Still The Boss
A Memphian for nearly two decades now, Loren Roberts us golfing his way to worldwide fame on the Champions Tour.
by Brandon Dill
Loren Roberts belongs to a club he had no interest in joining. Having earned over $24 million as a professional golfer, Roberts has little to regret since he turned pro in 1975. Since joining the Champions Tour in 2005 (for PGA veterans age 50 and older), Roberts has won 11 tournaments, including four majors. He'll compete as the defending champion when the Senior British Open tees off on July 22nd. But alas, Roberts never raised a trophy at one of the PGA TOUR's four majors: the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, or PGA Championship. So Loren Roberts will forever be discussed among history's Greatest Golfers Never to Have Won a Major. There's no jacket for this club.
"I had a very nice career on the PGA TOUR," says Roberts. "I won eight times, did not win a major. That's a nice career. It's not a Tom Watson career, but I had my shot." He mentions only one regret, and having swung a golf club for over 30 years now, that's a number he can live with.
"In golf, the field is different every day you play."
Roberts grew up in San Luis Obispo, California. With his only sibling — a sister — 12 years his senior, young Loren turned to sports to fill quiet time. He loved tennis, baseball, and golf — interests that tend to collide during warm-weather months, or in warm-weather regions. He was the starting catcher for his high-school baseball team as a sophomore, but hung his glove up after his coach took intensity to a level beyond what Roberts considered acceptable.
"Sometimes this is what happens in high-school sports," he reflects. "You get a coach who wants to win. But we're talking about high-school athletics, where it's about forming character. We had a game against one of our arch-rivals, and they just played awesome, and beat us. He took it personal, and I felt the way he treated us after the game . . . well, I lost my taste for baseball. It turned me off." (Roberts chuckles in telling the story of a line-drive hit to right field in which he was thrown out at first base. "I had no wheels! I obviously made the right decision.")
Turning to golf before his junior year of high school, Roberts embraced the solitude that's so much a part of the sport's challenge. The variety and eccentricities of golf courses were attractions, too. "I liked the fact that I could go to the golf course," he says, "and if there were other people there, great, I could play with them. But I didn't have to find a team of guys to play with; I could play by myself. In golf, the field is different every day you play. In football, the field is always the same size. In basketball, the rim is always the same height. But the field of play changes in golf: hole location, the length of holes, position of the tees. You're really playing against yourself. You're trying to shoot as low as you can and beat the golf course. If you beat the course the best that day, you win."
Roberts enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and played college golf through his sophomore year, only to see the men's program dropped, in part to accommodate the new Title IX legislation that required equal resources for men's and women's sports. He took a job as an assistant pro in 1975 at a club in San Luis Obispo, the first step toward making a living at golf, though a considerable distance, still, from the PGA TOUR.
"At the time, I was trying to go to school, work 40 hours a week, and still practice," Roberts remembers. "Unfortunately, school lost out. But that's how I learned the game. I wanted to get in the apprenticeship program with the PGA of America, and had to start collecting hours. There were three business schools at the time, teaching everything about golf." Roberts won a national championship for assistant pros in 1979 and considers that the event that sparked the idea of earning a living as a player. (He spent two winters in the late Seventies playing in Australia and New Zealand.)
A retired pro by the name of Jim Swagerty joined the club where Roberts worked and took the aspiring player under his wing. "He'd spend hours with me on the practice tee," says Roberts. "On Mondays — when the clubs are closed — we'd play everybody as a team." Swagerty's influence on Roberts was matched only by that of Olin Dutra, the 1934 U.S. Open champion, who took a liking to a player more than 50 years his junior. "He was a true gentleman, and he just wanted someone to play golf with," says Roberts, "and he really helped me with my putting. He was the first one to get me thinking about what was, evidently, my thing."
Dubbed "The Boss of the Moss" by fellow pro David Ogrin in the mid-Eighties, Roberts cultivated his putting skills from his early days with Dutra until he finally earned his PGA TOUR card for the 1981 season. Considering the allure of distance off the tee for most young pros, the focus on his short game was prescient, and has paid grand dividends for Roberts.
"There are lots of different ways of putting," Roberts stresses. "Mine is sort of a square-to-square method, but it's all in the positioning of my left hand. [Roberts is a right-handed player.] My left wrist works as a natural hinge, which keeps the club face square to the line when I putt. Another key [of Dutra's] is that you want to be in a good position on your backswing. But the focus was putting."
