A cynic might say that Zoeller drops those four names trying to show off his new political astuteness, to align himself with the golfing division of the Rainbow Coalition. Spend a couple of days with him, though, and you will find there isn't any new political astuteness in the man. "I didn't think the comments [about Woods] were so bad," says Zoeller, "but I regret like hell that I said them. I've got nobody to blame but myself. I spoke too loudly, and everybody heard me."
He hangs with Daly and Green and Singh and Thorpe because they're just like Zoeller. They've sipped from the waters—and from some other things—outside the gated community of golf. They're actual people. Green is a hothead. Singh is moody. Thorpe is a gambler. Daly is a (recovering) boozer. Frank Urban Zoeller is an Indiana hick.
Earl Woods could hang with those guys, no problem. (One thing you learn in the Army, in which Woods served for 20 years, is how to hang with anybody.) He says, "I hope—Fuzzy wins his first five tournaments on the Senior tour." This from somebody who had nothing to say about Zoeller in April 1997. Why is Earl rooting for him? "Because it would be a shot in the arm for the Senior tour," he says, "and it would be a shot in the arm for Fuzzy."
Woods then goes on a little rant, as if he has been thinking of Zoeller and his predicament for years: "Fuzzy wasn't being malicious in those comments. He's a habitual comedian. For that he was crucified. I'd heard him say much worse things, but in private settings. What did he say, anyhow? A joke about fried chicken. A lot of people eat fried chicken. If blacks were the only people who ate fried chicken in this country, the chickens would sigh collectively and say, 'Thank God.'
"We're all prisoners of our own words, captured for posterity. Growing up in Indiana in the 1950s and '60s, as Fuzzy did, I'm sure he saw racial ugliness. Some respond to that with intellect, some with anger, some by isolating themselves. Fuzzy's response was humor. The problem with his comments is they were funny only to a very select audience. I was appalled with the media reaction, but I couldn't say anything. Who am I to tell the media to back off from anybody? My voice would have meant nothing."
Zoeller doesn't feel that way. He believes one strong statement from Earl or Tiger in 1997 would have "diffused the whole thing in three minutes." Poor Tiger. All he wanted to do at the time was enjoy his first victory in a pro major when suddenly he found himself stuck between siding with Jackson or Zoeller over the telling of a stupid joke. He responded with silence and continues to. (He declined to comment for this story.)
When he met with Zoeller for the first time after Zoeller's comments, at the Colonial Invitational in May 1997, it was "to soothe the press's eye," Zoeller says. Woods was eating lunch. Zoeller, who had already eaten, apologized for his remarks, said he had meant no harm and extended his hand. Woods accepted it. Then they spent 20 minutes talking about fishing. Zoeller told him, "If you want to go someplace where the seas are small and the fish are big, go to Costa Rica."
In those days, Zoeller was a high-profile fisherman. He had a fishing show on ESPN that was sponsored by Kmart. For 13 years Zoeller had an endorsement deal with Kmart, which sold sets of Fuzzy Zoeller golf clubs at affordable prices, with Zoeller getting a cut. Zoeller made serious money in his Kmart deal. By the U.S. Open in June 1997, the fishing show was history and so was the Kmart relationship. "I learned it was over by reading about it in the paper," Zoeller says.
When Zoeller says he paid the price, he's being literal. Nonetheless, he's a rich man. He lives with Diane, his wife of 25 years, and their four children, ages 12 to 22, on 200 acres in Floyds Knobs, Ind., outside of Louisville. An hour away, he and a friend have a hunting cabin on 500 acres. "I've done O.K.," Zoeller says.
Some Tour players say Zoeller has been a changed man these past four years, not as much fun, not as loose. They say you can see it in his demeanor and in his game. (Since that fateful Masters, Zoeller has only two top 10s in 78 events.) He says those observations are not wholly true. His game failed him because of a degenerative disk in his neck, but that malady was cured through surgery, in October 2000, and steroid treatments. Zoeller says that he's more cautious in his public comments now, but in his private life he's the same guy. What is hard, Zoeller says, is knowing that millions of strangers "think I am a hating man when I know in my heart I'm not, but I guess that's all that matters."