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Tuesday, June 12, 2001
Bolt gave golf its deserts
By Jim Murray
Special to ESPN.com
Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on February 23, 1993.
He was golf's Vesuvius. The rumbling would begin when the putts wouldn't drop, the galleries would move, the lies would be unplayable. By the 18th hole, you could sense the lava rising, the ash spewing, the top about to come off. Volcanologists would run to their instruments in alarm. Mt. Bolt was about to erupt.
Whenever word filtered down to the press tent that Tommy Bolt had double-bogeyed the 18th hole, every reporter worth his salt would head for the locker room on the double.
A shoe would come flying through the air, crash into a locker. The sky would turn blue. Bolt would be in fine, furious eruption. It made "The Last Days of Pompeii" look like a Sunday school picnic, Mt. St. Helens, a smog alert.
No one ever hit a golf ball any better than Thomas Henry Bolt, a.k.a. Thunder, Terrible, Tempestuous. He was one of the best strikers of the ball who ever showed up on a first tee. He could fade it, hook it, slice it, feather it, punch it, fluff it. Mostly, he could hit it straight.
But it used to seem that he never met a golf shot he liked. He never trusted a golf ball or a golf course in his life. He acted as if he were going through Indain country and could hear drums. It was not a game, it was a conspiracy. The game had it in for him. The world had it in for him.
The world didn't have it in for him. The world loved Tommy Bolt. He was every man who ever missed a two-foot putt, who wouldn't take a double-bogey lying down. Like hackers everywhere, Tommy knew what a two-timing tart golf can be. He let the world know what a trollop she was.
He was a perfectionist. He never let golf get away with it when he trifled with his shots. Every time a shot moved an inch off line, Tommy was furious. Other guys threw clubs. Tommy threw bags.
The stories about him are legend. How he came up to a 200-yard approach to a green and asked the caddie what the right club was.
|Tommy Bolt won the 1958 U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.|
"A seven-iron, Mr. Bolt," the boy answered.
"A seven-iron!" screamed Tom. "What makes you think I can get there with a seven-iron!"
"Because that's the only club you have left in the bag," the caddie said.
Or his is playing the Crosby. The wind is howling, the rain is falling, deer graze on the fairways.
"Listen!" screams Bolt as he passes Bing Crosby's home on the 14th green. "Get me a .45 and I'll put it to that crooner's head and see how he'd like to come out here and par 8,9 and 10 and keep his sanity."
That was old Thunder. No compromise.
Golf is the most maddening game people play. That's because the failure is your own. In baseball, the pitcher strikes you out or the outfielder makes a leaping catch. In tennis, your opponent aces you. In football, someone else intercepts the pass.
In golf, you do it to yourself. Your rage is inner directed. You can't scream at a linesman, the guy in the chair, the ballboy, the umpire, field judge, referee or teammate.
No golfer finds this easy to deal with. But most mask their feelings.
Tommy Bolt never did. Tommy shook his at the heavens, kicked rakes, criticized courses. Tommy did not suffer failure gracefully.
Oddly enough, though, Tommy did not use the excuses a lot of more genteel golfers did. Tommy never suddenly noticed he got flu after shooting a few double-bogeys. Tommy took his lumps. Tommy stayed and slugged it out with the course. He hit back.
He didn't think so, but the public adored him. He didn't walk a golf course, he sauntered. And he always attacked it. Tommy took no prisoners.
The only golfer he truly respected was Ben Hogan. Everybody else was an opponent to Tommy. He glared his way around 18 holes -- unless he was shooting a 63. Then, everybody was Tommy Bolt's friend.
Off the golf course, he was the soul of congeniality. On it, he acted as if he were on the deck of the Titanic and the lifeboats were full.
But what a player he was when the putts were dropping, the fairways were splitting and the water was merely scenery! There was no finer sound and sight in the game than Tommy Bolt winning a U.S. Open by four shots over Gary Player in Oklahoma in 1958.
Those who were there recall it as one of the purest victories in an Open ever -- or since Hogan's first. They are sure Bolt never had more than an eight-foot putt, there were no chip-ins, no brainers or balls that hit cart paths and bounced into the hole. He hit 54 greens that week.
Bolt won 25 tournaments. The magic of that is, he won them in only 16 years on the tour. And he never teed it up on the tour until he was 34. He was a carpenter in Shreveport, La., when some tour players came through and Bolt took the afternoon off and found out he was two shots better than any of them.
He became one of the biggest tour attractions. People loved it when his ears got red and his face purple, but Lee Trevino, no less, rated him one of the five best players he ever played against.
The second tournament he won was the 1952 Los Angeles Open, where he beat Dutch Harrison and Jackie Burke in an 18-hole playoff. Bolt, who played in a felt hat and with a velvet swing, became an instant celebrity, playing the game with such a look of pure disdain that the galleries were fascinated. It was such a landmark event that the L.A. Open has made Tommy Bolt this year's honoree from the past for the tournament that opens Thursday at Riviera.
It has been a long, brilliant career for Bolt. Some years ago, in Arkansas, a man came up to him and reminded him he had caddied for him as a young boy. Fellow by the name of Bill Clinton.
Tommy sat in a restaurant near the golf course the other day. A companion pointed out a golfer sitting nearby. Payne Stewart. Bolt looked up at the young man sitting at breakfast in sweat togs and baseball cap.
"Are you Payne Stewart's caddie?" Bolt demanded.
"I am Payne Stewart," responded the other.
"Damn!" said Bolt. "I believe I must have played with your daddy! Ain't you from Springfield, Mo.?"
The two shook hands. Two U.S. Open winners. Bolt, in 1958, got $8,000 for winning his Open. Stewart, in 1991, got $235,000.
"It was a real pleasure to see you, Mr. Bolt," Stewart acknowledged.
Bolt was entranced.
"You see how respectful that young man is?" he said. "Shows real respect."
Why shouldn't he? It was the tempestuous, terrible-tempered thunderers who made his game what it is.
Has the game gotten easier -- is that why no one seems to lose his temper on the fairways anymore? Bolt is asked.
He sniffs. "They all have public relations experts telling them what to say. Jackie Burke looked like an alter boy, but he once told someone that if he said what he felt like on a golf course, he would make me look like Billy Graham."
So, do they shoot lower scores because they keep their composure?
Bolt looks scornful. "The equipment is better, " he says.
Won't go as far when you throw it?
Bolt smiles. "I never threw a club that didn't deserve it."
This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.
ESPN Classic's Road Show travels to the 2001 U.S. Open on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET. Hosts Charley Steiner and Thomas Bonk will be joined by Mark Calcavecchia, Mike Holder, Hale Irwin and Steve Jones as they look back at U.S. Open history.