Tiger Woods was on his way to winning the 1997 Masters by 12 shots. Fuzzy Zoeller, who had won his green coat 18 years earlier, was coming out of the clubhouse at Augusta National, his fourth round long done, a drink in his left hand (just water, he says). Tiger was a 21-year-old cablinasian, his invented word to explain his varied ancestry. Fuzzy was 45, a basketball player as a schoolboy, a hunter as an adult, a good ol' boy from Indiana who could call his black friends crude names to their faces and, as happens in locker rooms and fishing boats and at racetracks and taverns, the friends would laugh because they knew the Fuzz and knew the man didn't have a hating bone in his body.
Fuzzy walked through the little knot of reporters and TV crews that gathers every day during the Masters under the shade of a sprawling oak between the clubhouse and the 1st tee. He stopped for a chat, of course. In those days he always had time to talk. He looked at the scoreboard and said, "Pretty impressive. That little boy is driving it well, and he's putting well. He's doing everything it takes to win. So you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say, 'Congratulations' and 'Enjoy it.' And tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it?" He snapped his fingers, started to walk away and then turned to deliver one last line: "Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve."
Twenty seconds. That's all it took for Fuzzy Zoeller to turn his life upside down. "I paid the price," he says. He turned 50 on Nov. 11 and next year, after 27 seasons on the regular Tour, will become a fixture on the Senior tour, playing in about 20 events. "Believe me, it cost me a lot."
The chicken line was supposed to be funny. Moments after uttering it for the cameras, Zoeller replayed his comment in the champions' locker room, where the attendants were all black and the attendees all white, and the line was well-received by both. It was a joke rooted in the quaint Augusta National custom of the defending champion's choosing the menu for the champions' dinner held on the Tuesday night of the tournament. In 1989 defending champ Sandy Lyle, a Scot, ordered up haggis. In '97 Nick Faldo, an Englishman, served fish and chips. Had Bruce Fleisher ever won the Masters, he no doubt would have served bagels and lox at his champions' dinner because all Jews eat bagels and lox at every meal.
Was Zoeller's commentary rooted in a racist stereotype? Of course it was. Was it offensive? Of course it was. Did it reveal the core values of the man who spoke it? Not a bit. Tiger Woods knew that, and so did his father, Earl. Oprah Winfrey and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who seized on Zoeller's comments, did not.
Zoeller failed the first rule of comedy: Know your audience. Zoeller thought he knew his audience—white sportswriters, many of whom had been covering his act for two decades. When he said "tell him not to serve," he didn't need to add at the champions' dinner. Fuzzy knew the writers were familiar with the customs of that dinner. He also knew that the reporters were part of the fraternity, that he could count on them.
He was almost right. None of the writers there repotted Zoeller's comments. The journalists knew it was just Fuzzy being a joker; no news in that. None of the TV crews used Fuzzy's commentary that Sunday night either. They had a bigger story: a 21-year-old African-American phenom's winning a tournament at which blacks had been unwelcome for decades.
Fuzzy says that he didn't give the comments another thought—until he got a call from his old pal Hubert Green a week later. "Did you just see yourself on CNN?" asked Green, who had been watching the Sunday morning CNN program Pro Golf Weekly. (Executives at CNN, which like SPORTS ILLUSTRATED is owned by AOL Time Warner, were unaware of the footage of Zoeller's comments until four days after they had been uttered and decided to hold the piece until the ensuing weekend. According to CNN, Zoeller was contacted through his agent before the broadcast but declined to comment.) "You better get your lawyer," Green added.
A son of the South, Green knew a thing or two about the explosiveness of racial politics. Fuzzy did not even see a firecracker. He told Green, "Aw, hell, I was joking."
Green is one of Zoeller's best friends in golf. They roomed together on the road for 18 years. When you ask Zoeller whom he will miss as he graduates from the junior Tour, as he calls it, he cites John Daly and Vijay Singh. When you ask him whom he looks forward to hanging out with on the Senior tour, he cites Green and Jim Thorpe. Thorpe is black, and Singh, a Fijian, is darker yet. Green is white, and Daly is whiter yet. By the anemic measures of pro golf, that's about as colorful as a modern foursome of touring pros gets.