OWINGS MILLS, Md. - It was a scorcher yesterday at Caves Valley Golf Club. The sun beat down oppressively, temperatures teetered on triple figures and so, it seemed, did the humidity.
But if this was an ozone-action day, much of the action was under Jim Thorpe's collar. As in, it was hot under there.
Thorpe was heading for a U.S. Senior Open practice round when he paused for a few questions. He played college football at Morgan State in nearby Baltimore and, during his spare time, grew into one of the legendary hustlers on the city park golf courses.
“Go to class? Are you kidding me? I never knew my teachers' names. We played pinochle. Played golf. Waited for a football game. It was fun,'' he said.
So the first few questions and the subsequent answers were old-home-week stuff, some of it nostalgic and charming.
Then came the so-called Tiger Woods question, the one about how the young superstar's immense fame has impacted African American interest and participation in golf.
That's when things got a bit, well, heated.
“When I came on the PGA Tour back in 1975, there were more African-American players than today,'' said Thorpe, whose win earlier this year at the first senior major, the Countrywide Tradition, was his ninth title as a professional, all tours combined. “I think there were 10 or 12 guys. And today we have Tiger Woods. So, yeah, Tiger has done a lot. But has he opened any doors? I don't know. I don't see that.
“To be honest, I think you're going to see the same old trend that we have going. I'm 53. After me there was Tiger. He's 26. That's a pretty big gap. I don't see many more (minority) players coming to the Buy.Com Tour, the PGA Tour, LPGA, whatever.''
Not to be misunderstood, Thorpe is a big Tiger Woods fan and credits both Woods, his foundation, and the various national golf associations with numerous junior golf initiatives, such as the First Tee Program.
“I think we need those programs to keep kids off the street and out of trouble,'' Thorpe said.
“But I don't see any golfers coming from those programs. I don't see anyone getting involved. Even in the First Tee, when we come in and talk to kids and try to tutor the game of golf, where do the kids go from there?
“Are their parents going to follow up? It doesn't cost much money to go out and play basketball and football with a bunch of guys. But it costs a lot of money to play golf. Golf courses today are in business to make money and, sometimes, the ones that are affordable are places you wouldn't want your kids.
“Take Langston, down in the District (Washington D.C.). I've been there. There's too much stuff going on at a course like that. Somebody is probably dealing drugs from the parking lot and there's a bunch of gambling going on. Yeah, I hustled. And it was the wrong thing to do. We have to find the right golf courses and facilities for these kids and maybe their parents will get involved then.
“We can do 100,000 First Tee programs, but if the kids don't have any venue to play, a place where their parents are comfortable, it's not going to work. The programs we have are wonderful but they aren't working. I don't see no players coming, no African American players.''
Thorpe may just be willing to put his money where his mouth is.
When he leaves here after the Open, he is stopping to visit “a black lady down in North Carolina who has 900 acres that was passed down from parent to parent to parent. I'm looking to purchase about 400 acres of it and I could see myself building something of that nature, a golf course where a program for kids would work.''
This weekend's $450,000 winner's check, coupled with the $815,000 Thorpe has already won in 18 Senior Tour events this year, would take a huge chunk out of the cost of such a project.
“Winning is going to be a challenge because of the heat and the rough,'' he said.
“It's maybe three or four yards off the greens and it's four or five inches thick. That will play a major role if the greens get firm. The course doesn't have that typical USGA bite yet, but I'm sure it will.
“I kind of like heat. But I don't really care for all the hills. It's probably the toughest we've walked this year. A lot of the holes are set down in the valley and the heat seems to lay on you there.''
Like it did on Thorpe yesterday when the question was raised about minority advancements in golf.