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The Navy got to him first and took him to Guam, where one day a lieutenant commander walked up to Petty Officer Laoretti and blew a cloud of cigar smoke in his face. Laoretti inhaled the smoke as if it were the bouquet of a fine Bordeaux. "The next day I bought 50 White Owls," he says.
Two years later Laoretti was transferred to San Diego, and he arranged to caddie in the Bob Hope Desert Classic in Palm Springs for Mike Fetchick, a pro he had met at the Mahopac Country Club when Laoretti was eight years old. One day on the driving range, Fetchick made the mistake of asking Laoretti if he wanted to hit one. "Larry snatched my driver and knocked 10 in a row over this hedge 280 yards away," Fetchick says. "All the other pros stopped dead and asked, 'Is this guy for real?' " Fuhgeddabowdit.
After his Navy hitch ended in 1960, Laoretti took an $85-a-week job cleaning clubs at Glen Head (N.Y.) Country Club, the first of seven clubs where he would work over the next two decades, mostly as a teaching pro. In those early years Laoretti dreamed of doing more than preaching swing plane to housewives and plumbers. "I was dying to take my shot at the Tour," he says. "But what could I do? I was supporting a wife and kids."
To satisfy his appetite for golf, Laoretti played in local qualifiers. He made the field for the 1966 PGA at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, where he narrowly survived the cut and played the final round paired with local favorite Jack Nicklaus. A gallery of more than 10,000 watched Laoretti skull one out of a fairway bunker on the very first hole.
But the moment that haunts Laoretti occurred when he was sitting beside pro Tony Lema in the locker room at the end of that round. Lema told the assembled crowd that he had chartered a plane to Chicago, and he asked, "Anybody need a ride?" That night, Lema's plane crashed in a fireball. Four people were on board; there were no survivors. "I'll never forget it, because Lema was my hero," Laoretti says. "He was an ex-caddie and an Italian boy like me who loved to be a showman. I've tried to fill his shoes."
Since his arrival on the Senior tour, after he turned 50 in July 1989, Laoretti has become a showstopper. He took a year off from teaching to sharpen his game. Then Larry and Susan pooled their assets—pennies, nickels, dimes and a few quarters added up to $110—and joined the tour. Although Susan was seven months pregnant at the time, she became Larry's caddie because of the emptiness of their pockets. Crisscrossing the country, the couple played in Monday qualifiers without much success but with plenty of laughs. For instance, Laoretti had the only caddie who, when asked to help read a putt, often replied, "Sorry. You're on your own, sweetheart." Team Laoretti won $3,025 during the final four months of 1989, little more than gas cash.
Two years later the Laoretti road show was traveling first-class in a new mobile home, and Susan could join the galleries that followed her husband's trail of smoke. Laoretti didn't win a tournament in 1991, but with six finishes among the top five, he earned more than $350,000, twice his 1990 total. He kept his frugal habits, though, returning to the motor home each night, drinking Carlo Paisano chianti from a gallon jug and balking at suggestions that he smoke a better class of cigar. "A cigar is like a good wine or a good woman," he says. "Once you acquire a taste for one, nothing else tastes quite right anymore."
With his everyman attitude, Laoretti has become a favorite of Senior tour spectators. He has been known to sidle up to a gallery rope and tell the fans his favorite joke, the one about the Senior golfer who goes in for a checkup:
"Doc," the golfer says, "will I be able to play golf for another 50 years?"
"Do you drink, smoke or carouse with women?" the doctor asks.