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Bolt Action

Golf's original bad boy is one of six inductees in World Hall of Fame

November 17, 2002|David Whitley | Orlando Sentinel

LECANTO, Fla. — The hands that launched a thousand golf clubs aren't what they used to be. They're still large and strong, but 86 years of hard use has taken a toll.

"I still play, but I don't have as much touch," said Tommy Bolt, who was one of six inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine Saturday night.

"And your fingertips are where your touch is."

Carpal tunnel syndrome or not, the 1958 U.S. Open champion can shoot the age of a man 10 years younger. As for throwing the clubs, the truth got lost in the myth long ago.

The Bolt Volcano never really sent a thousand clubs spewing like lava into the air over the PGA. It only seemed that way, thanks primarily to the showman who knew a good thing when he threw it. If there was a downside, it was that a terrific golfer became famous for being terrible.

If Bolt had a penny for every time he has been asked about being a golfing madman, he could buy Black Diamond Ranch, the renowned golf enclave that employs him as its resident legend. If he had $10 for every time he was remembered for what he did between club tosses, he barely could afford a ticket into the Hall of Fame.

That changed Saturday night when Bolt finally got in for free. Well, there was a price.

"I did it the hard way," he said.

Golf's original bad boy would like you to note that nobody gets into the Hall of Fame based on how far they could heave a 5-iron.

Bolt won 15 tournaments, played on two U.S. Ryder Cup teams, missed only six cuts in two decades and for years held the tour single-round scoring record of 60.

But what about the club throwing?

"All that was blown out of proportion," Bolt said.

He almost won the 1971 PGA Championship when he was 55 and was instrumental in igniting the Senior PGA Tour.

But what about the club throwing?

"Like I'm the only one who ever threw a club," Bolt said.

He long ago learned to live and laugh with the image monster he created. It doesn't take long to see Thunder Bolt is actually as cheerful as a crystal blue sky. He and his wife, Mary Lou, split time between their ranch in Arkansas and Black Diamond.

If schmoozing prospective members is a chore, it's one Bolt was born to do. The next woman who passes by and doesn't give him a peck on the cheek will be the first. Bolt still sets the fashion standard, with shined shoes and a golf shirt buttoned to the top.

He can spin stories for hours, recalling bets, shots and personalities from 75 years ago. The one thing he cannot recall is throwing a club and wishing he could have it back.

"Not that I can remember," Bolt said.

He didn't try merely to shoot low scores; he wanted to hit artistic shots. Bolt swears his perfectionist's temper got the best of him only a handful of times, like at the 1960 U.S. Open, when he sent a club whirling into a lake.

"Anyone who's never thrown a club is not serious about the game," Bolt said.

The rest of his heaves were mainly for show, providing the kind of spice today's tour has been accused of lacking. Bolt can't help shaking his head over how things have changed, from the souped-up equipment to the courtesy cars to the traveling PGA masseuse, who's needed to help relieve sore muscles after pros pick up their gargantuan 15th-place paychecks.

"Most kids today are loaded," Bolt said. "Let me tell you, it does make a difference."

He took a bus to his first tournament in Montgomery, Ala. He stayed at the YMCA and made $170.

Bolt has the usual modern-day laments, but he's not the bitter old codger angry over being born too soon.

"No, no, no. I'm happy with what happened," he said. "I did it the hard way, but I'm happy."

His satisfaction was never complete until today. Bolt made no secret he wanted to get into the Hall of Fame, but he'd been bypassed for years.

"This is the ultimate, man," he said. "There's nothing bigger."

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