The TV audience has seen this sort of thing before; usually the prospective winner, someone like Jack Nicklaus, is inset on the screen, looking impassive, as befits a man who has won 69 PGA Tour events and has more than $4 million to show for his efforts. But Caldwell's countenance was totally different, more like that of a hungry German shepherd. He was rigid with tension, staring hard.
What many of the TV watchers didn't know is that Caldwell is one of the tour's punching bags. His career has been distinguished by an inordinate run of foul luck. Caldwell says that just a few weeks before the Hope he was dead-broke—"down to El dime-o Last"—and saddled with a failing business. If ever a man wanted another man to miss a putt, it was Rex Caldwell.
But Fergus knocked it in, forcing a playoff, and the screen clearly showed Caldwell falling to pieces. In the space of about half a second, his face sagged, his eyes closed, his hand reached for the bridge of his nose, his head quivered. "How could I fake it?" he asks now. "I was destroyed." And his first shot in the playoff finished the job.
This was a guy who had begged, borrowed and even caddied to stay on tour. But he was learning. At Phoenix he holed a 40-foot putt at the 18th to get into a playoff with three others. It would take those eight extra holes for him to lose again, but what will be remembered of this tournament are the whooping gyrations he went through upon sinking that putt at 18. By the time he got to the Crosby, the press was ushering him into the interview room before the big names, and guys like Nicklaus and Jerry Pate were making small talk with him.
And so when he blew a four-footer on the final hole at Pebble Beach, a putt that just might have caused the eventual winner, Tom Kite, enough discomfort to lead to a playoff, Caldwell exhibited disbelief and gestured that the ball had broken up the hill, which is akin to a baseball player looking at the sun after he muffs a fly ball. The tour's hottest player then sidled over to Nicklaus, his playing partner, and said, "That ball broke to the right!"
"It always breaks to the right," answered Nicklaus, which helps explain why he has a private jet and Caldwell drives a 3-year-old van.
That Caldwell has been seen among such heady company is considered close to unbelievable in the locker room. "Rex has been a rabbit so long that his nose twitches when he gets around a salad bar," says one pro. But Caldwell's $99,013 in earnings place him—where else?—second on the 1983 money list, and his record of 15 of 18 rounds under par positions him first in scoring average at 68.67. After the Crosby he felt confident enough to go against the accepted wisdom, which says, if the oil well is producing, keep pumping it. Instead he took some time off, in Abilene, Texas, no less, an isolated town at least an hour's flight from anywhere.
This represents quite a change in attitude for a player who used to be king of the shanks, those squiggly shots that can occasionally do a good job of thinning out the gallery. Once in Philadelphia, on a short par-three, the crowd had closed in around the tee, heads leaning over the gallery ropes. Caldwell shanked and the ball hit a patron in the forehead. The man collapsed to the ground (it turned out he wasn't seriously injured), but what really bothered Caldwell was that his ball had ricocheted out of bounds. He teed up again and heard a sound not unlike a cattle stampede. He looked up. The fans were bailing out, as if someone was aiming a machine gun at them.
Even though he now has won nearly half a million dollars, Caldwell has been close to insolvency more than a few times. In his rookie year he caddied in the pro-am in Charlotte for gas money to get to Philadelphia. There he walked up to F. Eugene Dixon, once the owner of the 76ers and a millionaire many times over, and asked him to sponsor him. Dixon went for it. "By all rights I should be punching keys in a grocery store," Caldwell admits.
Over the years there have been a few ups. In 1979 he shot a 66 on Saturday and led by two at the PGA Championhsip, but David Graham shot a final-round 65 and beat Ben Crenshaw in a playoff. And in 1980, Caldwell led by four going into the final round of the Buick Open, but gagged his way to a 75 and a tie for fourth. "I had such a big lead I didn't know what to do with it," he recalls.