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Life of the party

Hop on: Roger Maltbie tells all from inside the ropes

"I liked having a good time. ... As far as I was concerned, you had to play hurt."
Photography: Joey Terrill

By Craig Bestrom
Golf Digest
May 2003

Roger Maltbie hasn't accomplished everything he might have expected to in three decades of professional golf, but boy, has he enjoyed the ride. Today, Maltbie is among the most popular TV analysts covering the game. As a storyteller, he's second to none.

Maltbie never won a major, but as a full-time tour player from 1975 to 1996, his five tour victories included back-to-back wins as a rookie, a bizarre playoff victory that led to some hard feelings, and a career-extending triumph at the '85 World Series of Golf.

Now 51, Maltbie thinks a little practice and a concerted effort to lay off the cheesburgers are all he'd need to be a factor on the Champions Tour. So NBC made sure he would continue walking the fairways for the network by extending his contract through 2005.

During a series of interviews, Maltbie roared with laughter while describing topped shots, lucky bounces and almost whiffing a tee ball after having been overserved the night before. And for a moment he cried while reminiscing about nearly winning the Masters in 1987. His experiences have been a riot, and he's not afraid to talk all about 'em.

Golf Digest: You've won some pretty high-profile events as a player, and as a TV presence you get a lot of attention from galleries when you're out there walking with the leaders. Do you consider yourself a celebrity?

Roger Maltbie:
Fans feel they can say hi to me and I'm not going to bark or snap at them. I don't consider myself a celebrity, I consider myself approachable and friendly. I think I was that way throughout my career.

No secret that fans can be in awe of pros, but what happens when it's a player who's in awe of another pro?
Tuesday afternoon at Firestone, PGA Championship in 1975, my first major, I look at the pairings and see I'm playing with Jack Nicklaus. I'm figuring he's asking himself, "Who is this guy?" And no matter what I've done or not done, when I stand on that first tee, he's going to be looking at me and making up his own mind whether I've got anything or nothing.

So you arrive at the first tee on Thursday, and there's Jack. What happens next?
Off the first tee, maybe 80 yards, there's a little creek that winds down the left. No professional golfer had ever hit it in that creek. ... I hit it in that creek. I was so scared. So scared. And he couldn't have been more gracious.

You topped the shot?
A heel/top/squib. I had no oxygen reaching any part of my body. None. Oh, was I embarrassed.

Big crowd watching?
Oh, yeah -- Jack and Ohio, are you kidding me? We go through a couple of holes, and I barely get the ball in the air. At one point he says to me, "Roger, just relax. You've got a very nice golf swing. You're a good player. Good things have been happening to you. Just relax." And I got better. But not much.

Anything about me today? Maltbie at home in Northern California.
What else do you remember about Nicklaus from that first encounter?
A couple of things. The old fifth hole was a long par 3, uphill. First day it was playing into the wind. At the time, Angelo Argea was caddieing for him. Not only was Jack the greatest player in the world, Jack was the best caddie in the world. Jack didn't ask questions; he had his own yardages. The first day, I can't remember the yardage, but I want to say 220, up a substantial hill and into a pretty stiff breeze. Jack pulls out 1-iron. Bang, right at the center of the green, comes up about three yards short. No problem.

And you hit ...
Three-wood. The next day we come to that hole again, Jack does all his computations, grabs the 1-iron. Angelo says, "Boss, you hit that yesterday, and we didn't get there."

I'll never forget the look on Jack's face. He looked at Angelo, and he says, "We'll get it there today." And he hit this 1-iron. I never saw a shot like it. It was just a skyscraper, into this wind and up this hill, and it pitched on the back of the green. Back then with that equipment. And we're talking a 25 or 30 mile-per-hour wind.

The other thing I remember: Ed Dougherty was playing really well the first round, leading. And I said to Jack, "Dougherty, look at that ... " He's like five under par or something like that. Jack said, "Doesn't matter -- 276 will win." What did he shoot? Two-seventy-six. I thought that was impressive.

