Champions Tour star wonders about the lack of blacks at the tee
Jim Thorpe is one of the best golfers on the Champions Tour, which, to revisit what was said about the late Joe Louis, makes him a credit to his race the human race.
But Thorpe is African-American, and he is dismayed at the lack of black players on the pro tours.
Three blacks play regularly on the Champions Tour Thorpe, Jim Dent and Walter Morgan. Aside from Tiger Woods, no blacks are regular members of the PGA Tour.
'I have no idea what the hell has happened,' says Thorpe, who will defend his title at the Jeld-Wen Tradition from Aug. 28-31 at the Reserve Vineyards & Golf Club in Aloha. 'We talk about it every day. There were nearly a dozen of us (on the PGA Tour) in the mid- to late '70s. It is very hard to understand.'
Thorpe, 54, winner of last week's Long Island (N.Y.) Classic by one stroke over Corvallis' Bob Gilder, has conducted a number of clinics and spoken to minority groups about the game.
'We have done everything we can do,' he says. 'We have many programs in the inner cities for youths. There are more African-Americans playing golf than ever before, but lately we haven't found one other than Tiger to make an impact on the tour.'
Turnaround takes time
Thorpe isn't sure what to make of Woods, who is of mixed heritage and has described himself as 'Cablinasian.'
'Tiger says, 'I just want to be a golfer,' ' Thorpe says. 'He is part Thai, part this, part that. If that is the way he chooses to look at it, so be it. But we accept him because of his dark complexion and because he looks African-American. Of course we would like to see him be more demonstrative in motivating (minority) kids toward golf, but there is probably only so much he can do. I know he does a lot with junior programs. He is getting more kids involved, I'm sure.
'I did a benefit the other day for about 100 kids in Boston, and I told them it is a good sport to play. I understand it is a very expensive game, but somewhere along the line, you have to pay for some things. Kids see the contracts basketball and football players are signing for. I mean, LeBron James gets $90 million. These kids believe they can do that, too. Maybe it would help if we had more kids look that way at golf, I don't know.
'It seems like we lost a couple of generations between Tiger and me. I think 10 years down the road, we will see more. By the time he is 35, maybe we will have another player or two out here.'
Thorpe, incidentally, is part Native American. His great grandmother was Cherokee, which explains in part why he carries the name of the great Olympic decathlete.
'My great-grandparents knew Jim's family,' Thorpe says. 'I heard my daddy tell the story, but I think he was kidding. He would say, 'If I have a boy, and he weighs more than nine or 10 pounds at birth, I will name him Jim.' I was the biggest child of the 12. I weighed 12 pounds.'
Football falls by wayside
Thorpe nearly chose one of the original Jim Thorpe's sports. A fine football player in high school, the younger Jim Thorpe was a running back at Morgan State. Injuries and the lure of golf his father, Elbert Sr., was a greenskeeper, and older brothers Chuck and Bill were pro players swayed his choice.
'I got broke up bad my senior year in football,' says the 6-foot, 205-pound Thorpe, who grew up in North Carolina. 'It affected my speed, and then I watched the guys at the Colts' training camp that year, and maybe I was small and quick, but they were big and quick.
'If I had loved the game, I could have probably found a home in the NFL. But I was pumped up watching the guys make good money out there playing golf. And knowing a football career as a running back is short, I think I did the right thing.'
Thorpe, the fifth boy and ninth child of 12 siblings, started getting serious about golf hustling opponents.
'That probably helped me more than anything,' he says. 'It gave me the heart and the right attitude to go out there and tee it up against the best. If I had it to do over again, I would have stuck with golf through my teenage years. At Morgan State, I put away my clubs for two or three years. I didn't even care about playing.'
Thorpe earned nearly $2 million on the PGA Tour from 1976-98, winning three times and getting as high as fourth on the money list ($379,091 in 1985). Then he found new life as a senior. Last year, he won the Tradition and finished ninth on the Champions money list with more than $1.5 million in earnings.
Last week's win was his sixth on the Champions Tour. He matched the tour record with a second-round 60. For the year, he ranks 11th on the money list with $861,906 in earnings.
'This is the greatest thing since soda pop,' he says.