Phil Rodgers had to learn the game's harshest lessons before he could impart his wisdom to students from Jack Nicklaus to an especially curious amateur
Words by John Dechant
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I struggled to find the right way to ask Phil Rodgers about his downfall as a pro player. I feared saying something that would turn him off, so I danced around the subject and agonized over the topic in between conversations. I wanted a book, not a one-and-done interview, so I played the long game. Then, one day, he saved me from those fears and reshaped my image of him.
“You know, I’ve managed to make three careers out of one sport,” he said after one of his signature pauses. “I’m a searcher. I keep trying to find ways to get better at what I do.”
I realized he wasn’t speaking in the past tense.
“That’s one of the things that keeps me going. I’m not completely shut off from learning new things. The thing that I figured out—and it’s one of the things that Paul Runyan taught me—he said, ‘If you’re going to play, you need to learn everything you can about it.’ How to make golf clubs, how they work, all that stuff.”
Rodgers, who at that point was nearly 80 years old and had been battling chronic myeloid leukemia for more than a decade, who experienced the dizzying heights of an NCAA title and two major championship near-misses and the crushing lows of falling into obscurity, still couldn’t quit golf. Nevermind that we were 45 years apart in age and very different people in countless ways. We shared a love for the game and the never-ending pursuit of controlling the golf ball.
It was early 2016 and I was getting some work in on the practice green at the Players Club at Deer Creek in Omaha, Nebraska, when I ran into Skip Tredway. I had always considered myself decent around the greens, but it turned out I had no idea. Tredway explained to me why the bounce of a wedge is supposed to work along the ground and how to unhinge the shaft vertically to produce consistent impact. He unlocked a whole new repertoire of shots that forever changed my game. I was stunned. Did Tredway, a local teaching pro who played on the PGA Tour in the 1980s, come up with this on his own? Did he have a relationship with a major champion I didn’t know about?
“Nope,” he said. “It’s from Phil Rodgers.”
I had heard about Rodgers, mostly as the wedge whisperer who inspired a struggling Jack Nicklaus to major glory in the 1980s. Tredway didn’t have much more to add; in early 1982, when he was making his way through mini-tour events on the West Coast, he contacted Rodgers, who was by then known as one of the game’s elite teachers. For $80, Rodgers spent the better part of two hours showing Tredway his short-game system, and they agreed to meet up a week later to fine-tune the technique. Rodgers no-showed the second lesson, and they never made it up. No matter: Tredway still teaches Rodgers’ short-game principles today.
On the course, I had a new attacking mindset around the greens. Off of it, I dove into extensive research on Rodgers’ life, discovering his difficult upbringing, accomplished junior career and legendary gambling escapades.
Eventually it led me into contact with several of his contemporaries, and ultimately with Rodgers himself. Like his professional career, our working relationship never fulfilled the promise I believed it had. Nevertheless, I treasured it. And because of it, I came to believe Rodgers is the most overlooked contributor to golf in the past 50 years.
Reading Rodgers’ 1986 book, Play Lower Handicap Golf, gave me a deeper understanding of his beliefs about the game, but I craved insights into the man. Strangely, those were harder to find. How was it that this former NCAA champion, who won five times on the PGA Tour within five years of turning professional, could fly so far under the radar? Was he forgotten? Ignored? And what happened that forced him out of a promising playing career into instruction? That sort of reset rarely happens by choice.
It took some work, but I finally tracked down his number and called him out of the blue. I explained who I was and that I wanted to write a book about his career. I had no expectations, but he said he’d think about it. When I rang him a week later and he didn’t answer, I figured that was the end of it.
But he called me back.
That began our collaboration. I turned on my recorder and prepared for my usual interview practice of scribbling notes like a doctor who’s running late for a tee time. But I found that Rodgers always spoke carefully; he had perfected the art of the pregnant pause. His speech teetered back and forth between clear and murky, but I’m fairly certain that was more indicative of how casually he held onto his cell phone than the strength of his voice. His pauses allowed me to write legibly.
He walked me through coming of age in San Diego’s fabled junior-golf hotbed, and a glittering junior career where he could regularly shoot in the 60s by age 13 and learned the finer points of the game under Runyan at La Jolla Country Club.
“When I was 10 years old, I got to play several times with Ralph Guldahl, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Paul Runyan, Lloyd Mangrum and Ben Hogan,” Rodgers told me. “I grew up with Gene Littler and Billy Casper. They were older, and I grew up with them, playing with them, watching them practice. And there was Mickey Wright. There is virtually nobody who had more of an opportunity than I did, as far as being around the top echelon of golfers. You know, they all had a hand in my learning process.”
