At the edge of a poor neighborhood called The Hill, where the houses are weathered and the streets unpaved, is a chain link fence. On the other side of the fence is a lush golf course set among antebellum mansions. A black youngster from The Hill, 15 or so, leans against the fence and watches a group of white men strolling up a fairway and dreams of playing golf on that manicured grass. In the evening, by the light of a streetlamp, the boy and his friends dig holes in the dirt road in front of their houses and play a rudimentary skins game. They pass a battered putter back and forth among themselves, imitating the strokes they have seen through the fence. Each one puts in 25¢ and the winner gets the pot.
While growing up in Augusta in the 1950s, young Jim Dent and his friends played out this scene countless times. The golf course that bordered The Hill was the Augusta Country Club, and the fairway they could see through the fence was the 16th. The boys were as oblivious to the societal constraints and, for that matter, to the laws of trespass as they were captivated by the golf course. In the late afternoon, they would climb that six-foot fence and furtively roam number 16 in search of balls. Occasionally, if there was time and enough daylight, they would hit a few putts on the green before scurrying home. Spankings usually awaited them, but they didn't care. "I thought that golf course was the greatest place in the world," says Dent. "It was exciting and fascinating just to be around there."
But what's exciting and fascinating today is Dent's performance on the Senior PGA Tour. After 18 years on the regular Tour without so much as a single win, Dent, at 51, has become a star. In his first season on the Senior tour he won two tournaments and $377,691. This year he has been a regular finisher in the Top 10 and has earned more than $600,000 in prize money.
"The progress he's made proves that if you really work on something you can make it," says Bob Rosburg, who hired Dent to be his caddie at the 1956 Masters and now is a fellow traveler on the Senior tour. "You've got to give him credit."
"It's marvelous what Jim has achieved," says his sister Juanita White, who lives in Augusta, "and he's still the same lovable, mild-mannered guy he always was."
He's not the same player, though. The Senior tour has been Dent's mulligan, his second chance. When you're an athlete who was a wannabe the first time, "second chance" is the sweetest phrase you can hear. "I didn't wait around and think about what I needed to do to get ready for the Senior tour," said Dent in his suite at the Silverado Country Club in Napa, Calif., during the Transamerica Senior Golf Championship in October. "I went out and did it."
Actually, Dent didn't have much to think about. What he needed was a short game, and he had known it for some time. On the regular Tour in the 1970s he was one of the longest hitters, but he died around the greens. Still, in '74 he won $48,486, good for 59th on the money list, and The New York Times ran an instructional article with the headline HOW TO DRIVE A GOLF BALL FARTHER: WATCH JIM DENT. The same season, SI called him "pro golf's latest Rocket Man." But '74 would be his best regular Tour showing—financially speaking. After that, the "whuuumpf" of his club head meeting dimples continued, but he didn't make much noise on the Tour otherwise. At age 48 and struggling, he began an overhaul of his short game, starting with formal lessons in chipping and putting.
The lack of a formal golf education was Dent's Achilles' heel. He had learned the basics as a teenager at Augusta Country Club by studying the men he caddied for. Their swings and their club choices became his. "There was no possibility for lessons then," says Dent, "and you couldn't ask the golfers questions. You were lucky just to be able to watch them to find out how to do it and then try to duplicate it on your own."
His Aunt Mary saw things a bit differently. Long before he became a caddie, she gave Jim a spanking every time she caught him sneaking onto the course or hanging around the clubhouse. On wages she earned as a housekeeper in one of the mansions down the street from The Hill, Mary raised Jim and three of his seven siblings; his mother died when Jim was six, and his father died when Jim was 12.
Mary and the other parents in the neighborhood disapproved of the boys' fascination with the world of wealth and privilege represented by the country club. They worried about what might happen if the members caught the black youngsters on the wrong side of that fence. Also, Mary didn't want Jim joining the dice-shooting, card-playing caddies at the club. "She said I'd learn how to gamble, and I did," says Dent, chuckling.