LUTZ, FLORIDA | The idiosyncracies of Jim Thorpe’s golf swing are almost a mirror image of his speech patterns – lots of rapid fire idiomatic movement topped with a flourish at the finish in which his left hand ends up higher on the club than his right. There is no one else quite like his fast-talking self and no other follow-through quite like his own.
“Thorpie,” said Nick Price last Thursday, “is Thorpie.”
Thorpe’s action and his words were unmistakably back on display all week on the Champions Tour at the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am after an enforced absence of a year and a half that included a 10-month stretch in a federal prison for failing to pay $1.6 million in income taxes.
If the longest walk in golf is from the practice range to the first tee, then how do you measure the trip from jail to a golf course filled with curious spectators and a breathless national media contingent?
“Tuesday morning when I drove in I’ve never been that nervous on the golf course in my whole life,” Thorpe said. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
The time in an Alabama penitentiary, he said, had been relatively uneventful and nothing like the dangerous and desperate prison life portrayed in the movies. “I watched a lot of golf (on TV) up there and gained a few pounds,” Thorpe said. “But I don’t want to see any of you guys go there.”
Thorpe said he hated the green uniform that comprised his everyday wardrobe. And he refused to allow his family to visit because he didn’t want them to see him that way. Much of his time in stir was taken up by the business of piecing together what he calls “Team Thorpe,” a group of friends, he says, who will support him and make sure the mistakes that got him incarcerated aren’t repeated.
“I apologize to everyone for the mistakes that I’ve made,” he said. “I blame no one but me.”
Yet almost in the same breath he added, “Sometimes in life we make mistakes and trust the wrong people.”
So actually, to be tough on the likable Thorpe, he does assess at least part of the blame to someone other than himself.
None of which stopped his fellow competitors from welcoming him back with handshakes and, in some cases, hugs.
While in prison Thorpe said he received letters from several players, including one from Tom Watson. Watson, who is the same age as Thorpe, included a short-game reminder in his missive. When Thorpe saw Watson Wednesday, he couldn’t resist. “You could have given me that putting tip 30 years ago,” he said.
Thorpe won three times on the PGA Tour and has done the same 13 times on the Champions Tour. He believes he is as long off the tee as ever and that he will win again.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that he’s back,” said Tom Lehman. “It’s kind of what this country is all about, what humanity is all about. Getting yourself up off the ground and moving forward again.”
“We missed him out here,” Price said. “He’s such a character and has a great presence in the locker room. Always telling stories.”
And promising, these days, not to make up any stories when it comes to finances. It has been reported that Thorpe has agreed to repay more than $2 million to the government and serve 200 hours of community service. Golfweek magazine reported his attorney’s fees alone cost him $800,000.
“I paid my debt to society,” Thorpe said. “My life is on the right track.”
In the weeks since returning from prison to his central Florida home, Thorpe spent most of his time working out, playing golf and even giving the odd lesson. “You think my swing is funny,” he said. “You should see some of the guys I was trying to teach.”
When the competitive bell rang for Round One Friday at tough TPC Tampa, Thorpe responded with a respectable 1-over-par 72. Not bad for his first round of competitive tournament golf in close to 18 months. Thorpe compared it to playing football.
“Once you get the first hit,” said Thorpe, still powerfully built in his early 60s, “the game is on.”
And, as it happened, the first day of the rest of his professional golf life fell on April 15. Tax day.
“Yes,” Thorpe said with an arched eyebrow. “I did think about that.”
An even par round Saturday left Thorpe encouraged but in the middle of the pack. Sunday made too many demands on his lack of recent competitive play.
The resultant 77 was not a surprise. But the week was a big step back for a man who has had his share of time to think about missteps.
“I just want to play golf now,” Jim Thorpe said.