Peter Jacobsen calls up the fairway to fellow pro Barry Jaeckel, who, playing in the threesome ahead, has just made a hole in one during the second round of the Greater Greensboro Open in early April. When Jaeckel turns around, so does Jacobsen. Using only a fraction of his considerable skills as a mimic, Jacobsen bends over and sends Jaeckel a polyester moon in symbolic tribute. Jaeckel grins and reciprocates with a subtle lunar pose of his own.
"Nice shot, Barry," says Jacobsen.
The gallery's laughter seems free of shock at Jacobsen's behavior, perhaps because some of its members had seen him partly disrobe for a female spectator during the pro-am two days earlier. Somehow, Jacobsen knew that the woman had a poster of him and four other pros showing off their torsos as part of a golf magazine spoof from two years ago entitled Boys of the PGA Tour. "We've never met," Jacobsen told the blushing woman as he lifted his shirttail to his neck, "but I think you'll recognize me with my clothes off."
Is this the kind of flash-dancing a member of the PGA Tour's policy board should engage in? Before answering, consider that galleries, tournament sponsors and the vast majority of his fellow players prize Peter Jacobsen precisely because he can strip away professional golf's pretensions as quickly as he can stick a club in the ground while concluding a dead-on impression of Craig Stadler.
Jacobsen's saving grace, whether he's imitating one of the top players or just being irreverent in general, is that fundamentally he's a golf purist. From an early age, Jacobsen was taught respect for the game's champions and traditions at the venerable Waverley Country Club in Portland, Ore. But once he came home, he played for laughs on a backyard putting green, mimicking the mannerisms of an entire family of golfing Jacobsens; the six of them once had a combined handicap of 27. When Jacobsen draws just the right blend from the two influences, the result is inspired caricature: an Arnold Palmer who tests wind direction by plucking a chest hair.
But like any purist, Jacobsen wants to be known as a player, not a pretender. He's pleased that his impressions enhance the average fan's knowledge of the tour and are admired for their craft by actors Jack Lemmon and Bill Murray, but he's prouder that he has won three PGA tournaments and is consistently among the tour's leaders in greens hit in regulation. Mention the fact that his income from playing and entertaining at corporate "outings" usually triples his tournament winnings and Jacobsen will say, "I'd like to equal that up a little."
Last year he came closer, winning two tournaments and $295,025 in the best season of his eight-year career. At 6'3" and 190 pounds, Jacobsen has a long, rhythmic swing that gives him one of the best tee-to-green games on tour. Still, in his first seven years as a pro, he won only one official tournament, the 1980 Buick-Goodwrench Open. Those humbling years are one reason Jacobsen can show his belly and laugh during a pro-am. He has felt painfully exposed by the game countless times.
"Sometimes, golf just leaves you naked," he says, his workaday brashness and energy giving way to a more contemplative mood. "Jack Lemmon [his regular partner in the Bing Crosby pro-am] told me that to be a good actor you have to be able to stand on the stage, take off all your clothes piece by piece and then slowly turn around several times. In golf, you feel completely vulnerable when you miss a three-foot putt, or miss the cut, and you have to be tough enough to survive."
Jacobsen always has, though usually without anyone knowing when it was a struggle. "To a lot of people, Peter was just this happy guy from Oregon," says his wife, Jan, who met him when both were students and golfers at the University of Oregon. Now they have three children, Amy, 4, Kristen, 3, and Mickey, 7 months. "If he shot 80, people figured he would laugh it off," Jan continues. "In that respect, very few people know Peter. He's very serious about golf."
Serious enough to be frustrated by a lucrative career that had landed him securely in the tour's middle echelon. But Jacobsen knew he could play better, and last spring, after turning 30, he decided his game needed a shakeup. "Something was missing," he says. "I wasn't sure what it was, but I was prepared to take a very hard look at myself."