In 1976, Nicklaus started his tournament, the Memorial, and you beat Hale Irwin in a playoff.
Three-hole playoff. First one of its kind. Jack didn't want his event decided by sudden death and thought three-hole stroke play would be better.

When you headed to the tee to start the playoff, I'm guessing the crowd knew Hale a little better than they knew you.
Oh, boy. He had won the Open in '74 at Winged Foot, on the hardest golf course in the world, and here he is.

And the crowd, and the tournament host, probably weren't rooting for the underdog?
That was the feeling I got about it. I can't put words into Jack's mouth -- it's never been said to me by him -- but to have Hale Irwin win your first, a guy with some pedigree ... I was kind of long-haired with this floppy mustache and wearing these stupid [plaid] pants.

Are they still in your closet?
No, we got rid of those. At any rate, we go out for the playoff. I see Hale and extend my hand. He didn't receive it that warmly. And Jeff Burrell said the best thing that any caddie has ever said to me -- ever -- as I stepped over to my bag. Jeff looked at me and he said, "He thinks he's going to win."

I started to laugh. Here I am, I'd never been in a playoff on the tour. This is a big deal. Jack's first tournament. Are you kidding? Big event. Let's face it, Hale thinks he's going to win, maybe I think he's going to win, and everybody else thinks he's going to win. But that comment really relaxed me. Cracked me up.

So we both birdied 15 and we both parred 16, so now, playing the third hole, we're in sudden death. It's set up to finish on 17. We both drove into the fairway. I was away and the hole was cut on the left side of the green, and I pulled the ball left. It hit in the gallery, and all of a sudden it bounced out on the green. My first reaction was, "I've hit somebody's head! Something awful's happened!" And the ball is on the green, maybe 25 feet from the hole. I look up, and Hale is absolutely glowering at me. He is not happy, and it's very apparent. So with that he hits it stiff, maybe 15 feet behind the hole. When we get up to the green I find out that the ball had struck the gallery-rope stake. I miss my putt, and I take my glove off, hand it to Jeff and I go, "Hey, we tried." He said, "It isn't over." I said, "This guy ain't Hale Irwin because he misses these to win." Figured it was case closed. Well, he missed. Then at the last hole Hale drove it up against a tree in the rough and had to hack it a couple of times. I make the birdie putt and win.

Checking out the family wine cellar.
And what does Hale say to you?
He shook my hand. Then after the presentation, we went to the pressroom. Hale is giving his interview. I'm sitting in the back waiting for him to finish, and a marshal comes in holding the
stake. He says to me, "I thought you might like to have this."

Now what do you do? As I look up, Hale is staring holes in me, and I'm holding this gallery stake. I kind of shrug my shoulders and lift it up. He says, "No, thanks, I've already had the shaft once today."

Hale didn't speak to me for about six months.

We've heard it was longer.
Well, it was about six months. Then finally I forced the issue and said, "Hale, come on, get over it." But it was a long time.

Years later, in '84, Hale got a lucky bounce off the rocks on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach to win a playoff against Jim Nelford. Were you there?
Yeah, and the next week Hale was doing an interview, facing me as I'm coming from the clubhouse. So I stand behind the interviewer, and I just nodded my head. They had to stop the interview. I looked at Hale and said, "It's funny how a golf ball can bounce."

How'd that go over?
Didn't have much of a reaction. Away I went. If you play golf long enough, you're going to get great bounces, you're going to get awful bounces. That's just the way it is.

Hale and I are fine today. I don't think it was anything that I ever did in particular to anger him. It bothered him that the Memorial thing happened. And I was the perpetrator, I guess.

You have warmer memories of a moment as a kid at Pebble Beach when you met Arnold Palmer.
It's kind of funny, you go back to your childhood and there's so little that you can remember crystal clear. You have vague memories. But there are some things that are crystal clear. And on the first tee was Arnold Palmer -- I mean, like somebody turned on a spotlight, like watching Bob Hope on stage. He was wearing one of those alpaca sweaters with the bell sleeves. It was like, "That is the star."

