If someone offered you $5,000 to sink a 50-foot putt, you'd probably still be lining it up. Not the guests of Fox-woods Casino at a September outing at Pautipaug Country Club, in Baltic, Conn. To these high rollers, five grand is a tip for the keno girl, and given the chance to win that much on the green of a par-3 hole, they took turns nonchalantly slapping at the ball. Jim Thorpe had a wisecrack for each of them, but the action didn't interest him. He knows a real wager when he sees one. Hadn't one of his four brothers lost his house gambling? "Don't come see me when they barbecue you," Thorpe had warned him.
Thorpe won $1.8 million last year on the Senior tour—the most money he has earned in 24 years as a touring pro—but when Fox-woods asked him to glad-hand 29 foursomes of guys with lavish hairdos and busting belt lines, he wasn't going to say no, because when his own life was in the dumper not so many years ago, Fox-woods bailed him out with an endorsement deal.
When Thorpe represents the casino at mix-it-ups like the one at Pautipaug, he projects a gamer's warmth like heat from a stove and has a way of getting things—a game, a bet, a bit of b.s.—going.
"Are we on for tomorrow?" a tall, white-haired man yells from across the green.
"Yeah, man!" Thorpe shouts back. Then he sits in his cart and studies tomorrow's pigeon. "That guy," Thorpe quietly says, "he steps up to the table and asks for a half-million credit line. A half million! This is some crazy world, man."
Anyone who has spent a lifetime hustling is at ease around people, but don't let Thorpe fool you into thinking he's just kidding. He'll stomp you when the game calls for it. He left his footprints on Tom Jenkins at the Kroger Senior Classic in September. Two behind Jenkins, the leader, on the par-5 finishing hole, Thorpe ripped his second shot, a three-wood, 245 yards over water to within a foot of the hole and made the putt for eagle. Beating Jenkins in the playoff was but "a formality," says Thorpe. To the other Seniors, Thorpe's shot was the best of the year. "Any time you can hit a three-wood to a foot when you need to," says fellow pro Bobby Wadkins, "that's pretty damned sporty."
Competitive juice means a lot to the six-foot, 220-pound Thorpe. He says he likes "puffing up my chest and sticking out my butt" and physically intimidating whomever he's playing with. A decade ago, during a round with Tiger Woods—still a skinny amateur—Thorpe puffed himself up like a blowfish until Curtis Strange finally said, "Thorpie, it should be the other way around. He should get pumped up when he sees you playing."
Thorpe likes to wade in with his big chin and massive shoulders and hover over you as he crushes your fingers in one of his XXL hands while giving you a bone-numbing shoulder massage with the other. The U.S.'s Ryder Cup record would have been different had Thorpe been on the team in the 1980s. He loves to go one-on-one. He won the Tour stop in Tucson two years in a row, in '85 and '86, when it was a match-play event, and went toe-to-toe with Jack Nicklaus at the '85 Greater Milwaukee Open. Then in the '87 U.S. Open he blew out his left wrist trying to hit a shot off a tree root. After surgery his golf drifted downward while he clung to the high life. At age 42 Thorpe lost his Tour card, having won $1.9 million.
Then on Feb. 1, 1999, Thorpe turned 50. In the three seasons since, he has won $4-3 million and four Senior events. He has two Mercedes in the garage of his new 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house in the Heathrow development north of Orlando. Padding around the house recently, Thorpe stopped and asked, "Can you imagine what my daddy would have said? In one year I made a million, 800,000."
Elbert Thorpe, father of 12, was the greenkeeper at a country club in Roxboro, N.C., though he never got to play the course. He probably would have been impressed with the accomplishments of his fourth-youngest child, but not surprised. As members of the Thorpe family are wont to say, Jim was always different. He was the only son to go to college, leaving on a bus for Baltimore when he was 18 with $2.50 and a paper bag full of extra shirts. He played halfback and center on the Morgan State football team for the 1968 season, but was injured and quit the team, and school, after only a year. He survived by mopping floors and working in a shoe factory. "I was different," Thorpe says with pride, "because I had a lot of guts."