LINKS PLAYERS MAGAZINE, 2010 ANNUAL EDITION

SOUTH AND BACK

In 1969, Frank Beard led the PGA Tour in earnings. He made $164,707. Not much by today’s standards, but more then than Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino, or Player—need any more names than that?

Beard turned 70 last spring, a long time removed from his days as a competitor, when he won 11 times on the PGA Tour and once more on the Champions Tour. But he has never left the game, offering learned commentary as a television analyst and encouraging his son, Michael, who has spent time on the Nationwide and PGA Tours in the past decade.

Beard now resides in La Quinta, California, where he regularly plays at the Palms Country Club, home to numerous tour professionals, including Anthony Kim and Fred Couples. Beard’s story with us is built from an interview he gave last year to another member at The Palms, Links Players president Jeffrey Cranford.

“If you want to play golf, you gotta go south.” These were the words spoken to me by a friend of mine when I was just a teenager. And because this friend was the amateur champion of my home state of Kentucky, I was more than willing to heed his advice. I made up my mind then and there. I was heading to Florida.

I went to Gainesville to visit the University of Florida, and the moment I got off the plane, that was pretty much the beginning and end of that story. I was where I wanted to be.

But those were not the glory days of Florida golf. Tommy Aaron was there my first year, but then he was gone and we had to piece together a team from the fraternity boys and whoever else would play. It was almost like intramurals. Sometimes I’d have to go up to Robbie’s Pool Hall and collar a sixth man, so we didn’t have to forfeit that sixth point when we played Auburn or Georgia. Back then, the University of Houston was the team that really had the players.

In spite of this, I somehow got it in my head that I wanted to play professional golf. There was a Tour then, but no money in it. TV had just begun, so while we knew who Hogan or Snead were by their reputation among golfers, few of us had ever seen them play. The best amateurs in the game usually stayed away from the Tour because there was much more money to be made in business. You had to think either you were the very best or be half crazy to play the Tour. Jackie Burke won about $15,000 on the spring Tour in the 1950s, but when they asked him whether he would play the summer Tour, he told them that he already had a summer job lined up, one that would bring him $33,000 a year—why would he play the Tour?

I knew all this, so I was getting ready to go to law school when I had a really great summer of golf. I won a bunch of amateur events, and some fellas got some money together and said, “Why don’t you try the Tour?” That was fine with me, but I can assure you that my parents weren’t pushing me in this direction. Nowadays, when a father sees Tiger Woods making a putt for $2 million, he might hand his kid a golf club instead of a scalpel for medical school or something like that. Not then. It was a whole different culture. When we started on the Tour back then, it was truly out of love because there was not going to be much money in it.

My first full year on Tour was 1963, which was wonderful for me, because that was right about the time that the world was opening its eyes to Arnold Palmer. He won his second Masters in 1960 and by 1962 he also had a U.S. Open and a British Open Championship. The television folks especially were sensing that here was a charismatic guy loved by the fans, and that they could parlay that popularity into some real dollars. In 1969, I wrote a book called Pro, and in it I said that Arnie had made me 75 cents on every dollar I’d ever earned. That’s how much influence Arnold Palmer had on the professional game and on all of us who played it.

My first win came in 1963 at the Frank Sinatra Open Invitational in Palm Springs. I shot 77 in the Monday qualifier and figured my week was over right then, but the wind kicked up and the scores blew up, so I got in. By Sunday I was playing with Bob Rosburg and one other guy, either Mike Souchak or Tommy Bolt. As we made it to the eighteenth hole, I was leading so the other guys weren’t talking to me at all. But right before I teed off, Rossie walked up to me with his head hanging down and said something like, “Hit an iron off the tee. Don’t mess it up here.” That was it.

And I did what he told me. I hit two irons onto the green, and when I stood there on the back of the green and looked down at my shirt, I could see my shirt thumping up and down. My heart was beating that hard!

Because it was Sinatra’s tournament, the whole Rat Pack was there—Joel St. John, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin. I was just a young boy from Kentucky. I didn’t know these guys. But they had me to their party after the tournament was over, and I sat in the corner drinking a Coke. They were having this party, and all I could think was, Hey, I just won this tournament! But the party really wasn’t about me; it was about them. So eventually I got up and walked out—me and my $9,000 for winning. Believe me, that was more money than I’d ever seen. I thought I’d robbed a bank, it was so much money!

