How Albus got from golf novice to senior star in three decades would make a good book—if the hero himself could explain it. "Maybe I'm just a slow learner," he suggests. Actually, it's the reverse. A gifted athlete in his youth (all-city basketball player in high school; all-conference outfielder and 160-pound boxing champ at Bucknell), Albus threw himself at golf. "I got quite fanatical about it," he says, "to the point that I transferred schools after my junior year to play more golf."
Albus was two years into golf and already a four handicapper when he became a temporary Californian, earning a bachelor's degree at UCLA while playing most of L.A.'s courses, invited or not. He also caddied at the Los Angeles Country Club to gain access to it on caddie days. At the Veterans Administration Golf Course, a pitch-and-putt off Wilshire Boulevard, it was easier just to climb the fence.
Albus was also a regular at the Holmby Hills par-3 course, which doubled as a city park. "You had to hit wedge shots over people on blankets," Contant says of that tract. Albus perfected his swing by reading golf books and magazines and by observing better players; he was often seen on the meadow that would become Century City, hitting four or five hundred balls a day. "I always had a slow, deliberate swing with a pause at the top," Albus said. "It was never pretty."
Nor was it dependable enough to take out on tour. Albus was a 27-year-old two handicapper when he made the two biggest decisions of his life—to marry Brenda Ely, a UCLA grad student who played piano and organ, and to become a golf professional. The first decision, he points out with a smile, was easier to make than the second. "It didn't seem right to turn professional, because I wasn't good enough to play golf for a living. But it's so easy to become a golf professional. You just turn."
That's what Albus did in 1967, taking a job as starter and assistant pro at Mission Viejo Country Club. Two years later he moved back East to work at Latourette, an otherwise attractive New York City muni marred by vandalism, abandoned cars and the occasional corpse dropped overnight in the rough.
"It got ugly there for a while," Albus says of the years when the city was bankrupt and he had to make do with a maintenance staff of inexperienced, federally funded CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) workers. "But nothing discouraged the golfers. They'd get up at 2 a.m., take the ferry over from Brooklyn and sleep in the parking lot until sign-up time at five o'clock. If I showed up at 5:30, there'd be a hundred or more waiting in the dark."
Latourette, as it turned out, provided the environment for his game to flourish. Whenever possible, he joined the 20 or so New Yorkers in Latourette's never-ending "scat game," a modest-stakes skins game for players craving ribald competition. Winters afforded time off to play mini-tours, usually in Florida but sometimes as distant as Africa, Asia and Australia. Best of all the Metropolitan PGA Section of New York offered some of the most intense sectional play in the U.S.
Albus moved to the exclusive Piping Rock Club in Westbury, N.Y., as head pro in 1978, and soon he had reason to dream. By the end of the '80s he had won two Metropolitan Opens and two Long Island Opens, been a four-time Met Section Player of the Year and a member of four PGA Cup squads, and played in seven PGA Championships and six U.S. Opens. In 1984, at age 44, he finished 25th in the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
When Colbert played with Albus in the third round of the '91 Senior Players Championship, he realized that the congenially rumpled New Yorker was no ordinary club pro. "Jim got in some funny places in 18 holes," he recalls, "but every time he had to do something, he had a technique. And he didn't care if Nicklaus was in front of him, or Trevino. He started bogey, double bogey on Sunday, and Trevino said, 'Here we go.' But what did Jim make that day, nine birdies?"
Five, actually—but enough to win by three strokes on one of the Senior tour's toughest golf courses. What made the victory more remarkable—and what Albus failed to mention at the time—was that he was barely recovered from an unidentified virus that had felled him while he was trying to qualify for an event 14 weeks earlier. It had left him weak, numb from the waist down and racked by headaches and spinal shocks. A CT scan and countless tests ruled out cancer and most other recognizable life-threatening diseases, so the doctors told him he would probably recover. They just couldn't say from what.