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Bolt from the blue, without the thunder

[Times photos: Steve Hasel]
Tommy Bolt, 85, stares down one of his practice shots at Black Diamond Ranch.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001


Former U.S. Open champ Tommy Bolt, 85, once known for his flaring temper, now enjoys a peaceful round of golf.

LECANTO -- Not far from where his replica U.S. Open trophy is displayed, where mementos of a long career are encased, the "Terrible Tommy" moniker is taking another beating. Members at Black Diamond Ranch fawn over Tommy Bolt, who is quick with a quip and sure to address them by name and is as genuine as the impeccable designer golf shirt he is wearing.

Bolt might recently have been denied a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame, but he is the resident legend here. He's regularly breaking his age, not his clubs, and still is cracking wise, telling a few stories about the old days on the PGA Tour and trying his best to quell all that talk about his temper.

photo
Bolt may have had a penchant for throwing clubs, but these days he holds on to them when playing at Black Diamond in Citrus County.
The nicknames abound -- Tempestuous Tommy, Thunder Bolt -- but you could hardly find a more kind and pleasant man than the one who traversed the back nine of the Ranch Course one recent day in a mere 38 strokes. Not bad for 85 years young.

"It hurt me then, but it helped me later on," Bolt said of his club-throwing reputation. "Everybody knows who I am. People respect that. I had guts enough to release my emotions. I had guts enough to toss a club now and then. Any golfer who has never thrown a club is not serious about that game. That's all there is to it. Bobby Jones threw more clubs than I ever did.

"Even Tiger Woods . . . are you kidding me? He swears. He throws clubs in the ground, tosses them. Don't tell me he can keep it all in. He's smart enough to control it as best as he can because he knows everybody is watching him."

Bolt has been telling his story often of late. The U.S. Open program did a story, and all the golf magazines came to visit, as did a reporter from a newspaper in Tulsa, Okla., site of the 101st U.S. Open this week at Southern Hills Country Club. Bolt won his Open title there in 1958, defeating Gary Player by four shots.

That was during Bolt's heyday, a time when Ben Hogan was slowing down and Arnold Palmer was about to take off.

Bolt played on two U.S. Ryder Cup teams and won 15 tour events, missing just six cuts in more than two decades. For years, he was co-owner of the tour scoring record, having shot 60 in 1954 at Wethersfield (Conn.) Country Club in the second round of the Insurance City Open. In 1971, at age 52, Bolt took Jack Nicklaus to the wire at the PGA Championship, succumbing by three shots on the back nine. And he had a big role in the formation of the Senior PGA Tour.

But he is remembered for throwing clubs.

"I think he kept it up because people expected it of him," said Belleair's Mike Souchak, who played the tour with Bolt. "I think he got a little Hollywood mixed in. He did it and laughed about it. He was never very serious about it."

"It's been ballooned so out of proportion," said Bolt, who nonetheless taught his proteges to toss their clubs down the fairway so they wouldn't have to walk backward to pick them up. Golf Digest's Dan Jenkins once wrote that Bolt's clubs "spent more time in the air than Amelia Earhardt."

And then there's that picture from the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, Bolt in full heave, ready to toss his driver into the lake on the final hole after depositing two balls in there.

"It seems like I was caught at the most inopportune times," he said. "I got all the bad press there. He proved me guilty, caught me in action."

* * *

If Bolt got bad press, he certainly was good to those who gave it to him. All the reporters wanted to talk to Tommy after a round because they knew he'd have something to say.

Bolt's best year was 1958, when he won the Colonial Invitational and U.S. Open and finished seventh on the money list with nearly $27,000.

The week before the Open, Bolt missed a 4-foot putt in Dallas that would have put him in a playoff with Sam Snead, whom he then played two practice rounds with in Tulsa.

"Playing with Sam, just watching him swing, he had such a beautiful tempo. Playing two rounds of golf with him ... you get something from that, derive something from it. It helped me. My tempo was good. I was thinking good. I was at peace with myself and at peace with the world. I didn't have any enemies. This is the way you have to be. A person can't go out there mad at the world and win. And I holed a 15-footer for birdie on the first hole.

"I looked over at the clubhouse, and I was feeling this good. I wondered who was going to finish second."

That is a line often attributed to Bolt, one he used without prompting. He also confirmed another story. After the first round, the Tulsa World reported Bolt's age to be 49.

"I cornered the reporter the next morning and I said, "Hey, what do you mean by quoting my age as 49?' He said, "Tommy, I'm sorry. That was a typographical error.' I said, "Typographical error my a--. It was a perfect 4 and a perfect 9.' "

Bolt laughs, as if telling the tale for the first time. The reporter was supposed to list his age as 39. Actually, that was wrong, too.

"I was 41," Bolt said. "I lied to the PGA when I joined the tour, because I didn't want to look like an old man out there. I was on the tour at 34 and they had my age in the PGA record book as 32. To me, 34 sounded like you were ancient. You know how the movie stars knock a couple of years off their age? I thought I'd knock a couple of years off mine."

* * *

Bolt got his start in golf as a caddie in his native Louisiana. The pro at Shreveport Country Club, Abe Espinosa, came to his course one day in the late 1920s and Bolt was impressed. "He was dressed so immaculately. Winged-tipped shoes, those knickers. He looked like a professional," Bolt said. "I'm 14 years old and said, "Look at this, this is what I want to be.' I wanted to dress and look nice and appear like those pros did in those days."

Bolt started on tour in 1946 but ran out of money and had to get a job before he returned for good in 1950. His first win was at the 1951 North and South Open, played at Pinehurst No. 2. And he befriended Hogan, who helped him change his grip, a move that produced some of the best golf of Bolt's career.

But there are plenty who ponder if it might have been better.

Palmer, who traveled with Bolt during his early years on the tour, described him as "one of the best shotmakers I ever saw." But he declined to tackle the subject of Bolt's temper. In his book, A Golfer's Life, Palmer said of Bolt: "You've never met a more charming and interesting fellow. I learned an awful lot from him."

"I think he missed a great number of opportunities to win events because of that funny temper of his," Souchak said. "He was a very fine player. ... He could play shots that very few people could ever think about. But that was all part of Tom. I think the world of him. He's a neat guy, a good friend. And funny. Most of all, he was a first-class gentleman."

Said Player, who finished second to Bolt at Southern Hills: "I thought he was great for golf. He could do it (have a temper) and it looked all right. He was a colorful golfer, and a wonderful golfer. And one of the best shotmakers I've seen."

* * *

Bolt was tied with Nicklaus for the lead through 63 holes of the 1971 PGA Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, but the Golden Bear played those last nine holes in 3 under and Bolt settled for third.

With no senior tour, Bolt took several club jobs, including a stint at Bardmoor in Largo and Tarpon Woods (now Lost Oaks of Innisbrook) in Palm Harbor. For a time, he also owned an executive course and driving range in Sarasota.

Although he never was able to cash in to the extent of players today, Bolt had a big role in the formation of the Senior PGA Tour. In 1979, the Legends of Golf tournament helped launch the tour, and Bolt and partner Art Wall went down in a memorable duel against Robert De Vicenzo and Julius Boros, losing on the sixth-extra playoff hole. "We showed that the old guys could still play," Bolt said.

And he still can, as members at Black Diamond can attest.

"Every chance I get, if I'm not busy, if I'm not off to a tournament, I always work on my game. You have to keep in touch with golf."

He'll be a guest of the USGA this week at Southern Hills.

And no, he won't be giving club-throwing lessons at the driving range.

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