Walt Zembriski has to hustle to keep up with the leaders. Senior golfers may ride in carts from tee to green, but Zembriski a small, jut-jawed man with a Wilson cap tugged down to his eyebrows, marches. "I've been walking golf courses all my life," he says. "I'm not going to change now."
That the leaders he's chasing have names like Orville Moody, Miller Barber, Gene Littler and Al Geiberger is proof positive that Zembriski, 54, has changed his life dramatically. As one of the top new players on the Senior PGA Tour—in 1988 he was seventh on the money list with $348,531—Zembriski attracts Polish fans, who are known as the Warsaw Pack. When he hits a good shot, they cheer, "Dobrze!" ("Good!")
But don't get the idea that his newfound success has gone to his head. "I don't hang around the locker room reminiscing with the legends," Zembriski says. "I don't have anything to reminisce with them about."
While the legends were building their reputations on the PGA Tour, he was building skylines in New Jersey. When Moody won the U.S. Open in 1969, Zembriski was a $400-a-week steelworker. He crawled the high iron, assembling high rises in Fort Lee, Passaic and a dozen other New Jersey towns. He saw five of his fellow skywalkers fall to their deaths and once barely survived a scrape with a load of lumber swinging from a crane. A runaway cable crushed his right thumb. "Lucky thing," he says, showing off the still-mangled thumb. "You don't use that thumb in your golf swing."
He was a good worker, the consummate skywalker. He might spend lunchtime passing a flask of blackberry brandy with his union brothers 50 floors up, but he put in a full day's labor. After work he might buy a round at Marcy's bar, but then he was off to the driving range. This was his eccentricity—Zembriski had the idea that he was a golfer.
Zembriski grew up in a Polish neighborhood in Mahwah, N.J., near a public golf course where his father had once caddied for Babe Ruth. Young Walt used to fight with his four brothers for the $25 Golfcraft clubs their dad, a foundry worker, had brought home one day. When he won, Walt took the clubs to local sandpits and hit rocks. He cadged golf balls and hit them up Railroad Avenue toward Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, where the Zembriskis were parishioners. A few of his errant shots broke windows. The priest swept up the stained glass and brought the balls back to Walt, who said countless Hail Marys to make amends.
In 1966, as a crew-cut 31-year-old, Zembriski won the match-play final of the New Jersey Amateur, 9 and 8. He "played as if he owned the links," one news account read. He dreamed of turning pro, but the PGA Tour was beyond his reach.
"It's one thing playing around northern New Jersey and another thing playing the Tour," says Dave Piersma, who was Zembriski's milkman and golf partner in those days. "He had a family, responsibilities. You can't take the family along if you're a rabbit on the Tour."
Zembriski worked construction by day and hit golf balls at night. "Golf broke up his marriage," says Piersma. Gloria Zembriski wanted her husband to stick to his union job. Walt had another idea. "I'd sucked enough steel dust," says Zembriski.
He turned pro and earned his Tour card in '67 but flunked after struggling for more than two years. He went home and worked in a tack factory in Suffern, N.Y., feeding sheets of steel to the cutting machine. He drove to regional tournaments, disappearing for days at a time. Gloria moved out, taking their young daughter with her.