I wasn’t drinking much stronger than Cokes in those early days, but by the 1970s I had reached a very dark period of my life, and alcohol had replaced the soft drinks. In 1975, I carried a three-shot lead into the final round of the U.S. Open at Medinah Country Club, but I was so drunk that Saturday night I had no idea where I was.

Honestly, by that point in my life, I had already thrown away most of my career, my family, about everything else you could. I can’t tell you how deep and dark the hole was that I was in. But I certainly had no business leading that tournament. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for a golfer and I was in no condition to pull it off. Physically, I was all right. Psychologically, I was in terrible shape.

I bogeyed the final two holes that Sunday, shot 78 in the closing round, and finished a shot out of the playoff that was won on Monday by Lou Graham.

I wish I could tell you that the 1975 Open served as my wake-up call. It didn’t. For the next several years, I continued to sink further down. I was a classic study in how deep a hole you can dig yourself into without God in your life. I was a mess.

In 1980 I met the woman who would help lead me out of the trouble I had gotten myself into. What I know is true now is that I could never have made it to that point without God’s hand on me, because with the ego I had and the way I wanted to live my life, I should have ruined a hundred more lives than I did, done a thousand times more damage, should have killed myself in a car—or worse, killed someone else and had to live with that. Some way, He steered me through all of that.

When I met Susan, she soon assembled a group of friends who said, “We think you’re an alcoholic, maybe you’d better take a look at it.” I said, “OK,” but I immediately looked around and thought, Who said that? It couldn’t have been me. I went to the Betty Ford Clinic and started a period of rehab that is going on 30 years.

No doubt God used Susan in all this, but in one way she was no better off than I was. She didn’t know where to find God any more than I did. We were lost, but we didn’t know where to go. All we were sure of was that golf and money—things we had had and lost—were not going to fill the hole in our lives.

We tried the Catholic Church, which is where I had grown up. But it didn’t do any more for me then than it did when I was a kid. The Catholic Church was a tough place to be when I was young—so many demands and so little talk of love. Somehow I had picked up the idea when I was young that every failure in my life, even bad rounds of golf, disappointed God and the Pope and everyone else. Jesus was there in the Catholic Church, but I couldn’t see Him for who He was when I was a kid, and I still couldn’t see Him when Susan and I went back.

We kept looking. Susan was a yoga teacher, so we tried the Eastern religions. We went to the Church of Religious Science. We went just about everywhere we could go on this quest of ours.

Then in the mid-1990s, Susan went with a group of yoga teachers to India, to see a yogananda, one of their prophets. They were over there worshipping him, and Susan woke up one morning and said, “You know, this isn’t going to work. I’m a Christian. Jesus Christ is my God.”

She came home and told me this story and she didn’t have to convince me. I said, “That settles that. The search is over.” I had grown up with Jesus as part of my life. But He was over there, on the side. He was just another person I had to perform for. I had no meaningful relationship with Him.

A couple of years later, my son Michael was playing golf for Pepperdine University when he was introduced to Christ in a way that I never had been. He had given his life to Christ in a personal way, and my wife was moving down the same road. One day Michael said to me, “Dad, you really need to take a closer look at this.”

I kind of work in a cerebral world. I’m not an overly intelligent person, but I do appreciate straight line equations. Doubting Thomas would be my number one brother. I want to see some evidence. So I started my own search, to find out things on my own. I found the material I was looking for in Lee Strobel’s books, The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith. They attacked what needed to be attacked for me, which was my brain.

In all that searching, here is what I came to realize: I’m human, I’m weak, I’m a sinner. I don’t say those things to put myself down, but I can’t forget those things, because my ego is the one who keeps me from knowing who’s really in charge. That’s when I get into trouble, when I forget who’s in charge.

I still have doubts that are like shots through my head. I hope I’m not the only one! But very quickly I come back, because that’s not where my heart is. My heart is with Jesus. I know now that God does love me—and I have been happy to find that many of my friends in the Catholic Church are finding this to be true now as well. God is just, but He is not judging me with every action. He is patient with me, which is good, because I know the human side of me still pushes against Him now and then. So I am working hard on strengthening my relationship with Him. But I am happy where I am. I am happy with my choices.

COPYRIGHT 2010 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Frank Beard

    Frank Beard was the PGA Tour’s leading money winner in 1969, when most fans would guess the era belonged exclusively to Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, or Gary Player. Soon after, however, Beard’s life took a nasty turn, wrought by addiction and confusion. Here he tells his own story, including his emergence in the hands of Christ.