He finished second in the International Jaycee Championship at 16 and won the event in 1955 at 17. Both finishes earned Rodgers scholarships that paved the way for him to attend the University of Houston.
It was his way out. His folks separated more than once before divorcing when he was a teenager. The family didn’t have much money, and he described their finances to me as “basically a break-even deal.” It’s doubtful he could have afforded college without golf.
At Houston, Rodgers played for coach Dave Williams, perhaps the one person on campus as brash as he was. Williams once announced at a Houston sports banquet that his team was going to win a national championship within five years. Everybody in the room laughed; some of Williams’ players recalled him making the same statement to incredulous local media. He and his players backed up the talk by winning 16 national championships between 1956 and 1985. In 1958, Rodgers won the NCAA individual crown.
He lived and breathed playing golf. Gambling on golf came second, with formal education a distant third.
“He had this braggadocio,” Houston teammate and longtime Tour player Kermit Zarley told me. “Phil didn’t always go to his classes. He would be waiting in the dorm, Taub Hall, for the other players on the team to come back from class. He’d yell at them coming up the stairs: ‘Which four of ya want to play your best ball against my ball, even up?’ And they would go out and play, and he’d beat them most of the time.”
Some days, Rodgers would stick his Golfcraft putter up through his shirt, like an antenna. He’d walk down the hall, squawking, “My antenna’s up! I’m looking for four suckers to play me today.”
Having grown up playing serious money games without much of it in his pocket, Rodgers loved to put a few bucks on the line whenever possible, remembers teammate Babe Hiskey, who likened his fellow Cougar to a golfing pirate. When Hiskey was a freshman, Rodgers dragged him out to the putting green at Houston Country Club. “I need some action,” he told him. Then Philamander, as they called him, proceeded to whip Hiskey in a putting contest. Well, Hiskey was putting. Rodgers was chipping with a wedge from off the green.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” chirped the unsuspecting frosh the first time he was lured into this arrangement, certain there was no way he could lose such a contest. Then he witnessed Rodgers hole chip after chip. Finally, Hiskey’d had enough. With little cash in his pocket, he became indentured to Rodgers to settle the debt, carrying his clubs up the stairs of their dorm for the remainder of the semester.
After a stint in the Marines, Rodgers set out on a professional career in 1961. As in college, he found success early. He won the Sahara Pro-Am in Las Vegas, netting $1,500. Golf historians often note that Nicklaus made his pro debut at the 1962 Los Angeles Open, finishing tied for 50th and earning a last-place check of $33.33. They rarely mention the winner: Phil Rodgers. He closed with a 62 to blitz the field by nine shots and grab the $7,500 winner’s check.
Later that season, he won the Tucson Open, and quickly had the attention of the golf world. But it was Rodgers’ personality quirks and behavior that garnered more (and less-flattering) attention. He would curse and act aloof. And he was cocky, a trait that drew the ire of other players. A January 1963 piece in Sports Illustrated titled “Fat, Sassy and Sensational” pulled few punches. Rodgers was good, and he knew it.
But that wasn’t the real Rodgers, says Zarley: “It was a front. I liked Phil, and I think he was a pretty likable guy on the Tour. He came across as arrogant in his early days, but, you know, in sports you’ve got to look at that as confidence.”
Zarley saw that athletic arrogance firsthand in 1966 at Doral, where he led from the opening round. On the 71st hole, Zarley watched from the fairway as Rodgers drained a 60-foot putt to tie the lead. When Zarley three-putted the same green moments later, he found himself trailing. And it would stay that way. “That’s the closest I ever was to beating Phil Rodgers,” he laments.
In 1963, Rodgers nearly captured a major championship, losing to Bob Charles in a 36-hole playoff for the Open Championship at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. Sports Illustrated had a few laughs at Rodgers’ expense, describing him as “plump” and “bumptious,” a player akin to “a waltzing, wisecracking Jackie Gleason of golf.”
The previous summer, Rodgers was in serious contention in the U.S. Open at Oakmont, but was derailed by a snowman when his ball got stuck in a spruce tree on the 17th hole. He ended up two shots out of the famous playoff between Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. “They didn’t have a lot of trees when I was there,” Rodgers recalled. “They did have five Christmas trees on the 17th hole, and I hit my ball into one of them.”
“That’s a sore subject, I’m sure,” I told him. “You might have won that thing outright.”
“Well, that’s true,” he said, ever certain.
