America takes Gore straight to its heart
He weighs 19 stone, he can't stop winning, and he has taken John Daly's mantle as a nation's favourite super-sized superstar
Wednesday 21 September 2005
An exceptionally rare fact to report from this sporting world of hyperbole, but the biggest thing in golf right now really does happen to be the biggest thing.
The name is Jason Gore, the smile is the only part of his 19-stone frame that dares to take on the waistline and in these last few days he has taken root in the famous American heart which, very conveniently, is super-sized enough to make this a rather cosy fit. Quite simply, Gore and the United States were meant to be. This is Tin Cup with maple syrup overflowing from it.
And, to be fair, the love affair has not merely been founded on a one-night stand against the game's finest on one particularly ecstatic Sunday evening. No, the 90-foot putt to the hole's edge that so deafeningly brought the 31-year-old his first PGA Tour title at the 84 Lumber Classic four days ago was nothing more than another chapter in the Gore folklore, a definitive one, granted, but as the Californian has proved in the 72 hours since, not even close to the denouement in its level of intensity.
For instance, first thing on Monday he selflessly shook off the inevitable hangover to fly the 2,000-plus miles from Pennsylvania to Idaho to subject his drained mass to the thankless task of playing Annika Sorenstam in a charity skins game. (He lost, but grinned.) And today, instead of appearing on the Tour on which he now has an exemption to compete for the next two years, alongside the Lee Janzens and the David Duvals at the £2m Texas Open, he will be back with the nobodies at the £350,000 Boise Open. Why? "Because I promised to," he said. And, like every good American, Gore never breaks a promise.
"It would have been easy for him to forget all about people like us, but he didn't," said Jeff Sanders, the tournament director of this Nationwide Tour event. "In 2001, when he was struggling to find places to play, we gave him a sponsor's invite to play in Boise. He won it and said he hadn't forgotten it."
It is what sets him apart from all the other millionaires whose financial status he has just joined, as does the logo on his caddie's cap, which does not read Nike or Titleist, but Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. Not for any commercial tie-up, you understand, but purely because they both happen to like the brand.
Such common touches have unarguably helped Gore usurp John Daly as the People's Champion and as Johnny Miller, the revered commentator, signified not simply due to his almost unique integrity. "He is the Everyman hero because every man realises he could get into those strides," Miller said. "That's why they adore him. He's one of them."
And just like one of them, he does not rejoice in his paunch, but shields his eyes from those damned scales. Evidence of this blessed insecurity came recently when he passed on a message to Bob Costas saying that the NBC man's continued reference to him as a 260-pounder was out of order as his official biography said he was only 235. "Yeah, and tell him I'm 6ft 3in," replied Costas, 5ft 6in in his spikes.
In truth, Gore could be 30st and America would think no less of him. In fact, it would probably think more. For this is an affection that refreshingly flies in the airbrushed face of all that is normally deemed vital for "star attraction". Gore is what he is, what they are. "When he won, it felt like all of us had won," said one contributor on the PGA Tour message board yesterday.
It all began at Pinehurst in June. As the qualifier ranked 818th in the world leapt to the top of the US Open leaderboard in the second round he triggered the usual frenzy of scurrying to tell the fluke's tale before he inevitably disappeared back into "who cares?" status. But the more they looked into Jason Gore, the more they realised that here was much more than met the eye. (And, believe it, there was plenty to meet the eye.) Within a few minutes this beaming roly-poly was recounting a yarn that would make his introduction to the public at large so much the easier.
"What was my mindset when I got here?" he replied to the question American golf writers always seem to ask. "It was actually where I was going to get a new stereo for my car and how I was going to keep my wife in clothes. Our car got broken into Sunday night and had everything ransacked. Luckily, my clubs and shoes were with my caddie, who went in another car because I had my eight-month old son with me who has two ear infections. But they took everything else. Even my underpants. Those poor guys! He who laughs last, right?"
They all laughed all right, until they started enquiring about his background. "I kind of had a rough start to my golf career. The day I turned pro I found my dad dead on the floor in our house," he said, eyes welling up. "It's taken a little while to get over that and become myself again. Not point fingers and blame."
