LINKS LETTER, 2009 ANNUAL EDITION

OUT TO ENJOY MYSELF

By Loren Roberts

Any endeavor in life, when you have done it for years and years, can grow old. And when you’re talking about lonely, repetitive hours on the driving range and the travels of life on a professional tour, you can see pretty quickly how a player can have one sizzling season followed by a down year. It’s just so hard to maintain focus.

I need my holidays, too, my days away from the grind of the game. But I still love golf, every part of it.

I love the contours of the grass on a championship course. I love the feel of the club in my hands and, more than that, the feel of a well-struck shot as it leaves the clubface. I love the challenge of a new course and the shifts in the weather. I even love being home in the summertime, heading out to the range and just watching kids pound balls.

Maybe some players need more than that. They need the rush of intense competition to keep them going. Or they need to feel the weight of a trophy in their hands. Believe me, I can appreciate that! But even with my biggest wins, including three majors now on the Champions Tour, I am content and satisfied with just being out there competing, being involved in the game. It’s what pushes me now and it’s what has pushed me all along.

I started like a lot of young athletes: with my interests in another sport. I grew up in California and I liked baseball more than most things, but one season I ran into one of those coaches who can turn you off even to the game you love, and I figured I’d give golf a try instead.

It was my junior year of high school when I made this choice, and I can tell you that I wasn’t very good at golf. When you think about how great some of these young players are now at such early ages, you might laugh to know that I was still shooting in the 80s during that junior year.

But I liked golf. For one thing, I liked the solitude. There weren’t a lot of kids in my neighborhood to play sports with, but you don’t need a bunch of other kids to go out and play golf. So I got hooked on it all by myself.

And actually I improved pretty quickly with all that practice. By my senior year, I had qualified to play in the Southern California high school tournament. California, of course, is a big state, so that was quite a step up for a guy who’d been playing seriously for only a year or so.

I wasn’t exactly ready for the big time, but I was able to play at the university closest to my home, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. After two years, though, Title IX came into play and the school had to balance its athletic programs. Golf went out the door and I went with it—right over to one of the local country clubs. For a while I worked the bag room and picked up the range while I still took some classes, but by the end of my junior year of college, the club needed an assistant pro and I was their man.

Being at the club allowed me to work on my game more vigorously, and with the help of a retired professional who took me under his wing, my game really started to improve. I played a little bit on the Australasian Tour, but mostly I worked at the club over the next five years.

Yet I would take time off about two days before the Tour Qualifying School, which came around twice each season. I’d pack up my car, drive to the site, play my practice round, and tee it up to try to make the Tour. It was a bit different back then! Now, there are thousands of guys trying to get through the stages of Q-school, and it’s pretty impressive when they pull it off. But for me it was something I’d put on my schedule each year and then I’d go see what would happen.

Well, the third year, the dream happened. I qualified to play the PGA Tour. I quit my assistant’s job and off I went. Except that it’s never that easy. That first season, 1981, included a lot of Monday qualifying against a lot of terrific players. At year’s end, I’d lost my card. Even in those days, you weren’t going to make it to the next season with less than $9,000 in earnings.

So I went home and picked up a new assistant’s job, figuring I’d try to get back out on Tour for the 1983 season and in the meantime work toward my Class A PGA Professional status, so I could always get a head pro job if the Tour didn’t work out.

In that year away from the Tour, I did get my Class A, but I also tied up an even more important “loose end.” Although I joke about that a bit, I have to say that the main reason I’ve had success in my long career is because I have a great wife. Kim has been behind me all the way. She didn’t mind living out of a suitcase as we traveled everywhere by car in those early years. When I decided to move to Tennessee, she didn’t mind doing that either. She would go anywhere and do anything that had to do with my career.

Believe it or not, a lot of times, the nature of a marriage can be a determining factor in the success a player has out on Tour. Fortunately, I’ve never had to worry about that.

But travel we did, because at the end of 1982 I earned my Tour card again for the season ahead. And that was still no easy road. I played more tournaments in 1983 than I had played in 1981 and made less money.

In 1983, however, I made a decision that has impacted my life ever since.

When I was young, I had spent a lot of time in church. And unlike a lot of other kids maybe, I actually really liked it. I even joined the church when I was 15 years old. But in 1983 I attended the PGA Tour Bible study and heard something I had never heard before: I needed a relationship with Jesus Christ. Not just a relationship with a particular church or the people in that church, but a relationship with the One the church had been telling me about. I had to say to the living Savior that I wanted Him to rule my life. I needed to move from “head knowledge” to “heart knowledge.”

Well, in the middle of 1983, after another missed cut, this time in Milwaukee, I came to face to face with this need. We had everything we owned in the world packed up in this 1979 Oldsmobile we were driving around and we still couldn’t make ends meet. I was playing poorly and we were losing money.

I can remember going back to my hotel room there in Milwaukee and getting down on my knees to pray. I knew there had to be something more to life than what I was experiencing, so all by myself I laid it on the line with Jesus Christ. I accepted Him as my Savior, and it really was the final piece in my life at the time. Yes, there has been a lot more growth in Him for me and Kim and our daughters since then, but at that point I knew I had done exactly what I needed to do.