I think it was '60 or '61, so I'm about 10. Arnold had the biggest gallery. I got separated from my parents, and I ended up behind the second tee. Nobody is usually back there, because the tee's a little elevated, and you can't see the fairway. I guess I had a nervous look on my face, like a little kid would have, scared. He looked at me and said, "Are you OK?"

I said, "I can't find my mom and dad. I lost my mom and dad."

He just said, "Come with me. They'll see you with me." So away we walked down the fairway for a few yards. Then I heard, "Roger!" -- you know how mothers can sound. That was that.

Have you ever mentioned it to him?
Years ago. He had no recollection, which I think says a lot about the man -- he'd done the same thing for other kids. But he was my golf hero from that point and remains that to this day. Back then you were either in the Arnie camp or the Jack camp, and I was squarely in the Arnie camp.

Did you ever meet Hogan?
I do have a story. One year playing the Colonial, 16th hole, par 3, at the edge of the property. There's a little area back there where you can be by yourself. I was playing with Peter Oosterhuis and Allen Miller. As I walked up I looked back there and I could see Mr. Hogan. He looked at me and winked, like, "Shhhsh, don't tell anybody I'm here." Now my heart is going a million miles an hour -- Hogan is back there. I'm not going to say anything to the guys. Why put that on them?

So I stood where I could keep an eye on him. Miller made a swing, and Hogan never watched the ball. I was watching his eyes. He watched the swing, never followed the flight of the ball. Then Oosterhuis got up, and if you remember Peter's swing, it was kind of gangly. He hit the shot, and Hogan's head dropped, chin to his chest, and he just shook his head. I have never told Peter that story. So then I got up. I am fading this sucker in there no matter what. I hit the shot and never turned back to see if there was a reaction. I did get it on the green, though.

Sam Snead?
Sam was terrific. It's 1999, and we're doing the Open at Pinehurst. I'm in the tower at 18 with Dan Hicks. We decide to do an interview with Sam. He was what, 87 or something? We were advised that Sam had good days and bad days, so we decided to do the interview on tape. The last thing you want to do is embarrass anybody. It started slowly, but all of a sudden Sam turns to Dan and says, "You know, I sat down and thought about it once, and if I had shot 69 in the final round of the Open, I'd have won eight of them." From that moment, he snapped in and he was lucid. Clear as a bell. So then Dan asked him about his longevity. Sam said, "Well, I never drank much. Always took pretty good care of myself. Got to bed early, got a lot of sleep." Then, with an old Sam Snead grin, he looked at Dan and said, "Course, I did shake those bedsprings every now and then."

With that, we lose it. So the interview never aired, but it was tremendous.

You were known as a tour player who liked to party a little. Accurate?
I liked having a good time. No question about that. I enjoyed my cocktails and guess I was always the life-of-the-party kind of guy -- one of them, anyway, when I was there. But I worked a lot harder on my game than people ever gave me credit for.

Who were the guys on tour who could drink you under the table?
Haven't found 'em. Still looking for 'em.

You must have a tale or two of a guy who perhaps had a few too many the night before but played through it.
Fuzzy was pretty good. And of course all the old-timers could.

Did you ever play with a hangover?
Oh, sure. Absolutely.

Maltbie's at home walking with the leader.
Did you ever play great with a hangover? Can it be done?
Yeah. As far as I was concerned, you had to play hurt. I remember one time, my rookie year in '75, playing the Greater Jacksonville Open. They had something they called the swingers' tent. A great big tent, and when the rounds were over, they had bands in there, parties, a pretty lively place. Went in there one night and got hammered, really hammered. I wasn't playing well in the tournament and was one of the first ones out on Sunday.

A buddy of mine, David Larson -- we'd grown up together -- was caddieing for me. I got to the practice tee and hit a couple of wedges, and the first one I hit right in the middle of the ball. I'm trying to hit it 25 yards, and I hit it about 100. The next one, I hit about six inches behind it. I said, "This ain't gonna work." So I just went over, propped myself under a tree and slept. That was my warmup. "Wake me up when it's my time to tee off."

