more tightly wound playing partners, but Fuzzy doesn’t care. “Without those people, I’d be playing in front of trees for a hundred dollars,” he says. Every year during a practice round before the Masters, Zoeller would walk off the tee box at the par-three 12th hole and pick out a fan from the gallery to take a shot.

So, if you’re a fan of people who are fortunate to have the combination of God-given talent and the mental fortitude it takes to succeed at golf’s highest level, a fan of people who realize just how freaking lucky they are, or just like to have a good time, follow the Fuz this weekend. This is the kind of stuff you’ll hear:

  • After winning the 2009 Skins Game with a putt that earned him and partner Ben Crenshaw a year’s worth of hamburgers from tournament sponsor Wendy’s and a nice little check: “Hell, if I had known that putt was worth $300,000, I’d still be wiping myself right now,” Fuzzy said. “What probably means more to me are those free damn hamburgers … but they'll probably charge me for the cheese.”
  • After winning the 1979 Masters: “When the last shot disappeared, a million thoughts went through my mind … what little mind I have.”
  • On his swing: “Some people say it looks like I’m praying.”
  • At the Pro Stakes Challenge—where points were awarded for a host of different aspects of the game, such as hitting the fairway or a green in regulation—after Peter Jacobsen hit a drive way left: “Does he get points for contact?” Later, after a poor putt by Chi Chi Rodriguez: “That had a chance … until you hit it.”
  • Asked about his workout regime, he told Golf Digest: “Look at me! I tell you, every time I get the idea of working out, I have to sit down until the thought leaves.”
  • After pulling his tee shot into a lake next to the green in the 1994 Players Championship: “I didn't hit any spectators … I did get one bass, though.”
  • On how he’ll be remembered: “I never led the tour in money winnings, but I have many times in alcohol consumption.”

My kind of golfer.

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