And yet I am always careful to say that just because I made this decision, the ball didn’t suddenly start going in the hole. Obviously that’s not the way it is. But what it did was help me get the priorities of my life into the right order. And I think that helped with everything, including allowing me to work on my game better and to focus and improve.

That improvement didn’t come overnight, though. I had to go back to Q-school to get my card for the 1984 season, and things did pick up then. I had three top-10s that year, which gave me something to build on.

Some years were good and some were not for a long time after that. So in addition to learning more and more about the intricacies of the game, God was teaching me about pride versus humility. At one point, I remember Him getting my attention by saying, in essence, “Hey listen, you’re out here doing this for Me, not for you.” That’ll shake you up a little bit! But we need that kind of shaking, because we all stumble. We’re all sinners, we’re always going to be sinners, but Jesus has covered our sins. So we keep going in this continual process of trying to live a life that mirrors His love. For me that can be tough because I have a very competitive spirit. So I’m hard on myself. I’m never hard on anybody else, but I’m always hard on myself. It’s something I have to work on all the time.

What I am happy to say is that hard work nearly always pays off. Although it took more than 10 years, all the time and work I spent in golf, all the trips back to Q-school and trips around the country, finally paid off in a big way in 1994. I won my first tournament.

It was Arnold Palmer’s invitational at Bay Hill. Vijay Singh, Fuzzy Zoeller, and I were battling it out down the stretch, and even though I made a long two-putt par at seventeen, it looked like I was going to come up one shot short. But Fuzzy and Vijay both stumbled bringing it home. Suddenly, there I was receiving the trophy from one of the game’s greatest legends, Arnold Palmer.

What a great feeling! And coupled with the U.S. Open later that year, it was a great lesson.

On that seventeenth hole at Bay Hill, my approach landed a long way from the hole with a difficult hump in the way. I knocked my first putt six or seven feet past the hole. As I stood over that next putt, I prayed, “Lord, give me the strength to hit this putt to the best of my ability and to accept whatever happens.” I made a good stroke, and the ball took off straight for the hole and went in.

At Oakmont in June, I had an exactly similar putt to win the U.S. Open. And I prayed the same prayer. But this time I hit the worst putt of my life.

So what does that tell you about God? It told me that He doesn’t make the ball go in the hole, necessarily. But He doesn’t really have to. He has already done the most important thing of all; He has provided salvation. He has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves. I can go out and work hard and do the best I can with the abilities God has given me. And as hard as it may be sometimes, the rest is up to Him.

In the years since, I have won many more times. I repeated at Bay Hill in 1995 and won eight times in all during my PGA Tour career. I played on a Ryder Cup team and a Presidents Cup team—there isn’t any greater honor than playing for your country.

On the Champions Tour, I’ve won eight more times. My favorite of these was at Turnberry in Scotland, where I won the 2006 Senior British Open on a course I truly love. Kim was able to be there too, and it’s so nice to win when she’s there.

Sure, things have changed over time. But not the most significant things.

Golf is still the greatest of all games. You play on a different playing field everyday, with different boundaries and different weather and different distances. Usually, you’re out there by yourself, not supported by a team. You have to have excellent hand-eye coordination, but you don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest to be the best. And there is the integrity that is required in the game. In so many other sports, you are trying to get away with something in order to win, but in golf if we break a rule we call the penalty on ourselves.

The friendships remain, too. In fact, on Tour one of the things you don’t hear spoken about much is how much you feel for guys when they’re struggling. This is probably most true among those I call my brothers in Christ. It is hard to see another one of these great friends struggling when you’re enjoying success.

One of the great joys about having these brothers is being able share not only our faith in Christ but the camaraderie of competition as well. We have the understanding that we can go out and play hard and try to beat one another on the course, but once we’re walking off that last green, we can shake hands and know that there is much more to life than this. There is something far bigger than the game.

But most of all, I am grateful for how close God has remained for me all these years. I’m a pretty conservative guy, and I am motivated to live by what the Bible tells me. In the little book of Micah, there is a verse I love: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you? Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” For me, that verse says it all. When your heart is at peace with God, you want to live for Him. That, above all, is still my greatest goal.

COPYRIGHT 2009 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Loren Roberts

    8 PGA Tour wins: 1994 Nestle Invitational, 1995 Nestle Invitational, 1996 MCI Classic, 1996 Greater Milwaukee Open, 1997 CVS Charity Classic, 1999 GTE Byron Nelson Classic, 2000 Greater Milwaukee Open, 2002 Valero Texas Open

    13 Champions Tour wins (four majors): 2005 JELD-WEN Tradition (major), 2006 MasterCard Championship, 2006 Turtle Bay Championship, 2006 ACE Group Classic, 2006 Senior British Open (major), 2007 Boeing Championship, 2007 Constellation Energy Players Championship (major), 2008 Commerce Bank Championship, 2009 ACE Group Classic, 2009 Senior British Open (major), 2009 Boeing Classic, 2010 Dick’s Sporting Goods Open, 2012 Toshiba Classic

    Two-time Charles Schwab Cup Champion (2007 & 2009)