Fuzzy Zoeller: The Rookie who won a Masters

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Fuzzy Zoeller is the only modern-day player to win a Green Jacket on debut – a fact which still blows his mind. Now aged 60, he reflects on his 1979 triumph.

Frank Urban ‘Fuzzy’ Zoeller has just turned 60, and is one of only three players to win the Masters on their debuts. Because the other two (Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen) won the fi rst two tournaments, Fuzzy’s place in the record books is distinctly more impressive.

As well as winning the 1979 Masters, he also won the 1984 US Open at Winged Foot, where he famously waved a white towel at Greg Norman in fake surrender, before beating him by eight shots the next day in the play-off. A winner of 20 tournaments, he is known for being one of the greatest characters golf has ever known; he is remembered for being cool under pressure, whistling as he strolled down the fairways and interacting with the crowds...

I’ve always been ‘Fuzzy’. F-U-Z are my initials: I was named after my dad. He kept the Frank part and I got the Fuzzy bit. In first grade, I thought I was doing pretty damned well because I never missed school and was always well behaved. So when I was asked to take a report home to my parents I never considered there would be trouble. Apparently I wasn’t paying attention in class. Which was odd because the nun who was my teacher never called on me to answer a question. Or so I thought.

She was calling me ‘Frank’ and I was ignoring her! I was fortunate as a youngster. I lived on Valley View Road and the 4th fairway on Valley View golf course was just across my front yard. I was there every day. Even in the winter time.

I knew when I was eight or nine years old what I was going to do. I loved watching Arnold Palmer on television. He was a big motivation. I was an average student in school. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to play golf. All you need is a big heart and balls the size of grapefruits.

When I made it to the Tour the money was nothing like it is now. But it surely wasn’t bad. The first tournament I won – the Andy Williams San Diego Open – paid me $40,000. Back in 1979 that was a lot of money. Then of course I won the Masters a couple of months later. That fi rst place cheque was $50,000. I thought I was working in a gold mine. It is shocking that so few rookies have won at Augusta.

When you think of the talent that has walked through that clubhouse and no-one has done it since me in 1979. That blows my mind. It’s amazing that guys with so much more ability than I ever had haven’t figured the place out right away.

I was playing well when I arrived in 1979. That was a positive. And I got a great caddie – we all had to use the club caddies back then. His name was Jerry Beard. We hit it off right away. He had won me in a lottery apparently. And he was so happy. I remember when we played nine holes with Hale Irwin on the Monday morning.

Jerry turned to me and said, “If you listen to me we’ll win this thing.” So I did and we did. Jerry was amazing that week. It was like he was the seeing-eye dog and I was the blind man. He led me round by the nose. He told me everything from what club to use to which way and how much every putt would break. He knew it all and I knew nothing. I still talk to him a few times a year.

I had a few of the things you need to be a winner at Augusta. I was a big-hitter back then. And I hit the ball right-to-left, which is the best shape round there.

Golf can be such a cruel game. We all know that. And what happened to Ed Sneed the year I won I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. To make bogey on each of the last three holes was tragic for him. I actually played with Ed in the second round that week. He shot in the mid-60s. It could have been anything. He hit nothing but long darts all day – heat-seeking missiles right at the hole. I remember telling him when we were done: “If you don’t win this thing there’s something wrong.”

I was with Tom Watson (the third man in the play-off) when Ed missed his putt on the 17th green. We saw it on replay after signing our cards. Tom turned to me and said: “We still have a chance.” I hadn’t even thought about it. I was just so damned happy that I had qualifi ed to come back next year! But then Ed dropped another
shot at the last. Winning never crossed my mind in the final round. It did in the play-off; you never know what is going to happen in sudden death.

To me, pressure is just another word. People tell me I never looked nervous or tense on the course, but believe me I was. On the 1st hole of the play-off I hit a great drive down the left side and had 162 yards to the hole. There was a lot of adrenaline pumping. Jerry and I were thinking 7-iron, but he said the 8-iron would be better, the way I was feeling. I hit it to 15 feet short of the cup. And I actually had the easiest birdie putt of the three. Ed and Tom were closer but above the hole.

I hit that putt too hard, right through the break. I thought I was done. They had diffi cult putts, but I expected one of them to make it. When they didn’t they opened the door for me. At the 11th I hit a huge drive, maybe 25 yards past the others. Ed hit a 3-iron to the green; Tom a 5-iron. I hit an 8-iron. The pin was back left and I had a perfect yardage. For a right-to-left player like me it was like having meat on a pork chop baby. I hit it to four feet. Standing over the putt wasn’t so bad. I knew the line; Jerry said it was right edge. He took all the heat. When I made the putt a strange thing happened.

My mind fl ashed right back to the times I spent on the practice green as a kid ‘putting’ for the Masters or The Open. Then it dawned on me what had just happened. I can’t explain why I never won the Masters again. It wasn’t for lack of trying. But I never really got hot. It seemed like every time I got to Augusta I was playing mediocre. You can’t do that and win there.

The feeling I had when I fi rst saw Augusta National repeated itself at Winged Foot in the 1984 US Open. The course just fi t my eye. I can’t explain that, but I felt great. I knew my game was ‘on’. That doesn’t guarantee you are going to win, but it does mean that good things are going to happen.

