A lifetime in the game, and this is what it comes down to: a $435-a-month room (with three TVs tracking three football games in the fall) in a private home in a working-class neighborhood in Miami, an $11 manicure (including a $2 tip) fortnightly, a money-market account containing $5,000 ($30,000 until a recent run of bad luck), and a 2002 PGA Tour money clip (with 12 Benjamins wrapped inside a single). The owner's name is engraved on the clip in capitals: AL BESSELINK.
He removes the clip from his front right pocket as he approaches the players' gate at Doral Resort and Spa last Thursday. "Same as the one Tiger Woods carries," he says. The 77-year-old Besselink made his last cut in a Tour event 32 years ago, but he still pays his $150 annual dues to be a Tour member, and he has the money clip to prove it. A security guard pops his head into the car. "I'm a player," says Besselink, dressed in the manner of an old pro, his blue cotton sweater washed once too often, his black 12D FootJoys freshly shined. He's waved right in.
Besselink played Doral in the tournament's early days. He played Pebble, L.A., Augusta, Colonial. He played them all. He won in Havana, when Havana was swinging. Don't ask him when. "I don't know years," he says. "I'm not a geologist." Geologist, genealogist, gerontologist, whatever. He won in Sioux City, in Madrid, in Caracas. He won 20 big tournaments around the world in the 1950s and '60s, 200 if you count the piddling ones. In '53, when he won the first Tournament of Champions, at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas—that place was swinging—he got 10,000 silver dollars in a wheelbarrow, and gave half of it to the Walter Winchell-Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. Big deal. It was only money. Besides, he'd bought himself in a pre-tournament Calcutta for $500 and made $22,500 and then gone straight to the tables.
Bessie has lived in South Florida since the late 1940s, when he attended the University of Miami to play on its golf team, a tall, brash kid from New Jersey with 39 months as an Army Air Corps radio operator. He'll be inducted into the university's sports Hall of Fame on March 14. He traffics in the same Miami Elmore Leonard does: He knows where to find the better bookies, driving ranges, Laundromats, diners. You can have the bars. Bessie has never been a drinker. He can get you to Gulf-stream, the race track, from anywhere.
Doral, he never had any luck there. In 1969 he was playing in the tournament and staying at the resort. After his Saturday round he jumped in a cab and raced over to Hialeah to bet the nags. When he got to the now defunct track, he realized he had left his money clip and the $3,500 wedged in it on his bed. He called the resort and asked somebody to secure the money before a housekeeper doing the turndowns mistook it for a tip. Says Bessie, "They said, 'No, no Se�or Besselink, we don't see no money on no bed.' I was stupid to call, but what are you going to do?" Ernie Els earned $846,000 for his win at Doral last week. Nineteenth paid almost $64,000. Bessie finished 19th the year he lost his money clip and the wad in it and won $1,368.
Maybe you think there's a whiff of prejudice in that story. None is intended. There's no hostility in Bessie, unless the subject is Deane Beman, the Tour commissioner from 1974 to '94. During the Beman era, three of Besselink's wins—the '53 Tournament of Champions, the '56 Havana Open and the '57 Caracas Open—were demoted to unofficial victories, reducing Besselink's official PGA Tour title count from six to three. Most everyone and everything else, he likes, Spanish-speaking people included. In his neighborhood there's almost nothing but Spanish-speaking people. "Beau-TEE-ful people," he says. He likes Jews. For 35 years he represented Grossinger's, the old Catskills resort. "Beau-TEE-ful people."
He's especially fond of blacks. "Teddy Rhodes, Charlie Sifford, they were some of my favorite guys," he says, referring to the men who integrated the Tour. "I won the Joe Louis Invitational in DEE-troit. I gave the champ a pair of blue-and-gray-suede FootJoys. He wore 12D, just like me. He says to one of the guys in his entourage, 'Put these in my locker. Give the boy 200 bucks' I was the boy. He was beau-TEE-ful. Those colored people should kiss his ass." Who knows what that last sentence means, particularly considering that Louis has been dead for 22 years, but it's meant as a compliment. Of his best friends, Besselink will say, "Best damn son of a bitch I ever knew."
In the leisurely manner of a man who has seen it all, Besselink descends the steps of the Doral clubhouse and takes in the scene with his working eye. (He is blind in the left eye, from radiation treatments two years ago to remove a tumor on his nose.) A boy walks by carrying a sign bearing the scores and surnames of three players in the tournament, one of which is NICKLAUS. "That's the kid [Gary]," Besselink says. "About 10 years ago I was sitting out here in the sun, couldn't move because I just had my knees replaced, and Jack sees me and comes running over. He says, 'Bessie! Bessie! How you doin'?' That made me feel so good."
Besselink is modest in a way you might not expect from a man so tall (6'4") and big (245 pounds) and with such a nice head of fluffy white hair. Back in his heyday his hair was thick and blond and wavy, combed straight back. The writers were always commenting on his hair. The ladies too.
On the practice green Jim McLean, Doral's director of golf, talks to a Tour player, Michael Allen, who rolls putts with a long-shafted wand. Besselink goes over to say hello to McLean, who promptly introduces him to Allen, whose face lights up. Not many players today can tell you anything about Besselink, but the 43-year-old Allen, no stranger to the good life, knows Besselink was one of the grand masters of dolce vita.