Rodgers’ last win on Tour came at the Buick Open in 1966. He wasn’t even 30 years old. So what happened after that? There’s no easy answer, and he didn’t provide me with much. But the clues are there if you look hard enough. In a 1980 magazine profile, Rodgers all but confirmed Zarley’s suspicion that his cockiness was a front—or at least fleeting. “I’m not as sure of myself as people think I am,” he said.
His colleagues in golf said he lived hard during his years as a Tour regular, often at all hours of the night. Never one to shy away from a bet, Rodgers was once in the lobby of a Phoenix hotel when he overheard a group of club pros from Iowa with a hot tip on a dog race. He loaded up so heavily on a dog named Party Jewel at Phoenix Greyhound Park that he killed the odds, infuriating the Iowans in the process. Rodgers also suffered through injuries, including an auto accident in 1978 that required surgery on the middle finger of his left hand. Other surgeries on different body parts would follow.
His years languishing on the professional circuit played out much slower than his meteoric rise as a 20-something, and Rodgers became a forgotten commodity. He played less and less competitive golf, slipping further away from the mouthy young stud of his youth. He wandered through what is now the PGA Tour Champions for six years, winning once. He was reduced to strolling up and down the range at Tour events, offering players instruction, often unsolicited. His knowledge was never in doubt, but when your game is in a downward spiral, it’s hard to be taken seriously. His best playing days had passed him by.
But his chance at redemption hadn’t.
Nicklaus and Rodgers’ relationship didn’t start with their now legendary marathon teaching session in 1980. They had known each other since before the 1960 U.S. Amateur, when they both arrived as prodigies still working through baby fat and Nicklaus delivered Rodgers a rare defeat. (In true Rodgers fashion, he gained headlines that week by saying he would “bury” Nicklaus; the Golden Bear later admitted he put so much into defeating Rodgers that he ran out of steam and lost his next match.)
By 1980, Nicklaus was in poor form, and many felt he was on the downside of his career. Tour player John Schroeder suggested Nicklaus call his old foil to get some help with his short game. The resulting story is widely known as one of golf’s great resurrection projects, and I was giddy when Rodgers began to tell me his version. He said he traveled to the Nicklaus family compound in North Palm Beach, Florida, to spend a few days there. He ended up staying for two weeks. He ate Barbara’s cooking, gave lessons to the Nicklaus kids and even slept in Jack’s spare clothes when the airline lost his luggage. He described the experience to me and others as “two weeks in a seven-star hotel.”
Powered by Rodgers’ training, Nicklaus remade his short game and swing thoughts. The results were immediate and history-altering: In 1980, he won the U.S. Open at Baltusrol and the PGA Championship at Oak Hill. In 1986, still armed with Rodgers’ philosophies, he captured his 18th major championship at Augusta National.
In our conversations, Rodgers downplayed his impact on Nicklaus: “All I did was stimulate his interest a little bit. Jack has a very artistic mind. That’s why he’s such a great architect.”
But he didn’t downplay the effect those two weeks had on his teaching career. Soon after, he had a role in starting the Jack Nicklaus Golf Schools. He parlayed that into a teaching job at Grand Cypress in Florida, which became a base camp of sorts for the next 20 years. And whenever he strutted onto the range at a Tour event, with his long, slow gait and his arms slinging side to side, people took notice, just like his days as a hotshot player.
The additional clout also gave him an even greater platform to become one of the game’s most integral club designers. He started working for Cobra Golf in 1977 on a part-time basis. Later, he was given a small piece of the company. His iconic Trusty Rusty wedge, with a pinky-size scallop carved out of the back of the flange to help create high bounce in the center of the wedge while lowering the leading-edge height, became a decades-long mainstay for Tour players and amateurs alike; Cobra still incorporates some of his design concepts today. Rodgers’ fingerprints were on other Cobra products—woods and Bafflers—but nothing brought him as much acclaim as the unmistakable Trusty Rusty.
“I really enjoyed that,” he said. “That was one of the best times of my life and very rewarding for me….It was fun communicating with them and trying to get them to work the way I saw it. Most of the kids in R&D were young boys, you know, right out of college. They were all smart, qualified engineers.”
The kids on the Cobra R&D team knew they had a priceless resource in Rodgers, whom they called “Pops.”
His passion for the modern direction of golf was evident in our conversations. Not once did he complain about young players using hot drivers or the golf ball going too far or teams of coaches allowed on practice ranges. He was always more interested in what was next.