We get to the first hole, I'm paired with Joe Porter, who was a character, and David Graham, who was very serious on the golf course, always. I get up and just squibbed the ball into the lake off the tee. I looked up and I started laughing. I couldn't believe I hit the ball. I didn't think I was going to hit it. I really didn't.

Now I'm on the green, third hole. It's March. It's a cold, windy, damp morning and I'm sweating profusely. I've got a towel around my neck -- I've got the cold sweats. I got up over a putt and raised up and said, "Excuse me." And I ran back into the woods and got sick. We're off early, there's nobody out there at this time anyway. I come back, Porter is laughing his head off. I get up and hole the putt, about a 12-footer. I chip and one-putt my way around the golf course.

At the end of the day, I shoot 72, even par. David Graham shoots 74. And David had one of those days where he hit the ball very well but could not get it to go in from any distance. As he signed his card, he said, "That's it. I'm quitting this bloody game when a man can come out completely drunk and beat me."

Oh, was he hot! Oh, was he mad! Porter screaming in laughter. That was the only one like that.

Now that your boys are getting older and starting to hear stories about their dad, do they bring it up?
You're talking about when I was young and having fun. I had some money, I had some success, I was living a dream, I was single. Once Donna moved in with me ...

You reined it in a little?
Yeah. If we were at a cocktail party or a pro-am, did I have a couple of cocktails, would I get a little loud, tell some jokes? Yeah, I did that. But to ever think I was out all night, showing up on the golf course staggering drunk, that just didn't happen. Donna would have killed me.

Before we leave the subject, give us the full story on losing the winner's check at Pleasant Valley in '75.
So I win two weeks in a row. I walk in to the bar down by the putting green. "Where do we go? What do we do? Let's have some fun." So we went to a place. We had a heck of a time. They were bringing me shots. It's a celebration.

How much was the winner's check?
Forty thousand. I wake up the next morning, but it was some time before it dawned on me that I had won the tournament the day before. One of those, Where am I? What did I do? Where have I been? Then it hit me: Man, I won. I won two in a row. Now it's kind of flooding back to me. I'm going to put my pants on, I'm going to go buy a newspaper. To be honest, I want to read all about me. That's where I'm at at that point. I reach into my pants pocket and there's not a dime, not a quarter, nothing. Nothing.

No direct deposit back then? They gave you an actual check?
Yep, the fold-it-and-put-it-in-your-pocket kind. Sit back down on the bed. Just where was I? Really, I'm putting the pieces together here. That's it -- P.O. Flynn's. I call over there, and somebody answers, apparently cleaning. I said, "I was a patron in there last night, and I lost something. Do you have a lost-and-found?"

"What are you looking for?"

I said, "A check. I left a check in your establishment last night."

The guy says, "Are you OK? You sound pretty nervous."

I said, "Well, it's a pretty big check."

"How much is it for?"

"Forty thousand."

"Forty thousand! No, we don't have anything like that. I'd know about that."

'I liked having a good time. No question about that. I was always the life-of-the-party kind of guy.'
Hung up the phone, called the tournament director. "I've got a problem. Last night I lost the check." The guy laughed and he laughed and he laughed. He said, "Don't worry about anything. We'll stop payment on it. We'll send you over another check. Relax."

I don't know how much time goes by before it dawned on me: I can't get out of town. So I called back. "Can you send your guy over with a $39,000 check and $1,000 cash so I can get out of town?" So I never did get the $40,000 check.

Did they ever find it?
Yeah. A while later, I get a call from the proprietor, who says, "Would you mind if we keep the check and put it behind the bar?"

Your fun-loving nature has served you well -- you've probably played in hundreds of pro-ams during your career.

What would make every amateur play better and have more fun in a pro-am?
If you didn't think it was the U.S. Open. The professional cares that you have a nice time. If a guy will come out with the attitude that he wants to have fun, that he will play reasonably quickly, observe some of the etiquette of the game and have an interest in how you're doing, that's it. It's real simple. We don't care what you shoot. No matter how bad you think you are, I promise you I've seen worse.

