Golf's seductive genius lies in the fact that every shot carries the possibility of perfection. Each shot exists independent of the ones before and after it. You can take 150 cuts at the ball in an afternoon, but if even a single one of them flies straight, you'll be back again soon enough.
And if you happen to be one of the fortunate few who can get around the course in 70 strokes or so, with almost all of them ending up exactly where you expect? Then it takes that much longer to pull away. It's a lot easier to think you can just play your way out of trouble when that's what you've done for decades.
Thus, it's likely no man ever looked more forward to teeing it up than Jim Thorpe did two Fridays ago at the Champions Tour Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am near Tampa. While most of his fellow over-50 players spent the last year enjoying their own personal back nines, Thorpe endured 10 months in prison, apart from his family, apart from his game.
"It's something that you don't want to happen to anybody," he says. "I realized what got me there, and what got me there will not get me there again."
The midsection and the chin are a little softer these days, but even at age 62, Thorpe still cuts a sharp, imposing figure on the golf course. He's that rarest of golfers, the guy who didn't discover his true talent for the game until decades after he turned pro. The son of a golf course greenskeeper in Roxboro, N.C., Thorpe grew up around the game, attending Morgan State University before turning pro in 1972.
It would be more than 10 years before he won on the PGA Tour, though he did so in style, beating Jack Nicklaus by three strokes at the Greater Milwaukee Open in 1985. Two more victories, both at the Seiko-Tucson Match Play Championship, would follow within little more than a year. He ended 1985 fourth on the PGA Tour's money list, and appeared destined for life at golf's highest levels.
But it wasn't long before Thorpe slid from golf's heights. After posting top-10s in three majors between 1984 and 1987, he failed to even make a cut in one until the 1996 U.S. Open. The guy who'd done battle with Nicklaus and Tom Watson appeared finished, struggling on the course and, more often than not, nearly broke off of it.
Here's one major difference between the golfers of today and the golfers of the pre-Tiger era: the size of their paychecks. In 1985, Thorpe earned $379,091. That's a third or less of what the winner of most tournaments takes home today. Make no mistake, while golfers still earned a stratospheric salary for smacking around a little ball, it wasn't anything like the virtually bottomless well of riches today's players dip into, and it was that much easier to burn through everything you had.
"A lot of guys in my spot will look back on their life and career and say, 'I'd do it all over again,'" Thorpe told Golf Digest in 2006. "Not me, man. There were a lot of years of scratching around, hustling, doing a few things wrong and a few right, of hanging out at the racetrack, at the craps tables, living hand to mouth at times. Lots of harrowing stuff. It was fun, but I wouldn't do it again."
Still, when Thorpe hit the Champions Tour, something changed, something clicked into place. He began approaching his game more holistically, spending time on the short-game details as well as the long-range bombs. He discovered a putting stroke and a chipping game that netted him 13 wins between 2000 and 2007, including a Champions major, the Countrywide Tradition, in 2002.
Even that success, though, had a price.
"My wife walked a couple holes with me last week, and she told me, 'You never spoke to me,'" Thorpe says. "That's something that people just don't understand. When I'm playing the game, I know they're there, I just don't see them. I remember every shot, every putt I made, but I don't remember seeing my friends on the course until the round is over."
Life goes on outside the ropes even when you're playing inside. Thorpe earned more than $13 million in his career, enough to attract close attention from the government, enough to cause a man all kinds of problems if not handled properly. While Thorpe won't discuss specifics -- there is the threat of litigation against his former management team still pending -- financial irregularities between the years of 2002 and 2004 drew the eye of federal tax investigators.
"It was trusting the wrong people," Thorpe says. "Anyone could fall into that trap. Sometimes you can't separate the wolves that are dressed in sheep's clothing. We caught the mistake, but we caught it a little bit late."
In February 2009, the government hit Thorpe with seven charges of failure to pay taxes during that three-year period, a time when he had gross income of more than $5.2 million. Thorpe would eventually plead guilty to two of the counts, and was sentenced to a year in prison, along with 200 hours of community service and repayment of the $2 million in back taxes.
The sentence came as a shock to Thorpe, who'd expressed remorse prior to the sentencing. "If we can reach a compromise with the IRS, maybe we can get probation," Thorpe told the Golf Channel in February 2010. "I think this sentencing was a little tough."
In the wake of the sentencing, the Tour itself didn't exactly show the kind of stand-up character it expects of its players, suspending Thorpe via email just days before he would have played in the Ace Group Classic in Florida. It would be his last chance to play professional golf for more than a year.
Soon afterward, Thorpe's appeals fell short, and he resigned himself to the inevitable. On April 1, 2010, Thorpe entered the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. He would spend 10 months there, receiving well-wishes from fellow golfers but declining to visit with his family.
"It was time for me to look over my life and erase some things, make some changes," he says. "I didn't want my girls to see me under those circumstances. I don't think it would have been pleasant for them. For me, I could deal with it, but I didn't want them there."
Thorpe stacked his time without incident, keeping himself busy by reading, watching sports and conversing with his fellow inmates.
"You take it week by week, day by day, and then those last 25 or 30 days, you start counting the days, counting the hours," he says. "You're just happy when it's all done."
In other words: head down, focus on what's inside the ropes, not what lies beyond. Which is, ironically, what might have gotten him into trouble in the first place.
Thorpe was released from prison in January. While he remained under suspension until the end of March, he immediately began putting together a team of professionals who would manage all of his business, financial, legal and public relations affairs and leave him to do the one thing he does best: play golf.
"I've got a wonderful team now, Team Thorpe," he says, one of many times he references his new 'team' in conversation. "The things that happened in the past will not happen again, let's put it that way. We've got people now who are in your corner for the right reasons, not because they want something from you."
You can be forgiven for raising an eyebrow at this line of reasoning. After all, playing golf and letting others handle the details is exactly what got Thorpe into this problem in the first place. But this time around, Thorpe and his team work on a transparent, checks-and-balances arrangement. Everyone has a role to play in Team Thorpe, and everyone, knowing what's at stake and what's happened before, will be keeping an eye on everyone else.
Thorpe does admit, however, that he's got work to do to hold up his end of the deal. After posting rounds of 72 and 71 at the Outback, he smacked into the reality of a year off from the game, carding a 77 on Sunday. His tie for 59th place earned him a check for $3,060 for the weekend's work. It won't make much of a dent in the tax bill he still owes, but it might be some of the most welcome cash he's ever earned.
"Once you've made a couple bogeys, you have to go out and play," he says. "You can't let that one bad shot ruin your whole life. I'd like to think that I'm on the trail of recuperation. I've just got to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Thorpe's new life started with the first tee shot at TPC Tampa onthat Friday. A man who'd once been so nervous at the thought of playing with Arnold Palmer that he couldn't get the ball to stay on the tee, now faced perhaps the most significant shot of his entire life. So what was he thinking at that moment?
"Don't top it!" he laughs. And where did that shot end up going?
"Dead center of the fairway, 270, 280 yards," Thorpe smiles.
Exactly the kind of shot that keeps you coming back.
Jay Busbee is the editor of the Devil Ball Golf blog on Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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