While he's come to relish his touch on the greens, Roberts recognizes his putting skill as something never to be taken for granted. "Who knows who's going to get the yips," he says. (Ed. "Yips" is a common term for a golfer's anxiety with a putter.) "It's just how hard you want to work at it. If you're a jumpy individual anyway, it can be tough for you. It can happen with your driver, too. It will hit the weaker part of your game, where you're a little less confident. It's a mind thing."
"There's a connection to the guys who came before you."
Roberts lost his TOUR card for 1982, then regained it in '83, gradually strengthening his own confidence — that mind thing — as he found himself playing alongside men long considered his sport's gold standard. He played with Jack Nicklaus for the first time at the 1985 Doral Open. "We were paired together in the third round," he says. "I finished fifth, and I think Jack ended up finishing third. On Saturday, I shot a 70 and Jack shot 69. If I had putted for him, he would have shot 62. He hit the flag twice that day with one irons, but just couldn't shake it in the hole. I was nervous; I was in awe.
"In golf," he adds, "there always seems to be a connection to the guys who came before you. Careers can be 25 or 30 years. You learn from them, the history of the game. Through Olin, I'm connected to Gene Sarazen. I got to know Byron Nelson. There's that social connection. You learn how to act right on the golf course. It's the one thing I'm a little concerned about now. I see a bit of a loss of connection in the young guys."
Roberts first played in Memphis at the 1981 Danny Thomas Memphis Classic (where he finished 22nd and earned a cool $2,704). He played here 12 of the next 13 years and in the process discovered a social circle that would eventuallly convince him and his wife Kim — the couple married in 1982 — to make the Bluff City home. "In 1984, I had a chance to win Memphis," says Roberts. "Bob Eastwood won. I had a third-round lead, ended up finishing fifth. That's when I got over the hump.
"The year before, we came to Memphis and the tournament gave us private housing with a couple by the name of Frank and Carla Brown. That week, we became lifelong friends. They would let us come stay at their house when we had a week off, instead of driving all the way back to California. Central location. They introduced me to a lot of great people here. As I got better and started making money, I realized I'd never see my kids if they were living in California. So we moved here in June of 1992." In 2009, Roberts set a record with his 25th appearance as a professional in Memphis. (His fifth-place finish in '84 remains his best.)
Among the ways Roberts has given back to his new hometown was a celebrity pro-am he hosted for 11 years to benefit Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, an event that raised more than $1 million. "The sickle-cell center was originally just one little corner of the emergency room," he notes. "We got it to where they had their own rooms upstairs in a designated area. It's a terrible disease, one that a lot of people don't know about." He's now behind the Eagles for St. Jude program, which raises money for the children's hospital with every eagle scored on the PGA TOUR.
"It's my responsibility to be a good citizen."
Entering the 1994 season, Roberts had the dubious distinction of having won the most money on the PGA TOUR without actually winning an event. His breakthrough came in March 1994 at the Nestle Invitational (now the Arnold Palmer Invitational) in Orlando. "That was huge," he reflects. "The first question a reporter asked me was, 'Why did you stick around for twelve-and-a-half years without winning?' It wasn't exactly like I was out there going broke. But once I won, I started winning pretty much every year. I enjoy being around the game, being at the course. Why wouldn't I want to do that?"
It's not as though Roberts didn't come close on his sport's biggest stages. He finished fifth at the 1990 PGA Championship, the first of eight top-10 finishes in majors. After finishing fifth at the '94 Masters, he qualified for a three-man playoff two months later at the U.S. Open, losing only after 20 extra holes to Ernie Els. Two months after that, Roberts finished ninth at the PGA Championship. Then in 2000, Roberts had a season that would make Greg Norman — a historic bridesmaid himself — proud: third in the Masters, eighth at the U.S. Open, and seventh at the British Open. Two of those events were won by a guy named Tiger Woods.
"The 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont is the only thing I really have any regrets about," concedes Roberts. "Colin Montgomerie got into the clubhouse with the lead. Ernie Els and I had been tied most of the day [in the final round]. On 18, I hit the best drive of my life. I had an 8-iron to the green. The pin was just over a little shelf on the back portion of the green. My ball hit on the wrong spot of the green, a two-yard downslope. If it hits a yard shorter, I win the Open.
"I had seen other players get that close, and then their careers [went south.] As my wife and I were traveling home, we decided to turn the phones off for three days, go through our sorrow, and get over it. And that's what I did. We grieved, and then we got over it."
