AMERICAN GOTHIC GOLFER

Sore, Robert Landers cuts an unusual figure on the country’s best golf courses, wearing his $15 sneakers, his baggy, off-brand jeans, and a shirt that was, like as not, bought at a garage sale.

And sure, he’s a novelty item. But it needs to be remembered that this average guy from Azle, some 50 miles west of Dallas, stands out in these tony, highly dollared golf course crowds not because he is so unlike Americans but because he is so very much like the rest of us, and they, for the most part, are not.

At 51, Robert Landers is a working man, like most of America. He is a man who, like most folks, has had to struggle to make ends meet, whereas most of the players he goes up against do not. At the top are the million-dollar golfers earning princely incomes-the ones who can land a golf ball in a distant hole with the cold, calculated clarity of a technocrat directing one of NASA’s moon shots, the ones who could retire tomorrow if the mood struck them, and just live off the interest.

And then somewhere in the lower middle of the rankings, there is Robert Landers, from somewhere in the lower middle classes. Like most of us.

He has been (and may soon be again) a $12,000 a year part-time cow farmer, part-time woodchopper, part-time garage sale arbitrageur, part-time whatever it takes to feed himself and his wife, Freddie, make their $600 a month mortgage payments, and keep body and soul together.

He has determined that golf just might help him to do that, and he is looking into it.

And so now, he’s on the Senior PGA tour. All over America, middle-aged golfers have made him their hero, and the bubble could grow much bigger before it bursts. At least one insta-book about him{by D Magazine contributing editor Russ Pate) may appear as early as June. Reportedly, Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, and Columbia have bid six figures for the rights to a Man From Azle movie. Twentieth Century Fox, it’s rumored, wants Tommy Lee Jones to tee it up as Landers. He’s signed a contract with Davis Entertainment, owned by John Davis, son of Twentieth Century mogul Marvin Davis. Davis Entertainment has scored hits with movies like Predator, Grumpy Old Men, and The Firm.

Yes, Landers is receiving his Warholian 15 minutes of renown. He is suddenly the media darling. And the pros are bending over backward to be nice to him and Freddie, and to be seen with him, and to make him at home in the posh mansions and high-falutin parties that speckle the tour. Sponsors and new rich friends are picking up his hotel tabs. Equipment companies are giving him stuff. He has become sort of the pet poor person on the tour.

Thus he finds himself in the middle of one of those crazy media swarms. One bit of coverage leads to coverage by another reporter, and then another; pretty soon all the sportswriters and broadcasters are running around afraid they are missing a “Landers Angle” at the various tournaments in which he plays. Photographers are just itching to head out to his “cow farm” to crank out another passel of American Gothic Golfer cow-chip shots. And reporters are burning up their notepads taking down Landers’ occasional pithy remarks-and, when he is running a little low on quotables, as he seems to do sometimes on the links, they are loading up on the far more voluble Freddie Landers, who compliantly goes on and on about how it’s “all been a Cinderella story, a dream come true, everyone has been so wonderful to us!” and so on.

But there is irony behind all the hoopla and love-feasting. Irony was our caddy as we joined the feeding frenzy and followed Landers and Freddie around for the grand opening of the new Cross Timbers Golf Course in Azle, which Landers helped to create so the homeboys could democratically try their hand at the sport. The media scuffle reacted well-nigh absurd proportions.

First, there was the ribbon-cutting, To oblige the PRmeisters of both the new course and Dickie Clothes, which wisely grabbed him to represent its products on the tour. Landers stood before the battery of cameramen from all the focal papers and TV stations and was handed a brand new ax-a nod to his making his living up until recently as a woodcutter.

Cameras whirred, pens scribbled. Amiably, and using pretty much the same stance as the one from which he fires golf balls down the course, Landers swung straight and true and- whack-sliced the ribbon neatly in half. Then Landers got into his cart. And about 30 media types got into their carts and followed him in a surrealistic little parade of carts through the early spring sunshine.

Landers, unruffled because he knows he can give these people what they seem to want just by being bis own plain self, shuffled up to the first tee. Cameras whirred-whack–and the ball, one of the rare rebellious ones, hooked off into only a so-so lie. “Do I get a mulligan?” asked Landers as pens scribbled furiously.

Same thing for about the first five holes. Whirr, scribble, whack, whirr, scribble, whack. Straight and true.

In all the hoopla about the fact that the latest entrant to the PGA tour is a homespun good old boy, one very important factor is being underplayed: Robert Landers can flat knock the tomfool fire out of a golf ball. He wouldn’t be there on the tour if he couldn’t.

He can knock it a country mile. Ifyouseehimcoming,you better not be round, white, and covered with dimples, because if you are, why, you better get ready to fly screaming and crying down the fairway until, a few short strokes later, you go blubbering and sniveling into the hole, straight and true.

Landers is wonderful to his wife and kind to his cows, hut mean to golf balls. And he doesn’t take any excuses. Creased? He doesn’t care-whap. Worn out and out of round.’ That’s true of most his balls-whap-because he fishes ’em out of water hazards and sand traps and wherever else he can find them and further punishes them until their stuffings are hanging out.

