He's such a blue-collar Staten Island type that you don't expect the definitive Jim Albus story to take place on the fairways of the posh Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles. The way an old college pal tells it, Albus and his roommate had sneaked onto Bel-Air one afternoon three decades ago and were playing the 3rd hole when an armed security guard surprised them and shouted that the L.A. police were on their way. Albus panicked and started running with his golf clubs, causing the guard to draw his gun. "Run!" Albus yelled over his shoulder. "You won't get shot for playing golf."
Men have made it through life with less succinct philosophies.
Unfortunately, Albus's buddy decided not to test the guard's resolve and stayed behind. So Albus, a loyal friend, quit running and trudged back to face the music. "The police wound up escorting us back to our car," Albus recalls, "but for a while there it looked like I'd have a criminal record."
Anyone who has seen Albus's muscle-bound swing understands why the Staten Island native used to have to sneak onto tony courses. He rocks his 210 pounds from one foot to the other in diminishing arcs before listing right and taking the club back slowly to just beyond vertical—pausing long enough to consider his options—and then plowing through the ball with straight-line power. It's the kind of muni-ficent, homemade swing you see at L.A.'s Rancho Park Golf Club, where Albus honed his game in the '60s. It is the sort of swing you see at Staten Island's Latourette Golf Club, where he was the head pro in the '70s.
And these days it's the sort of swing you see Sunday afternoons on national television, where Albus regularly sneaks up on senior golfers with better form—fellows like Jack Nicklaus, Dave Stockton and Ray Floyd. A two-time winner on the PGA Senior Tour this year, the 54-year-old Albus is third on the money list, with more than $1 million in earnings, and first in the tour's All-Around statistical category, which combines a player's rankings in driving, putting, sand saves and trespassing on private property.
Albus is the least charismatic of the three former club pros who in recent years have jumped the fence, so to speak, by winning major Senior championships. Larry Laoretti stole the 1992 U.S. Senior Open with a cigar clenched firmly in his teeth. Tom Wargo captured the 1993 PGA Seniors championship and regaled the nation with tales of his previous jobs as autoworker, farmer, ironworker, fisherman and small-town club pro. But before either of them caught the public's fancy, Albus, in just his sixth Senior tour event, humbled Lee Trevino and a pack of seasoned touring pros to win the 1991 Senior Players Championship at the TPC of Michigan. If Albus appears less colorful than Laoretti and Wargo, though, it's only because he's given to understatement and hides his almost bald head and bemused eyes under a floppy tennis hat.
What other golf pro has skydived more than 30 times, parasailed over schools of sharks and suffered "rapture of the deep" while scuba diving? How many senior golfers have faced down knife-and-gun-wielding muggers in Jamaica? Who else has spent nine weeks in bed with a paralyzing virus and bounced back four weeks later with a victory? For that matter, what other player has a wife with a master's degree in music history from UCLA?
"He's not one-dimensional," says Senior tour star Jim Colbert. "And he's not one of those guys who holes up in his room. We play a regular $50 Nassau, but if you said, 'Albus, let's play for a thousand,' he'd say, 'O.K.' " Colbert throws in the ultimate compliment: "If he'd played the old tour, I'm sure we'd have been best friends."
Like Wargo, Albus took up golf late. "I caddied at Latourette in my teens," he says, "but I never played. It was an old man's sport." He tells a story about playing for the first time that practically plagiarizes the story told by Wargo, who played his first round with an ironworker pal after drinking beer all night. For Albus, it was an all-night fraternity party that left him greeting the dawn with some fellow SAEs at Bucknell University in 1962. The boozy brothers—one of whom was a scratch player on the golf team—took Albus, a sophomore, onto the nine-hole Bucknell golf course and relieved him of his petty cash. "They beat my brains out, naturally," Albus recalls. "Golf was much harder than it looked."
Dave Contant, a retired schoolteacher and a contractor in West L.A., tells this story with even more relish than Albus, because Contant was one of the SAEs who played that morning. "I took five bucks from the guy, and that got him started," jokes Contant, who caddied and played with Albus in Pennsylvania and Southern California before losing track of his friend in the '70s. "I didn't see Jim again until I turned on Channel 7, 20 years later, and there he was, as big as life, beating Lee Trevino in Detroit." Contant laughs. "Now he graciously lets me caddie for him at a few tournaments."