A Hollywood writer had flown to Texas to discuss a movie about his life. Connie Chung's crew from Eye to Eye had spent days on his farm. The mayor of his hometown had arranged for the gaping hole in his driveway to be filled, and the city council, intending no pun, had voted to name the approach to the new municipal golf course after him: Robert Landers Drive.
Now came the hard part. It was time to produce. Landers was about to come under the scrutiny of his new peers. He would have to be on. The 51-year-old cattle farmer from Azle, Texas, took a deep breath and stepped into the abyss—the foyer of Raymond Floyd's mansion in Miami Beach, Fla.
This was, indeed, a trial by fire. Earlier in the day Landers had played his first 18 holes as a member of the Senior tour, turning in an understandably unsteady 75 in the opening round of the Royal Caribbean Classic in Key Biscayne. It was a pressure-packed experience to be sure: 300 people thronged the 1st tee at The Links at Key Biscayne to watch his first drive. He spanked it.
But Landers and his wife, Freddie, were truly nervous about their plans for the evening. They had been invited to a dinner party at the Floyds'. Freddie spent the day wondering what to wear to their first social engagement as a tour couple—she settled on slacks and a sweater—and worrying about gaffes she might commit. "It's like you've been shopping at K Marts all your life," she said, "and now you're going to Neimans." Of course, the party went splendidly and the Landerses were guilty of no faux pas, although Freddie refused to venture too near the pool, fearful that she might trip on one of her sandals and land in the drink. Robert reported, "A lady near me knocked over her water glass, and I thought, Boy, I'm glad that wasn't me."
So far the Landerses have charmed the plus fours off the Senior tour. At the Floyds' party everyone wanted to eat with them. This was the pattern all weekend: People wanted to meet them because they are a novelty, then they wanted to spend time with them because they are a delight—genuine, kind, humble and as surprised as anyone by their good fortune.
To say that Robert Landers is an unlikely member of the Senior tour is like saying O.J. might be in a spot of trouble. As anyone familiar with the growing Landers legend knows, he did not take up the game seriously until the age of 28. He earned $4,270 and a spot on the tour last November by placing sixth at its qualifying tournament in Lutz, Fla. He plays in sneakers and uses clubs he glued together on a workbench in his barn. He hones his brusque three-quarter swing—his sudden, slashing whacks at the ball bring to mind a man trying to kill a cornered rat—by hitting bucket after bucket of balls in his cow pastures, an aromatic practice range that gives fresh meaning to the expression crappy lie.
With a three-round total of 288, Landers finished a lowly 62nd in a field of 78 oldsters last week, but his indifferent play did absolutely nothing to dampen the sensation created by his presence. Every step of every round, he was bird-dogged by television crews and the self-styled Moo Crew, his nascent fan club. He commanded far larger followings than any other golfer in a field that featured the more familiar names of Floyd, Gary Player, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Lee Trevino and J.C. Snead, who finished with a four-under-par 209, then edged Floyd, the party animal, on the first hole of sudden death.
"The farmer," as he was called by spectators at Key Biscayne, as in "There he is, the guy in the tennis shoes, that's the farmer" pulled down a modest $1,275 for his labors. The Landerses weren't complaining. In 1987 their house burned down, forcing them to live in a 36-foot trailer on their 73-acre spread. Three years later, after they had borrowed to build a new house, they both lost their jobs. To get by, they had to supplement their modest farming income. Robert cut and sold firewood. Freddie made knick-knacks and sold them at flea markets.
Far be it from the Landerses to let the money from Robert's Q school check and his one endorsement contract diminish their frugality. They drove from Azle in the Dodge van owned by Landers's caddie, Roland Sparks. At night, to save on hotel expenses, the three of them shared a room. Not that the entire trip was marked by austerity. On a few nights, at the insistence of Sparks, they splurged, dining at a Shoney's. "We'd never been to a Shoney's before," says Freddie.
Now that they finally have some, the Landerses tend to spend their dough on practical things. Short on cash when they started farming, they didn't buy as many fence posts as they should have. As a result it has long been easy for their livestock to escape. Among the first things they did with their new money was buy 1,500 cedar stays to shore up their fences.