Jim Thorpe’s long, unlikely career nears end

SAUCIER — This is Jim Thorpe’s last rodeo. At age 66, and after 44 years of playing golf for a living, Thorpe knows the time has come.

Cleveland
Cleveland

He still possesses an athlete’s build, a linebacker’s shoulders and a blacksmith’s forearms, but his creaky joints tell him how old he is on every swing.

“The golf courses keep getting longer, and I’m getting shorter,” Thorpe said. “I still want to be competitive but the truth is I am not. This is my last go-round on tour.”

But, oh, what a ride it has been. And what a legacy Thorpe — “Thorpy,” his friends call him — will have left.

First things first. Thorpe has shot rounds of 76 and 79 here at the Champions Tour’s Gulf Coast Resorts Classic presented by C Spire. He is tied for 73rd among the 78 players still playing at Fallen Oak.

Jim Thorp
Jim Thorpe

He begins today’s round 20 shots behind leader Kevin Sutherland. Those are not the numbers for which Thorpe will be remembered.

Here are some other numbers: Born Jimmy Lee Thorpe, he is the ninth of 12 children born to a man who mowed fairways and greens for a living in Roxboro, N.C., a few miles north of Raleigh-Durham.

Elbert Thorpe was a greenskeeper for 60 of his 85 years on this planet. That’s how Jim Thorpe was introduced to golf.

But Jim Thorpe never took a golf lesson.

“We didn’t have any money for golf lessons,” Thorpe says. “I just picked up a club and started swinging.”

It shows. Thorpe’s unorthodox swing has more moves and gyrations than The Temptations. A golf swing is supposed to be on one plane. Thorpe’s swing has more planes than Fed Ex. When he finishes his swing, you’d be hard pressed to tell whether or not he has swung left-handed or right-handed.

“I wouldn’t even begin to try to describe Thorpy’s swing,” says Jim Gallagher, Jr., who now makes a living as a television golf analyst.

But Gallagher will describe Jim Thorpe, the person.

“Thorpy is the best guy in the world to be with when your flight is delayed or during a rain delay,” Gallagher says. “He’s such a great guy, such a warm person. He’s got so many stories.”

Thorpe does have stories. Thirty years ago, in his 13th year as a pro, he won his first PGA Tour victory by three shots. Let the record show that Jack Nicklaus finished second.

Thorpe won the tour’s match play championship twice.

“Thorpy’s demeanor is perfect for match play,” Gallagher says. “He’s not scared of anybody. He’s not ever gonna back down.”

Those were his three victories on the regular tour. Then he turned 50.

Says Thorpe, “The Champions Tour has been the greatest mulligan God ever gave me.”

Thorpe has won 12 championships, including one major, on the Champions Tour. He has won more than $15 million.

Elbert Thorpe surely would be proud.

“My daddy would probably tell me to get back out there and work harder and practice,” Thorpe says. “Elbert Thorpe didn’t know anything but hard work.”

Thorpe was talking while signing caps, golf balls and gloves for every young’un who came up and asked. He had a kind word for all. He asked one youngster what sport he played. The boy said he was trying to choose between golf and baseball.

“Whichever you choose, work hard,” Thorpe said. “There’s no substitute for hard work.”

There’s also no substitute for class, a huge part of the legacy Jim Thorpe, the ninth of 12 children born to a greenskeeper, will leave behind on the Champions Tour.

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Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.

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