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UNDER THE WIRE BEFORE : Don't Count Ed Fiori Out Before the L.A. Open Scores Are Added Up Sunday

February 26, 1988|RICH TOSCHES | Times Staff Writer

Nothing makes a golfer's heart go pitter-patter as much as a wire-to-wire tournament victory, a Thursday-to-Sunday walk in the park that ends with a big fat check.

When Ed Fiori was growing up in Downey, he played wire-to-wire golf on a daily basis. He would sneak through the strands of a barbed-wire fence in the morning, play a few holes with borrowed clubs and then dash back through the fence with the greenskeeper in close pursuit.

Fiori walks into country clubs through the front door these days. Course workers no longer greet him with words such as, "Hey, punk, get outta here." Now, it's, "Good morning, Mr. Fiori."

Fiori might not win the L.A. Open this week. He shot a five-under-par 66 in Thursday's opening round, a stroke behind Jumbo Ozaki, Dan Pohl, Jay Haas and Chip Beck. But Fiori might win the L.A. Open, and just the possibility of that is somewhat remarkable.

For starters, he didn't grow up amid the wealth and splendor of a plush country club as did many of today's PGA players. Fiori grew up beside a public course in Downey and borrowed a few clubs from a neighbor. You've heard of a golfer tearing up a course with his fine play? Well, Fiori never tore up any courses as a youth. But he did tear up his clothes scampering through and over the fence that surrounded the course.

He figured he shouldn't have to pay any greens fees to play golf because he was hardly ever around any greens when he did play. But through persistence and a complete and unbridled love of the game--and of hustling people out of their money--Fiori became a respectable golfer.

Not respectable enough to have college recruiters beating at his door, but respectable enough to start winning bets on a regular basis.

"Nothing much," Fiori said. "Just $25 here and there. But here and there added up after a while."

It didn't, however, add up to enough. After graduating from high school, Fiori became a master of no trades, working at odd jobs around Los Angeles before settling into semi-regular employment with a construction company.

"Mostly we put up playground equipment," he said. "Backstops on softball fields and things like that. Pouring cement for the post holes. This was not a lot of fun."

And not, certainly, the traditional training ground for future PGA players.

But Fiori kept playing golf whenever time and money allowed. He played not with the idea of someday making a living at it, but rather as a way to keep his living from become third-degree drudgery.

"I always loved the game and the competition," he said. "It was the only thing I really loved. I tried other sports . . . football and baseball and even basketball, but I just wasn't big enough and good enough. But I was always pretty good at golf. I could beat the guys who had beaten me in all those other sports."

A word here about the size Fiori referred to: short. He stands 5 feet 7 inches. But Fiori, 34, weighs nearly 200 pounds, and packed on that frame, he's, well, the PGA media guide uses the word "stocky."

Before he started pushing the scale over the 190 mark, at the age of 20, Fiori was hustling some money in a tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico, when a University of Houston alumnus noticed his talents. Several weeks later, Fiori got a call from Houston golf Coach Dave Williams asking if he might be interested in attending that fine institution of higher learning. And bring your golf clubs.

After a semester at Wharton Junior College near Houston, Fiori joined the Cougars and helped them to the 1977 NCAA championship in his second year, when he was also named to the All-American team.

And right about then, this young man, who had spent his childhood dodging fences for a chance to play golf, started to dream about the PGA.

"I had watched some tournaments, but I never even considered that I might be able to play like that," he said. "But, at Houston, that's all anyone talked about, so I figured I might give it a shot."

And he did. Immediately. He quit school, turned pro and earned his PGA card later in 1977, on his first attempt at the qualifying school.

He finished 109th on the money list in his first year. But, in 1979, he won the Southern Open. Two years later, he won the Western Open. The sorriest news he ever heard was that the PGA had no Eastern Open or Northern Open.

Fiori has won more than $100,000 on the tour in four of the last six years. His highest finish on the money list has been 26th in 1983, when he made $175,619. Last year, he earned $104,570, but finished 95th on the money list.

This, however, is not bad money for a former backstop builder.

"This is a good time," he said of life on the tour. "Too many people see us out here, and it looks like we're always mad at something, but that's just concentration. I have all kinds of fun playing golf. What could I be doing that'd be more fun than this?"

Maybe winning another tournament? Perhaps a tournament in his hometown? Perhaps winning the L.A. Open?

"Yeah, that'd be nice," he said. "I've got a lot of friends here watching. But I don't like this course much. I've played here for eight years and have never done any good. This course was never in good shape for the L.A. Open. Riviera's a great golf course, but I've never seen it in good shape at this time of the year. The grass just doesn't grow in the winter, I guess. I don't know what their problems are here.

"But I'll keep on playing. I played well today, and the putts count just as much today as they do on Sunday. And when we're all done on Sunday, let's just add 'em up and see who wins."

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