SI Vault
Barry McDermott
June 18, 1979
Orville Moody, the 1969 U.S. Open champion, gamely plays on despite that Judas club and a decade of unbelievable frustration
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June 18, 1979

The Putter God Forgot

Orville Moody, the 1969 U.S. Open champion, gamely plays on despite that Judas club and a decade of unbelievable frustration

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In the last decade or so, Orville Moody's life has been a catalog of calamity and bizarre occurrence. Among other things he lost his life savings in a business venture, escaped from a burning house, employed a caddie who routinely waded through water hazards, and had one of his golfing pay checks snatched away by an insurance company. He endured two divorces, a burglary and chronic sniffles. He also won the U.S. Open, which might have been the worst misfortune of all.

They're playing the 1979 Open this week, at Toledo, which brings up another point of woe. Moody's not there. His exemption has expired, and he failed to qualify—by one stroke. A man of middle age with hay fever, a hitch in his cross-handed putting stroke and no financial backer—someone like this doesn't even belong on the tour. But at 45, Orville Moody is out there, traveling in a trailer occupied by his present wife, three children and the family dog, worrying about the scarcity of gasoline and the abundance of sidehill putts.

It was 10 years ago, a short time after he came out of the Army as a staff sergeant, that Moody won the Open at the Champions Golf Club in Houston with a downhill 14-inch putt that toppled into the cup on a nudge and a prayer. Later, people thought he was crying from happiness. In truth, it was the damn hay fever.

After that, things were never the same for Moody, who was, and is, a nice, uncomplicated man without a shred of pretense. He signed on with a flamboyant business manager who wanted him to wear red-white-and-blue outfits every day to capitalize on his 14� years in the Army. His symbol was to be the American eagle. The manager predicted that Moody would make $1 million in five years. An Orville Moody line of golf clubs was surely just down the fairway. He played golf with Bob Hope. The Tonight Show called. He did television commercials. Orville Cleve Moody, a part-Choctaw Indian from the sand greens of Chickasha, Okla., the last of 10 children, a Depression baby, was getting the hero treatment. At the old golf course where he played barefoot as a kid, someone tacked a sign on a tree: ORVILLE MOODY SLEPT HERE. The new champion said confidently, "I'm going to sit back and let the money roll in."

That same year he won the World Series of Golf and was the PGA's Player of the Year. "He was the best shotmaker in the world at the time," says Deane Beman, now commissioner of the pro golf tour. And so the contingency plans he had made to return to the security of the Army, in case he didn't make it on the tour, were forgotten. If only he hadn't won the Open! As Moody sums it up: "When I was in the Army I never had any heartaches at all. And after I won the Open I had quite a few."

Although he holds a lifetime exemption from qualifying for PGA tournaments because of his Open victory, Moody was playing so infrequently a few years ago that he needed a special dispensation just to remain on the tour. From 1974 through 1976 he earned less than $19,000. Last year he missed the cut in his first seven tournaments. Once he enjoyed the company of the captains of industry; his autographed pictures hung in places of honor in their homes. Now the photographs are mostly stashed away in attics and Moody is grateful for the $100 a cap manufacturer gives him whenever he appears on television. One of the few contracts he has now brings him a modest fee for representing the Concord Hotel in the Catskills.

The great ugly taproot of Moody's dilemma is that he can do everything with a putter except putt with it. He can use the club on the tee and hit the ball 230 yards. He can blast out of sand traps with it. But he can't putt with it. The week he won the Open he was the 35th-best putter at Champions. And he knew it. Even in the best of times, he understood that disaster lurked behind every blade of bent grass.

Thus he was never quite comfortable wearing the glittering cloak of celebrity. It takes confidence to be a star, and Moody, dough-faced and pudgy, didn't look confident and didn't feel confident. Bob Hope once quipped that Moody was on the tour for two years before he stopped saluting his caddie. To putt well, you have to be brash and bold. A putting style that says, "Yes, sir!" is in real trouble. Moody's putter is so timid it stutters.

Watching him on the green is a wrenching experience. He has the air of a man facing the guillotine. He squats nervously over the ball, gripping the club cross-handed. Just before he draws the club back his right leg undergoes a series of involuntary tremors, and the putter jerks. As the club comes into the ball, Moody's entire body sways forward. Some pros claim to have seen his putter stub the ground behind the ball and bounce almost completely over it. In his grip, stroke and demeanor, Moody violates every accepted rule of good putting, but it's the only way he knows. He explains that as a young boy he had a brief siege of Saint Vitus' dance, which "probably damaged something." Even now his handwriting is tremulous.

Every so often one sees a newspaper picture of a pro golfer kissing his putter. Moody never kisses his. The implement he used to use had a pointer on top to help line things up. A player who putts well, it is said, can putt with anything. A bad putter tries gimmicks.

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