I will be sad to see Fuzzy leave the Masters…as a young creative director I was assigned to follow Fuzzy on the PGA Tour after he won the Masters his first time out. He was a character for sure but the renegade in him is what made him so interesting.
That is why my client Maxfli used him in their advertising. He went against the grain even then choosing to use a Maxfli ball over the Tour favorite Titleist.
I wasn’t much of a golfer but I grew to love and follow the game mostly because Fuzzy took all of the snobbish, pretension out of the game and because he gave me my first set of clubs and a few pointers.
He also stated with confidence that I had the natural golf swing of a pro bowler.
I photographed him the morning after he beat Jack Nicklaus in the famous Skins game when he kissed the Golden Bear to Jack’s shock and amazement after sinking the winning putt. That kiss said it all. Jack represented the stuffiness of old golf and Fuzzy represented the new breed.
The best and worst moments of Fuzzy Zoeller’s professional life took place on the same expanse of manicured lawn, a few hundred yards apart.
In 1979, he was the first rookie in nearly a half-century to win the Masters, becoming golf’s equivalent of a made man. Almost 20 years later, the fast-walking, faster-talking, self-styled ambassador cracked an ugly joke on his way out of the tournament that has haunted him nearly every day since.
“Life’s not a bowl of cherries,” Zoeller said on Friday, walking off Augusta National after 30 years as a competitor for the last time. “You know that.”
His daughter Gretchen, one of four children and a former college golfer, was toting his bag. They hugged on the 18th green, where moments earlier; Zoeller was treated to a standing ovation. Both of them were fighting back tears.
It came at the end of a farewell tour that Mayor Deke Copenhaver kicked off on Monday by handing him the key to the city. Ever the funny man, Zoeller couldn’t resist a promise to return, if only because he already knew where the good bars in town were.
“I’m going to be at the mayor’s house tonight,” Fuzzy said. “So I know where his bar is at.”
He certainly did know the bars but he was friendly with everyone in the bars. Many nights Fuzzy’s manager had me make sure I got him back to the room before tee time, I don’t drink so I was for a short time his designated driver.
You won’t find golfers like 57-year-old Frank Urban Zoeller anymore, unless you count his friends on the 50-and-over Champions Tour, and maybe never will again. He was one of the game’s few remaining showmen, a little like Dean Martin, only inside the ropes. He’d throw off jokes between shots during a round, and then throw down a vodka tonic or two afterward.
No one was counting in 1997, when Tiger Woods wrapped up a historic win here and Zoeller, who’d finished tied for 33rd, suggested what Woods should serve at the Champions Dinner the following year, when the defending champion chooses the menu.
“So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here?” Zoeller said then. “You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?”
He smiled and walked away, then turned back and added, “or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”
Friends have said those 30 seconds obscured 30 years of goodwill. Zoeller lost some sponsors, but even worse, those close to him said he became more guarded, even in their company. You wouldn’t have known that watching Zoeller making his final circuit.
He cracked jokes with the members in green jackets on the first tee and most every one afterward. He lit a cigarette halfway down the first fairway, threw the butt down before skidding a 7-iron to 10 feet below the flag and didn’t bother to line up the putt before narrowly missing.
He didn’t line up any of his putts during his 1979 win, either, but for a different reason. Zoeller hadn’t even seen Augusta, let alone practiced there when he teed off in the first round. But as was the practice in those days, he was paired with a local caddie and followed every direction almost on faith. He described Jariah Beard as a “seeing-eye dog” leading a blind man around the course. It wasn’t far from the truth.
All these years later, Zoeller still doesn’t understand why none of his fellow pros hire a local caddie, a practice that Augusta National officials dropped soon after his win.
On Friday, he walked into the scoring hut and signed for a 76, which left him at 155 and 11 strokes over the cut. “I hope everybody’s had fun, because I’ve enjoyed my ride,” Zoeller said.
With that, he headed off toward the clubhouse and the locker where his own green jacket hangs. He plans to come back for the par-3 contest every year, then take a seat on the upstairs porch next to Arnold Palmer and watch the kids struggling with the wide green jigsaw puzzle that Zoeller put together correctly on his first try.
Whether his memories of the Masters fit together as easily, only he will ever know. But something he said before heading out to play on Friday, knowing it was his last round, suggested he was ready to try.
“When you’re playing well,” Zoeller said, “you remember everything. Maybe that’s the funny thing about professional golfers. They also have the ability to forget the bad stuff.”