Roberts' fourth win on the PGA TOUR came at the 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open, but earned the champ hardly any headlines on Monday. The tournament happened to be the pro debut of a 20-year-old phenom, known only by his parents as Eldrick Woods.
Says Roberts, "I'll tell you what changed [after Woods turned pro]: the money factor. I've never seen a player as driven as he is. Never seen a player who can focus the way he can. Nicklaus was on the same level, but Jack didn't have all the shots like Tiger has. You can see the intensity level.
"In the early years, we had good galleries. But when Tiger showed up, golf almost became singular, as far as who you look for. Tiger Woods was the guy, not unlike the NBA became Michael Jordan."
Like most of his peers, Roberts is grateful for the financial growth Woods has spurred on the PGA TOUR. When demographics change and TV viewership grows, so grow the sponsorship and purses at PGA events. But Roberts also feels professional golfers have a moral responsibility that they take with them away from the course.
"If you're in a public position where you get paid to entertain," says Roberts "and you make your living off other people's entertainment, you're in the public eye. And I don't think you have the right to say, 'This is my private life.' Now obviously, when the door's closed behind you and your wife, that's private. But anything else, it's part of the life. Look at Hollywood: They're in the public viewing sector. It's my responsibility to be a good citizen."
"Players are staying competitive."
Since joining the Champions Tour in 2005 (the year he turned 50), Roberts has seized some of the spotlight he missed in his 30s and 40s. He won the third event he played, the 2005 Tradition (one of five majors on the senior circuit), and finished fifth at that year's Senior British Open and second at the Senior U.S. Open. He's since added the Senior Players (in 2007) and two British Open titles ('06 and '09) to his trophy case. With top-five finishes at three more majors last year, Roberts was named Champions Tour Player of the Year by the Golf Writers Association of America.
"Guys that play consistently on the regular tour all the way up to the day they turn 50, seem to do very well [on the Champions Tour]," says Roberts. "You have a positive attitude, and you're very confident. That's what it's about: the confidence factor.
"Players are staying competitive until they're 50. When the senior tour started [in 1980], a lot of guys hadn't even competed much the last ten years of their career. Look who's coming out this year: Corey Pavin, Fred Couples, Mark Calcavecchia."
Conditioning hasn't always been a part of the culture on the PGA TOUR. But with millions of dollars awaiting after a player turns 50, golfers have introduced themselves to the elliptical machine. "The regular tour isn't about finishing your game, having a couple of high balls, and getting in the gin game in the club room," chuckles Roberts. "Now, it's about going to the fitness trailer, doing your stretches, working out." Roberts points out that the keys to extending a golfer's career are flexibility and core strength. And cardio counts. "You've got to get your 30 minutes in, with a good sweat," he says.
Roberts attributes much of his current success to what he considers a late start as a contending PGA golfer. "Maybe I had a few years left, didn't burn myself out early," he notes. "If you've won a lot of majors and are used to the limelight of the regular TOUR, maybe it's harder to stay motivated [for the Champions Tour]. But I love golf so much, and I'm a competitive person at heart. I worked hard at establishing a golf career where I could take care of my family. I've been blessed with that."
"To have Arnold Palmer hand me the trophy was huge."
Loren and Kim have raised two daughters in Memphis. Alexandria graduated from the University of Alabama in May and Addison is matriculating at Auburn this fall. (Football season will be interesting in the Roberts family. None of the Roberts women golf, by the way.) They've lived in the same Germantown home since 2005 and have no plans for moving anytime soon.
As he reflects on his long, still-active golf career, Roberts has difficulty in identifying a favorite moment. But three stand out.
"My first win; to have Arnold Palmer hand me the trophy was huge," he says. "Then to play for the Ryder Cup team [in 1995]. To play for your country, there's nothing like it. When you march into that stadium . . . for some reason bagpipes and golf just go together. They're waving the Stars and Stripes, fighter jets fly over. U.S. of A!
"And when I won the Byron Nelson tournament in '99 [in Dallas], it was the only time my dad went out and saw me win. He was struggling with his health. My mom had been sick for some time. I got him out on the 18th green, and Byron Nelson was there. To have him there when Byron Nelson handed me the trophy . . . well. I've had so much better a career — and life — than I ever thought I'd have; I'm just ecstatic."
Turns out, Loren Roberts has a few major victories, after all.