Tommy Bolt: Golf champion prone to tantrums

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The Independent Online

If tennis had John McEnroe to tear down its sensibilities then golf had Tommy Bolt. Indeed, the Oklahoman was dressing down officials and taking his anger out on his equipment a couple of decades before Big Mac got in on the fiery act.

He was born in 1916 into a family which had to move wherever the construction industry took his father. It was the Second World War, and a posting to become an instructor at an officers' golf club in Rome, which stalled Bolt's plan to become a professional. He was 34 when he eventually teed it up against the best, but from that late start he was to make a startling impression upon his sport.

Bolt's swing was sweet enough to win him 15 titles on the American tour, including the US Open of 1958. Yet it was his sour temper that earned him his enduring fame.

Bolt was better known by his nickname "Terrible Tommy" or the inevitable "Thunder Bolt", and he was one of the star attractions on the circuit. The player himself was only too aware of his drawing power and soon realised he could exploit it.

"I think I can hit a golf shot as well as the next man," he said to one American newspaper. "But do people come out to watch me hit golf shots, the way they do Ben Hogan and Sam Snead? No. They come out for one reason, and one reason only. They want to see me blow my top. And I'm sorry to say I've obliged them."

He was later to admit: "It thrills crowds to see a guy suffer. That's why I threw clubs so often. They love to see golf get the better of someone ... At first I threw clubs because I was angry. After a while it became showmanship, plain and simple. I learned that if youhelicopter those dudes by throwing them sideways instead of overhand, the shaft wouldn't break as easy. It's an art, it really is."

The anecdotes of his club-throwing soon passed into legend and although some of the tales were undoubtedly apocryphal, Bolt did nothing to discourage their circulation. There was the time his caddie handed him an inappropriate two-iron to play out of thick rough: it was the only club he had left in the bag. And there was the errant putter he "punished" by tying to the back of his car and then driving the few hundred miles back to his home.

In fact, the putter was a regular prop in the Bolt routine, never more famously that after he had lipped out of the hole on six consecutive putts and had then shaken his fist at the heavens. "Why don't you come down here," he shouted, "and fight like a man?"

While the spectators lapped it up, the authorities were aghast and often dished out unprecedented fines. Bolt confessed that he even had to set upa special account to pay for his mis-demeanours. In his autobiography, Tony Jacklin, the British major winner,remembers Bolt, on one tee-box,"letting go of a long and loud fart as an official stood by. 'Do that again Bolt and I'm going to have to fine you,' saidthe official. Tommy grumbled and said, 'That's the trouble with you guys – you're taking all the colour out of the game.'"

Despite Bolt's outbursts he remained a popular figure in the locker room, which recognised a much-neededcharacter and an underrated performer. Ben Hogan, his mentor, once said of him, "If we could've screwed another head on his shoulders, Tommy Bolt could have been the greatest who ever played."

As it was he had to be content with being one of the most entertaining who ever played. His presence was credited with being one of the major reasons behind the success of the US Seniors Tour, which began in 1980. He won five titles on the tour, eventually retiring in 1994 at the age of 78. He carried on playing and teaching until his death in Cherokee Village, Arkansas, where he lived with his wife, Mary Lou.

His proudest professional moment had come in 2002 when he was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. "It's funny", Bolt said afterwards to the American magazine Golf Digest. "For years I was critical of the Senior PGA Tour, especially the way the tour took care of the younger seniors but not the older guys like me. Not long ago I stopped complaining, and the next thing you know I get elected to the Hall of Fame. It goes to show: you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar."

James Corrigan

Tommy Bolt, professional golfer: born Haworth, Oklahoma 31 March 1916; US Open champion 1958; married 1957 (one son); died Batesville, Arkansas 30 August 2008.