Robert and Freddie Landers have learned to squeeze the most out of just about everything, because they’ve had to. They still drive to the tourneys rather than fly, and they stay in the cheapest accommodations they can find. It’s not that Landers is a cheapskate, but they didn’t have much to start with, and over the years, they have lost a lot of what little they had.

Both had earlier marriages that dried up and blew away. And so did their jobs; Landers, at the peak of his business career, was only making about $18,000 as a manager at Mitchell’s Department Store in Azle, selling those very same Dickie duds he now touts. It was there, in fact, that Freddie, also a clerk, met Robert some 20 years ago. The two became friends, but both were married to other folks, so they kept their hands to themselves,

But that march of wearying middle-class vicissitudes kept on coming at them. Freddie’s son was killed in a car wreck, and her then-husband left her for a younger woman. Robert’s own marriage was on the rocks for the simple reason that his wife didn’t much like him, and pretty soon he and Freddie just kind of drifted together.

Then he got laid off when they closed the store in Azle, and Freddie lost a job working on an assembly line. Then their little house burned down. No crying, no whining; they just moved on, rebuilding, and kept on keeping on, like most people do.

Landers, out of a job, did whatever fell to his hand. He chopped wood, raised his cows, and made cute plywood cutout cows for yuppies to put in their yards. All week long he would attend garage sales, scooping up what looked like good deals and reselling them for a profit at weekend flea markets.

And in his spare time, he would mosey around the cow pasture with his clubs, bought at a garage sale, and a big bucket of used golf balls, arcing them high over the puzzled homed heads of Jenn, Spooky, Dino, Daisy, and the rest of his cows.

Landers had played golf as a young man-had, in fact, been pretty good at it. Started playing on Fort Worth public greens at the age of 22, and did well enough, winning the Fort Worth City Amateur tourney in 1976,1978, and 1980. He even played in the 1980 US. Open, though he finished out of the money. Then his bad hack started getting to him, and he put away the clubs.

And then he had to start chopping wood fora living and…guess what? It was good for both his back and his backswing. Once again playing solidly on local courses like the Casino Beach Club, Landers began to wonder if maybe he could make a go of professional golfing after all. Freddie gave him a simple ultimatum: Find out, Buh. Either get a real job, or put everything you’ve got into golfing and quit just fooling around. One or the other.

So last year. Landers took $4,000 out of a little IRA he had put away, And lo, he played well enough to qualify for the pros. Senior PGA tour. There he was, striding the links with the likes of Nicklaus, Trevino, and Palmer.

How good is Landers? Considering that he’s playing against many men who have been professional golfers their whole lives, he isn’t doing half-bad, though his play has been uneven. During the qualifying tourney in Lut:, Florida, he finished sixth. In the Royal Caribbean Classic he turned in a 15-over-par total of 228, finishing 62nd out of 78 players. In mid-March, during the SBA Dominion Seniors tournament in San Antonio, he was all over the chart. First day, 76- Second day, 7l.Then-argh!-a 78. He finished a dismal 64th.

Bur he’s making some money, averaging about $ 1,000 per tournament at the end of March. It that trend holds over all 32 tournaments, this will be the best financial year of Landers’ life. As his bubble grew in February and March, he was hauling down $1,000 tor an afternoon of signing autographs.

And il he continues to do well, the endorsement package from Dickie’s work clothes could be worth as much as $60,000-if his driving remains straight, strong, and true (and it his putting. Landers’ weak point, improves).

In. many respects, of course, all the free publicity is good for Landers. It’s getting him the kind of attention that also draws more sponsors. The writers and the TV people have all been fairly gool-intentioned in their condescension toward his grassy roots, his homespun ways, his puppy-dog grinning, his shucking, and his stammering. The world has been telling him he’s lucky to be there, and he seems to be telling the world, “Thanks tor everything.

But those who see him as some kind of idiot-savant bumpkin anomaly or three-headed calf just because he doesn’t wear expensive clothes and figures a decent pair of tennis shoes is good enough for the greens might need to pause, chew on a straw for a while, and so some thinking.

And the professionals on that tour who are laughing up their sleeves might better spend their time worrying. While Landers does resemble George Jones fer more than Gary Player, that has nothing to do with the fact that, though he’s had nan” a Lesson in his 1ife and wears a $15 pair of tennis shoes, Landers can rear back and knock the stuffing out of that ball, straight and true.

Which is perhaps the best description of Landers-straight and true.

Because Robert Landers’ message may actually be this: When you boil it all down, golf is still all about a man and a stick, and a ball and a distance. And when it comes to such matters, true class is born, not made.

That was clear on about the fifth hole at the new Azle course when, predictably, media interest began to wane. One by one the writers and photographers thanked Landers, hugged Freddie, and began to sort of just drift off, moving on to the next story, prompt-ing the question:

What happens, Robert, if it all just one day goes away-the reportera stop comingand you don’t do so hot at the tournaments? What happens if it all doesn’t work out, and you just have to go hack on down to the farm?

“Well,” says Landers, “We’ll be just fine. I’ll go hack to chopping wood and raising cows. We were all right before all this got started, and we’ll be all right after it’s gone.”

And there’s no disgrace in that.

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