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Stroble Is Succeeding by Playing It Straight

Golf: He paid his dues by playing the hustler's game and living out of his car before joining the Senior PGA Tour.

July 21, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bobby Stroble pulled up to Riviera Country Club on Monday, looking for a hotel room, and the folks at the United States Golf Assn. office picked up the phones, finally coming up with one on Sunset Boulevard.

"It's $110 a night," Keli Butler of the U.S. Senior Open staff told him.

Stroble's answer was to reel off the numbers on his American Express card.

"You know," he said quietly after the transaction was complete, "five years ago, I would have slept in my car."

And played the tournament out of the trunk.

You know what pressure is?

It's not hunching over a putt on the 18th hole Sunday, with a chance to win $267,500.

It's playing $200 Nassau with automatic two-down presses against guys with guns in their bags.

And you have $3 in your pocket.

"I've done that," Stroble said. "There's probably more pressure when you're playing for your rent."

The hustler's game was his before he became a player on the Senior PGA Tour, on which he has won close to $1 million over the last three years. Hustle here, hustle there, driving through the night from golf course to golf course, pulling into town days before an obscure tournament and looking for a mark.

And then heading for a practice green wearing rumpled department store clothes, carrying mismatched clubs in a rundown bag, for all the world a pigeon to be plucked.

"I've hustled," he says. "I've also been hustled. It's a two-way street. You've got to bring some to get some. The only way you can get hustled is trying to hustle somebody else."

The con included a $100 bill wrapped around a roll of singles.

"There've been a few times I've done that," he says. "There have been a few times when you had to look like you had a bankroll to get one."

The PGA Tour was as far away as a Tiger Woods drive. Stroble qualified for the tour five times, and his earnings totaled $4,921.

His best finish was a tie for 30th at Oklahoma City in 1977.

He played poorly in tournaments you've heard about.

He won at places you've never been.

"I've won something like 100 or so tournaments all over the country," Stroble says.

"I always could play."

Waterloo, Iowa, is a long way from anybody's major league tour. So is Knoxville, Tenn. He once shot a 58 there.

The Negro Golf Assn. had events all over the country, far off any path beaten by the PGA or Senior PGA tours, but if you wanted to play golf and you were African American, sometimes that's the game you played.

"We all played tournaments there," Stroble says. "It was a steppingstone for a lot of guys. Lee Elder played. We all played."

And learned, because there wasn't much he could learn growing up in the 1950s and early '60s in Albany, Ga., which he still calls home, though he lives just outside Jacksonville, Fla.

"Back then, a public course wasn't necessarily a public golf course," he says.

"Public didn't mean blacks could go on it."

Except as a caddie, which is how he learned the game.

Then there was the Army, after he returned from Vietnam and was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Sgt. Orville Moody was there too, in his pre-U.S. Open champion days.

"I couldn't beat him," Stroble says. "He made up games you thought you could play with him: two balls, four people.

"He used to play me and my buddy, two of us playing best ball against him.

"He helped me out on Mondays quite a bit. I didn't have to go to work on Mondays because of him, and that allowed me to work on my game."

That work paid off in fits and starts. Sometimes the money came in. Sometimes it went out faster.

Owning a couple of restaurants didn't help his golf or his waistline.

"I have good in-laws and they helped," Stroble says. "Then, when I would hit a lick, I'd help them. It's a two-way street."

And sometimes he felt like he was being run over in both directions.

"I would go from tournament to tournament, would do a lot of traveling at night going from place to place, trying to find a place to play," he says. "There were some lean times. I had three kids. It came right up to the border line, trying to get rent. It was peaks and valleys."

Then the senior tour came along.

He had been the leading money winner in the Senior Series, kind of a Nike Tour for the Senior PGA Tour, and that meant he could go directly to the finals of the senior tour qualifying school.

"That helps a lot with expenses," he said.

Then he qualified, earning his senior tour card and $464,648 in his first year, 1996.

A year ago, his Chevrolet was replaced with a Cadillac, earned with a hole-in-one at the Ralphs Classic at Wilshire Country Club.

Still, "I've paid my dues," he said. "The senior tour is God-sent. It's a lot of money and prestige, all in one package. It's great. This is it."

He's struggling, with $167,363, good for 56th on the money list, but so what?

"It's not like somebody's going to blow your head off if you miss a putt," he says.

"That could happen when you play where I've played."

And not only that, he's no longer looking for a place to park his room for the night.

Senior Open Championship

When: Thursday through Sunday

Where: Riviera Country Club, Pacific Palisades (6,906 yards, par 71)

Defending champion: Graham Marsh

Television: ESPN (Thursday and Friday, 12:30 and 4:30 p.m. both days); Channel 4 (Saturday and Sunday, 1 p.m. both days).

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