Giggles, tears? This boy had the lot. A mother who persuaded him to keep on playing just six weeks before, a childhood in which he was denied a place in the gridiron team for being too fat, a sick kid, a young golfing friendship with Tiger Woods, the same surname as a hapless vice-president - but more than anything else, a smile, a quip and a loving of humble pie. "Daly without the issues," as one newspaper coined him.
It was to serve him well when he capitulated to an 84 in the last group of the final round alongside his playing partner, Retief Goosen, who made a similar mess down his own polo shirt. As Michael Campbell fought to fend off the charge of Woods up ahead, the overnight leaders were suddenly forgotten and decided to strike a five-dollar bet on the last few holes - "well, we had to play for something". Gore lost that as well, falling from second to a tie for 49th with only a clutch of PGA Tour invitations to console him.
"I learned a lot at from Retief," he recalled. "Here is a guy who is defending champion and was having a bad day, and he walked off with his head high. You know, nobody died. Nobody lost a finger out there. It's just golf."
Perhaps that explains why Gore refused to take up any of the offers of the opportunistic sponsors with their easy routes back to the PGA Tour. He had experienced being the proverbial startled rabbit before with two doomed forays into the weekly big league in 2001 and 2003 and appreciated he needed his time on the B-roads of professional golf to ready himself for the glare. His ever-growing band of fans - "Jason and his Ar-Gore-nauts" as they are already known - were not dimming the spotlight too quickly, mind you, and after his first win of the season on the second-tier Nationwide Tour in West Virginia, the clamour built further with a back-to back victory in Wisconsin and became positively feverish when he prevailed yet again, Tiger-like, in his next event in Omaha.
Three on the trot earned him "a battlefield promotion" to go fighting in the show rings on merit, but when he flopped in his first two PGA Tour events, before missing the cut in Canada two weeks ago, many feared he would never be up to it. Gore knew better, though, arriving at a Pittsburgh course that would obviously suit his big hitting with a swagger and to hell with Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson in his path. "I felt it was coming," he said, before going on to trot out a series of statements that could be bound up and entitled "The American dream."
1) "It's amazing. Around May I was wondering if I could get formula for my child, if I was going to make a house payment, and now look. They just handed me a check for $792,000 [£440,000]."
2) "What does my story show? I guess it says never give up. Anything is possible in this country with desire and ambition. Anything."
3) "What does it all mean to me? Well, I've had a letter from one guy who spent his last few moments with a father who was dying of cancer watching the US Open. And his dad told him, 'Son, keep watching this kid.' That was pretty touching. It wasn't really me that old man was talking about, just, I guess, the all-American story of Mr Underdog, fighting and clawing his way up."
And so to Boise City today and a tournament that no one but the anoraks would even have noticed was on otherwise. Since Sunday, ticket sales have increased ten-fold, the networks have ripped up their schedules and twice as many journalists will be in attendance there than at the Texas Open. Just another scene from the film, then, that is doubtless already on a Hollywood budget sheet. If they saw him leaping up and down on that final green on Sunday and witnessed his breasts struggling to keep up with the rest of his rolls they could just be tempted to call their prospective blockbuster Twin Cups. Kevin Costner need not audition. Robbie Coltrane just might.
Big shots: How the Wild Thing, the Cambridge Doner and the Walrus measure up
Everything about the 'Wild Thing' is overblown: his driver, his fine sheet, his reputation - but mainly just his gut. Stopped dieting when he found it ruined the balance of his swing and has since given in to the binges of Mars bars and Diet Coke that make his bag the heaviest to carry on Tour. Now rejoices in his weight saying that he couldn't go to the Champions' Dinner at this year's Open because he couldn't fit into a suit. 'You ain't getting no shirt and tie on this fat boy,' he quipped.
Once revered as 'golf's best double act', the player they called 'The Walrus' liked to believe they did so purely because of his moustache. There were a ton of other reasons for doing so.
Like father like son, Stadler Jnr admits that the obvious connection does get to him. 'I get a look-a-like comment every four feet,' said the 25-year-old. 'I haven't yet got a nickname. But please - no animals.'
* TIM HERRON
'Lumpy' as he is known on the PGA Tour delights in his size and says he has to stay this way for his swing. 'I've had love handles since I was 14. I need them. Honest. I mean, I actually like broccoli.'
On the European Tour, nobody stood out more in the '90s than the 'Cambridge Doner'. His game inexplicably turned sour but he is still remembered fondly for his three-knuckled grip.
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