My Terribly Generous Friend

Growing up with Tommy Bolt and his misleading moniker
Where there was thunder, there was Tommy Bolt: noise to some and a light to others. Photo by Todd Rosenberg
Where there was thunder, there was Tommy Bolt: noise to some and a light to others. Photo by Todd Rosenberg
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You probably remember the nickname, but I doubt you’ve seen the résumé. And I’m positive you don’t know the whole story. 

Terrible Tommy Bolt, sometimes called simply Thunder Bolt, was a 15-time PGA Tour winner, the 1958 U.S. Open champion and enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2002. But golf history mostly remembers his volcanic outbursts on the course. During a more polite era, when the sport was even more genteel than today, Bolt cursed loudly and prolifically at the golf gods. When he passed away in 2008, The New York Times declared, “Tommy Bolt, a Top Golfer Who Was Known Better for His Temper, Dies at 92.” Perhaps his most famous tirade was on the 18th tee box at Cherry Hills during the 1960 U.S. Open, when, after rinsing two in the adjacent lake, Thunder Bolt rinsed his driver.

But in my family, he was just Tommy, the hilarious, impossibly generous friend with the crazy shoes, $100 bills and trunk full of free golf balls. In the 1970s, after he retired from the Tour, Tommy wintered in tiny Crystal River, Florida, where he had a house as part of a promotional deal with Plantation Golf Resort. He met my father in the roundabout on a chance encounter, pointed a thick carpenter’s finger at him and said, “You can be my caddie.” It kicked off a friendship that lasted decades.

Whenever he came to town, Tommy pulled through the roundabout, popped the trunk of his big Cadillac for the attendant to get his clubs and left it open. Soon, the Crystal River High School golf coach would appear to fill a trash bag with balls, tees and gloves for his team. Tommy would feign protest in his Fred Sanford–like rasp: “Hey, get out of there!”

I was about 10 when he made me his playing partner against my dad and older brother in a nine-hole four-ball at Black Diamond, the exclusive Fazio course in Lecanto. I don’t remember who won, but I know he never let us pay a dime, and how special it felt riding shotgun while he called me “pardna.” Before we left, he gave my brother and me $100 handshakes. Usually around our birthdays a card would arrive in the mail with a couple $20s inside.

He also gifted us with stories that still pop louder than his fuschia slacks and matching patent-leather shoes. My favorite is from the ’70s, when Tommy called my dad early one Saturday morning and said, “The Canucks got into the gambling whiskey. They want a match. Call Bob and Gerry. Sugarmill Woods, one o’clock.” When my dad warned him that they didn’t have that kind of money, Tommy told him not to worry about it.

The night before, a handful of players who were friendly with Al Balding, a Tour player from the Great White North, came through the Plantation. Late in the night, they puffed up their chests and called Tommy. My dad recalls a less-confident bunch on the range, no longer buoyed by Canadian Mist. When they tried to back off the stakes, Tommy threw down a knot of hundreds wrapped in rubber bands and growled, “We’ll play for what I say we’ll play for.”

He nearly won the four-on-four best-ball match by himself. On the first par 3, he lipped out a hole-in-one from 183 yards. On the next one, from 199 yards, Tommy dunked it. He made four birdies, and on the 588-yard par-5 15th he went driver, then driver off the deck, landed it like a butterfly with sore feet, then made the 15-footer for eagle.

After they squared up, Tommy took out that knot, peeled off hundreds like layers of an onion and split the winnings.

Tommy came up poor, worked like hell and made it big. Yes, he probably demanded too much of himself on the course. But he couldn’t give us enough. And that’s not so terrible.