How about the guys who think they're as good a player as you are?
Oh, yeah. You run into the low-handicap player who wants to compete against the pro. He's playing from tees that are 40 and 50 yards ahead every hole. He's giving himself 15-footers and saying, "Well, I made a 4 there." Then every now and then you can hear him talk to his buddies: "I've got the pro 2 down." And you're standing there going, "Gee, whiz. Why am I doing this?"

What's the most common mistake you see among amateurs?
Club selection. They always club off the home run and almost never get it to the hole. I love when they ask, "What are you hitting, pro?" I'll say, "A 7-iron, but for you it's a 3 -- and I mean the one with the headcover on it."

At least you got three Super Bowl rings out of a pro-am. How'd that happen?
When Eddie DeBartolo [Jr.] owned the 49ers, I was introduced to him as a 49er fan. Eddie asked if I came to their games, and I said I did if a buddy called with an extra ticket. He said, "Well don't worry about tickets. We'll get you all those you need." I looked at my wife and said, "How great is this? I've been a Niner fan my whole life."

Eddie and I played in a few Crosbys together and finished fifth one year. I traveled some with the team, and one year when the players were getting their rings, Eddie called me over, reached into a bag and pulled out a box with a Super Bowl ring in it. [Stares at the ring, one of three he has received.] Never been a day go by I don't have this guy.

The Maltbie file

Born: June 30, 1951, Modesto, Calif.
Residence: Los Gatos, Calif.
5-feet-10;200 pounds.
Wife Donna; sons Spencer (16) and Parker (13).
Turned professional: 1973.
Joined Champions Tour: 2001.
San Jose State.
PGA Tour Victories (5):
Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open, Pleasant Valley Cl.
1976: Memorial Tournament.
1985: Manufacturers Hanover Westchester Cl., NEC World Series
of Golf.
On-course analyst for NBC Sports.
A lot of golf fans, certainly the younger generation, know you for your TV work. But you almost won a Masters. How much different would your life be today if you had won at Augusta in '87?
Boy, it would've changed everything. It would have put me on a different level. I'd been a hot-shot rookie, then I became a nothing. Boy, oh boy, would I like going there every April.

You were the co-leader after 54 holes in '87 but missed the playoff with Larry Mize, Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros by a shot. Did you get any sleep before that final round?
I remember I was nervous. So Donna says, "Why don't you call your dad?" [Pauses, chokes back tears.] Still gets to me. Every time I talk about it. As I was talking to him, he said, "Well, son, I just want you to know that regardless of what you shoot tomorrow, I don't care what it is, we couldn't be any more proud of you than we are right now."

I cried like a baby. I betcha I cried a half-hour. I came out and looked at Donna and said, "I'm ready. Ready to go play. Bulletproof from this point on."

You had a one-stroke lead going into the back nine, but you were two behind with two to play. What were those insides feeling like at that point?
Anybody tells you that old saying that the Masters starts on the back nine on Sunday? Well, if you're in contention, they're telling the truth. I've got two holes left, and I know I've got to birdie the last two to tie. I birdied 17, make about a 12-footer. So now I've got a chance, and I know the guys are in at three under. I know what's got to happen. I drive it right in the heart of the fairway and the hole is cut front left and I hit a 6-iron. Without question it's the best shot I ever hit under pressure. Just right of the hole and I'm trying to use the backstop, the tier, to bring it back to the hole. It lands and the crowd goes, "Ooooh!" And I knew what happened. It took one hop and it stayed up on top. So that's when history works against you, because you know nobody ever made this putt, ever. It's not makable. Nice going, but you're done. So I wiggled it down there and tapped it in and finished one shot back.

Is that the biggest disappointment of your career?
You know, at the time, no. The way I'd been playing for the past three years made me believe that I'd have another chance. But if you ask me that now, yes, it's my biggest disappointment.

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