Dick Heller: Minding his temper

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It was all an act. Most of it anyway. Although Tommy Bolt won 15 PGA Tour events and is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, that’s not why fans remembered him.

Instead he was known for his alleged temper, which earned him such nicknames as “Thunder” Bolt and earned him a spot alongside the likes of John McEnroe and Bobby Knight as the most hotheaded sports figures ever to toss a tantrum.

Talk about being suckered in. Even so renowned a rival as Ben Hogan bought Bolt’s scam, once remarking, “If we could have screwed another head on Tommy, he would have been the greatest who ever played.”

It’s easy to imagine that Bolt, who died at 92 of a liver ailment last month in Batesville, Ark., is still snickering as he tips a glass in that great clubhouse in the sky.

“I think I can hit a golf shot as well as the next man,” he once said. “But do people come out to watch me [do that]? No, they come out for one reason only - they want to see me blow my top.”

So was Bolt really angry or really calculating? Perhaps a bit of both. Consider:

“It thrills people to see a guy suffer,” he once said. “That’s why I threw clubs so often. At first I did it because I was angry. After a while, it became showmanship pure and simple.”

Stories abound of his antics. Once, at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am in Pebble Beach, Calif., he found himself 135 yards from the 16th green and asked his caddie for a 7-iron.

“It’s either a 3-iron or a 3-wood,” the caddie is supposed to have replied. “Those are the only clubs you have left.”

Bolt told that story on himself when he was induced into the World Golf shrine in 2002, then added: “I couldn’t possibly have broken as many clubs as I was supposed to have broken. They haven’t made that many.”

Anything for a laugh, right?

Tommy had technique, too, when it came to hurling irons and woods.

“I learned if you helicoptered those dudes by throwing them sideways instead of overhand, the shaft wouldn’t break as easy,” he insisted. “It’s an art, it really is.”

According to legend, Bolt advised the young Arnold Palmer to “throw them clubs ahead of you instead of behind. That way you won’t gave to waste energy going back to pick them up.”

Yuk, yuk.

He also suggested, “Never break your driver and putter in the same round.”

One time, after missing six consecutive putts, Bolt shook his fist at the heavens and implored the Almighty, “Why don’t you come down here and fight like a man?” He also supposedly tied an errant putter to the bumper of his car and drove off to “punish” the stick.

As you can guess, all those prim and proper PGA officials were less than amused. Bolt was fined so many times for pitching clubs and epithets that he set up a special fund from his earnings to pay for the transgressions.

It’s unfortunate, however, that all the stories and laughs about “Terrible Tommy” obscured the fact that he was a fine golfer. Despite not joining the PGA Tour until he was 34, Bolt won his first event in the 1951 North and South Open and added 14 more to his collection in the next decade.

He won his only major at the 1958 U.S. Open, defeating Gary Player by four shots at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla. In 1969, he won the Senior PGA Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

In retrospect, Bolt’s most important contribution to golf might have been the color he added to it. Long before Palmer and Tiger Woods became crowd favorites, Tommy gave spectators a reason to cheer and empathize in a sport previously characterized by the icy demeanor of such masters as Hogan and Bobby Jones.

Bolt was always fun to watch - provided you weren’t in the path of a flying club.

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