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GOLF PLUS

A Lesson From Gilbert's Death

Posted: Wed January 28, 1998

 
SI Golf Plus Nowhere is the cigar craze more evident than in golf, where it's almost impossible to play a round or hang out in the grill room without encountering smoldering stogies. Lighting up may be trendy, but smoking remains as dangerous as ever, a fact driven home by the death last week of Larry Gilbert, whose rags-to-riches story ended tragically because of his smoking addiction.

Gilbert, who was 55 when he died from lung cancer on Jan. 21, was a hero to the nation's club pros. Although he had enough game to play the PGA Tour—he won three National Club Pro Championships and played in several U.S. Opens and PGA Championships—Gilbert opted to remain in his native Kentucky running the shop at the Champions Golf Club so he could be near his family. In 1993, after having been the medalist at the Senior Q school the previous fall, Gilbert and his wife, Brenda, took the last $4,000 out of their bank account and gambled that Larry could compete against the best players of his generation. In only his second start Gilbert won $12,000, and he went on to earn $516,000 as a rookie. Last July, when he won his first Senior major, the Senior Players Championship in Michigan, his career earnings soared to $3.2 million.

GP02021.JPG (15k) In late August, after getting a physical before playing in the Bank One Classic in his hometown of Lexington, Gilbert learned he had lung cancer. He didn't tell anyone because he didn't want to put a damper on the final Senior tour event in Lexington (the tournament couldn't meet the Tour's demand to up the purse to at least $1 million) but dropped off the tour the next week to undergo further tests. The results were dire: The cancer had spread throughout his body and was inoperable.

Gilbert had started smoking at a young age. During his years as a club pro he preferred cigarettes, but when he joined the Senior tour, he became good friends with stogie smoker Larry Laoretti and soon switched to cigars. Gilbert did an advertisement for Te-Amo, which gave him free cigars, and he was seldom seen on the course without a cigar clenched in his teeth.

"Like a fool I thought they wouldn't be as bad for me as cigarettes," Gilbert said in September, "but the day they told me I had cancer I put 'em down and haven't touched one since. I had just gotten a box of my favorite cigars. I gave 'em away."

On July 13, 1997, the day he won the Senior Players, Gilbert, a strong, broad-shouldered man who was known for his booming drives, had a cigar in his mouth as he approached the last green. Once there, he took a puff and swiped a hand across his eyes to wipe away the tears. Moments later, after the victory was secured and he had hugged his wife, Gilbert was congratulated by Jack Nicklaus. That choked him up. "That was a moment I'll treasure as long as I live," Gilbert said.

No one could have imagined that would be only 192 days.

Issue date: February 2, 1998

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