June 8, 1959
If you're passing through Cherokee Village, Ark., this summer, bring your golf clubs. There's a little public course where for a $27 greens fee you might get to play with the best 83-year-old golfer in the world. He's Tommy (Thunder) Bolt, who stalks the fairways and greens booming 240-yard drives and curling in 12-footers, all while barking out a steady stream of swing instructions that you don't even have to ask for.
Terrible Tommy, as he was known for his club-hurling eruptions during 25 years on the PGA Tour, now puts his endless energy into helping others enjoy the game. "If I see that a person is receptive, I try to help him love the game a little more," says Bolt, who plays every day and still shoots in the low 70s.
Bolt wasn't always so approachable. On the Tour he wore a scowl on his face and had a lightning-quick fuse. Waiting for an explosion, the galleries would yell, "Throw it, throw it," to egg him on when he botched a shot. "I have an Irish face, and when something goes wrong it looks like I should do something about it," says Bolt, who infamously launched his driver into a pond at the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills.
Bolt got a late start in pro golf, in part because he served two years in the Army during World War II. After he turned pro in 1946—and subtracted two years from his age to make himself seem younger—he had to work in the construction industry part time for four years until he made enough money to join the Tour full time. Once he got there he earned the unlikely friendship of Ben Hogan, who seemed to open up around the freewheeling Bolt. "I was honest. He liked that, and we both came up with not much in our pockets," says Bolt.
Hogan changed Bolt's grip in 1955, and with a new understanding of his swing, Bolt won three times that year. By '58 he was the U.S. Open champion. Bolt won the last of his 15 PGA Tour titles in '61 but stayed competitive through '71 when, at age 55, he was tied with eventual champ Jack Nicklaus after 63 holes at the PGA before finishing third.
Bolt has hardly slowed down. Recently he rewrote sections of his 1971 biography and instructional book, The Hole Truth, and he's active in raising money for his church and working with young golfers in Cherokee Village. His secret? "Marry a young woman who makes you happy," says Bolt of 68-year-old Mary Lou, his bride of 42 years. "Then you take care of yourself, because you have to take care of her."