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FOCUS ON GOLF: U.S. Senior Open

It's A Wonderful Life

Billy King, 54, Isn't Living Like One, but Former Club Pro Is Relishing Rookie Year on Senior Tour

July 23, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a Walter Mittyesque life, what he thought it would be and more, and a long way from the job he has held for 28 years, the one his daddy held before him.

Billy King is a 54-year-old rookie and has no problem with the appellation.

"There's no other sport in the world where a 54-year-old guy can come out and qualify and play for $45 million," says King, for most of his life a golf pro, now a pro golfer rubbing elbows "with guys I've watched play on TV all my life. My idols, like Mr. Palmer and Nicklaus."

And making a living doing it--well, sort of a living--thanks to the folks back home at Blue Hills Golf Club in Roanoke, Va., and those who make Callaway golf clubs and Odyssey putters.

Callaway and Odyssey foot the bill for King, who estimates he spends about $2,000 a week, including air fare, hotel bills, food and caddie fees, to play the Senior PGA Tour after finally qualifying for his card last winter.

"The equipment companies pay you to use their equipment, so money really isn't a problem," he says. "It depends on how you want to go.

"Some of these guys spend $3,000-$4,000 a week.

"Me, I don't do any first class on airplanes. I'm all coach. And the tour sends you fact sheets on the tournaments and you can decide where you want to stay. They give you a list of hotels. I'm doing coach there too."

Everybody has a different deal with caddies, but the standard is about $500 a week and 5% of the player's earnings.

These are all things he had to learn, is still learning actually, which accounts, he says, for his having the same number of rounds in the 80s (two) as the 60s in earning $49,762.50 on the senior tour in his first season.

And that doesn't count that 90 he shot at Las Vegas.

"I didn't like it, but I wasn't embarrassed," says King, a bespectacled 5-foot-8, 150-pounder in the mold of a real Mitty. "There was a 50-mph wind that day, and it was blowing my skinny butt all over the place. At least that's my excuse, the only one I've got."

It's a chance you take when you leave the pro shop.

"Any time you play competitively, you put yourself in position to be talked about, laughed about or whatever," he says.

"I played in two or three senior Opens [actually, three] when I was a club pro and I would shoot 85-75 and miss the cut. That's what I did at Congressional [in 1995].

"You get a lot of ribbing when you get back home, but at least I was playing in the tournament. I qualified to play in the tournament. They were watching me. I'd tell them, 'Let's go to the tee, let's play for a little something. Y'all think it's easy, go get your game in shape and come on out here.' That's what I tell them."

It's what he did and what he's doing this week in the U.S. Senior Open at Riviera.

King wasn't supposed to be such a late bloomer. After finishing a service hitch and college, he was going to play on the PGA Tour but fell five shots short of qualifying. The answer was to play some mini-tour events, or overseas, and take another shot at the tour.

That ended on Oct. 4, 1970, near the town of Punxsutawney, Pa.

"My dad was club pro at Blue Hills for 13 years until he was killed in a plane crash in October of '70 with Curtis Turner, the stock car driver," King said. "After he was killed, I had to go back to work. They gave me the head pro job at Blue Hills, and I had to go to work for a living."

Clarence King had taught his son the game, but more important, had taught him how to teach others.

"I never got a chance to play again, just in local events, sectional events, things like that," he says. "State opens. But I've always wanted to be a player."

It's not that the King family has left Blue Hills. His brother and two sisters run the club while he's away.

"The members and the board let me have some time off," he says. "They knew I wanted to come out here and play with these guys.

"I played the Nitro Senior Series last year, and in 13 tournaments, I finished third on their money list. I was lucky enough to win one at Carbondale, Ill., and had gotten my game in shape."

What kind of shape was still to be determined. He had failed twice in senior tour qualifying and shot a 74 in the first round last October at Sawgrass. Then he shot 70-68-69 and suddenly he had a full exemption.

And a Callaway contract, and one with Odyssey.

And money coming in, ready to play.

But how to do it?

"It's a tremendous difference in lifestyles just trying to keep up with your schedule: what time your airplane leaves, when you've got to be where," he says. "It takes a lot. It's taking me a lot of getting used to. I was at home all the time. Now I'm flying all over the country.

"You know, most of these guys playing the senior tour played the regular tour and they're used to all the travel. They know the golf courses and all that. I think a rookie has a tougher time because he doesn't know the golf courses, he doesn't know where he's traveling to when he gets to the site."

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