My discussions with those close to him also revealed that Rodgers’ life took another turn for the better a few years after his Nicklaus revelation, when he met and married his wife, Karen. Friends told me she softened him and provided perspective. Once a single, gruff independent contractor, he became more thoughtful and caring. Karen came with a family, too. Rodgers was 47, and in a year and a day, he inherited two daughters and a grandson.
“I accomplished a lot in a short period of time,” he joked.
Around that time, Rodgers began mentoring younger golfers. No longer did he help only established Tour players; he took on all comers. Three of them happened to be named Jeff: Jeff Wilson, Jeff Gove and Jeff Brehaut.
Wilson, at 55, won the 2018 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship. Gove won three times on what is now the Korn Ferry Tour. And Brehaut, Wilson’s college teammate at the University of the Pacific, is a longtime professional with five wins on multiple U.S. tours.
During his early years as a professional in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Brehaut made it routine to catch the first flight out of San Jose bound for San Diego, where he’d spend the day working on his game with Rodgers. Brehaut would arrive at Rodgers’ house by 8:30 a.m., and the instruction would begin immediately.
“Even on the ride to the golf course, he was coaching,” Brehaut says fondly. “He was coaching my driving. He’d tell me which lane to be in. He was constantly coaching. He’d coach on food, wine, vodka. When I’d spend the night with him, we’d stop at some meat place he liked to go to, and he was buying $35 filets and $40 ribeyes, picking out good red wine to go with it.”
Brehaut’s professional career unfolded differently than his mentor’s. Success came quickly for Rodgers, but Brehaut had to scratch and claw up the ranks before finally joining the PGA Tour at 35. Rodgers stuck by him every step of the way.
In 2002, standing on the tee of the final hole at the six-round PGA Tour Qualifying School with the lead, Brehaut piped a 3-wood onto the fairway, evading the water running down the left side of the 18th hole at PGA West. Rodgers was standing by the green, watching his pupil bring home the victory in what was one of pro golf’s most grueling events. When Brehaut’s tee shot found the fairway, Rodgers barked out an emphatic “Yes!” that Brehaut heard from more than 300 yards away.
Today, Brehaut has become a modern-day Rodgers. He still plays competitively, but most of his time is spent coaching. He’s become the legacy of the Runyan-Rodgers coaching tree.
“I think about him every day when I’m teaching,” Brehaut says. “It’s so ingrained. Paul Runyan was probably as nice and generous to him as he was with me, and I try to be that way with kids today. It’s like I’m passing it on.”
I called Rodgers in late July 2016 for one of our regularly scheduled phone interviews, anxious to continue our work. I was about to ask my first question when he spoke up and put the brakes on our project. He didn’t kill it on the spot, but he told me he was having second thoughts about a book. He expressed concerns about vanity, and while that might have been true, I also suspected his declining health had something to do with it. I told him I understood, and I’d check back in soon.
I called him in October, but he kept our book on hold. He thanked me and even told me he was aware he couldn’t stop me from continuing the project on my own, but I couldn’t see a way forward without his buy-in. I wanted it no other way. I held out hope that he’d call me up one day and say, “Let’s go.” That never happened.
Phil Rodgers died on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, after a 15-year battle with leukemia. His last night was spent with family, eating steaks cooked on his grill and enjoying good wine. The previous September, two of the Jeffs, Brehaut and Wilson, flew to San Diego to spend a day with their mentor. They sat him in a cart on the range and listened as he barked out instructions, just like the old days. He even shuffled out a couple times, his disease-stricken body only a shadow of its once-robust frame, to demonstrate a few things. For a man who was once an island, particularly in the prime of his playing career, at life’s end he was the polar opposite. He was loved, cared for, well regarded. He had lived a full life, something his detractors might have thought impossible half a century before.
In the days following his death, tributes from all corners of the golf industry came through social media: Nicklaus, a heartfelt article from Golf Digest editor Jerry Tarde, and seemingly anyone who ever held a wrench at Cobra. Greg Norman, the longtime face of the brand, expressed his condolences, noting that he still carried that “cutting edge” Trusty Rusty in his bag. Seeing those tributes, I realized that I was wrong: Phil Rodgers hadn’t been forgotten or ignored. Not to people in the know.
As fate would have it, I was on the golf course with Tredway when news of Rodgers’ death broke. We were waiting on the tee of the par-3 eighth hole at the Players Club, and we shared a moment, recognizing that a damned important piece of golf history had moved on.
Then someone put a peg in the ground, and we continued our round. There was golf to be played and new things to learn.