But I never had that feeling at Augusta. Maybe I celebrated too much! Now, I know people still want to see me play. The old people! But they can still see me in the Par-3. And I play the practice rounds. But I have to be competitive. If I’m not competitive, I can’t do it. I don’t have an ego. And I knew it was time. My wife and kids thought I was crazy, but they understood.

I get asked a lot which of my two Majors means the most to me. The Green Jacket is magical. And to me the Masters is number one. You can fight and argue over which of the four Majors is the biggest or best, but for me the US Open is number two. All four are worth winning though! I had my chances at the British, but I didn’t quite make it.

My best chance to win the British came at Turnberry in 1986. I had the game for playing over there. I hit the ball low and right-to-left. I wasn’t much of a haggis-eater but I enjoyed the golf! Tee-times play such a big role over there. You can get totally screwed by when you have to play. You can wake up early in the morning and play in wind and rain. Then by 2pm it’s flat calm.

It’s the damndest place. I remember missing a putt at Turnberry the first time I played there. I swear it wasn’t six inches long. And it wasn’t because the green was bad. I looked at the putt and lined it up. Then a 60mph gust of wind hit me right in the butt and I damn near whiffed it. Looking back, that was a hard putt!

I played in The Open every year from 1979 to the late 90s. I loved all the courses, though I wasn’t so keen on St George’s or Lytham. I need to see a course to enjoy it. And there’s a lot you don’t see on those two. I never really trusted myself on either one. I just wasn’t sure of the lines or the clubs.

I played with Seve my fi rst time at St Andrews. He told me not to hit the ball down the middle of the fairway. God bless him for that. He told me to go left. That’s all I did. But I was wondering what he was talking about. I soon found out. It’s such a great course. I love those double greens. I ran around with Hubert Green when I played. We still do in fact. Just not as quickly. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun.

I have so many stories, but mot many you can print. Here’s one though. We were in Hartford, Connecticut. And we had these brand new Buicks for the week. Beautiful they were. So we were a little late getting in on Tuesday evening and we both had early tee-times the next day in the Pro-Am. So Hubert drove too fast and hit a concrete barrier. He ripped out the whole right side of the car. He looked at me and said, “that wasn’t there when we left earlier was it?” God, we laughed.

I’ll never forget the shot Seve hit when we played each other in the 1983 Ryder Cup at PGA National. He had me 4-down after nine holes and my back was so bad. I could hardly walk. But I got on a roll and he hit a couple of wild shots. In fact, if he hadn’t holed from 15 feet on the 16th and 20 feet on the 17th I would have kicked his little butt. Anyway, we got to the 18th. I drove down the fairway and ripped a 2-iron about 117 yards from the green. Seve was in the left rough. He took a mighty swing and all I saw was grass. The ball popped up and went into a bunker right in front of him.

He walked in there with a 3-wood in his hands. I couldn’t think what he was going to do. Now, when you play with the greatest players in the world you expect great things. But this was the greatest shot I’ve ever seen. Just to have the guts to hit it was amazing enough. But to pull it off was even better. It wasn’t as if it was a shallow bunker, either. This baby was maybe five feet deep. And back then no-one ever thought about hitting a wood from a damned bunker. It was flat out unbelievable. I applauded when he hit it. The man had an imagination you just don’t teach. He aimed maybe 50 yards left of the green and hit this massive slice. It finished almost green high, maybe 30 yards from the surface.

Then he got up and down – of course – and we halved the hole and the match. I loved the Ryder Cup. It’s magical. Playing for your country means a lot to everyone. Even those who don’t show it. And the pressure. All I know is that, when I miss a putt in a tournament, I’m never that bothered. But when I missed in the Ryder Cup it drove me nuts.

Speaking of going nuts, I remember playing with Lee Trevino in my first Ryder Cup in 1979. We were up against Ken Brown and someone else. Ken was so damned slow he drove us nuts. Maybe that’s why we got our butts kicked, 3&2. I think (captain) Billy Casper paired Lee and I because we both talk a lot. Well, we certainly had a lot of time to talk that day, waiting on Kenny.

The R&A and the USGA need to start listening to the young players on Tour. They will tell them what to change. The one rule I’d love to see changed is that related to long putters; I’d love to see them get the putter out of the belly and off the chin. Let’s get back to playing golf, a game where nerve is part of the equation.

I’ve tasted the good, the bad and the ugly in my career. The comments I made about Tiger all those years ago at Augusta were meant as a joke. And it took eight days for it to be news. I was sitting at home when Hubert Green called me. “You’d better get hold of your lawyer,” he said. I was astonished. Everyone who was there knew it was a joke. What was I supposed to say? They got me. I did say those things, but what was lost was how I said them. It was a joke. And I never meant to hurt anyone. I’m more careful now than I was back then. I was judged on two seconds of my life rather than what I had done the rest of my career.

But you know what? Crap sells today. People don’t want to hear good things about people. They want to hear s**t. The lack of response from the Tiger camp wasn’t Tiger himself. If he had been in control he and I would have had that thing under control in about 30 seconds. But, I think his agent and his dad had a lot to do with how they handled it. That’s my personal opinion.

People yell at me all the time, even now. “Serve that chicken” they shout. I say “Great”. Here in America you can eat and serve anything you damn well want to. I don’t care. Enjoy it. That’s how I get out of it. But, what hurt the most was the treatment my friends and family endured. They weren’t even involved. It’s over with now though; water off a duck’s butt.