Larry Laoretti's address is changing from Kentucky to Ohio, and as he zooms past the sign that reads THANKS FOR VISITING THE BLUEGRASS STATE, he flicks his cigar ash out the driver's window. He then slides his ever-present stogie in among his yellowed canines and incisors, which have become beveled over time, since he chomped down on his first White Owl, about a million years ago.
Laoretti, the freewheeling winner of the 1992 U.S. Senior Open golf tournament, steers his 38-foot mobile home through a left turn, toward Michigan, and heads down the American Legion Memorial Highway. This is his America, where silos rise like mileage markers, where motel billboards boast of COLOR TV!, where pickup trucks in the fast lane crawl along at 35 mph, where people dine at places like Shoney's and Stuckey's, and where weary travelers like Larry Laoretti honk when they pass busty young women whose jalopies have broken down on the shoulder. Folks in these parts like to wear polyester jumpsuits, chat about "that rascal Senator So-and-so," attend livestock auctions and recite poetry.... Poetry?
You betcha. Laoretti, 53, is suddenly spouting poetry from behind the wet end of his stogie. He doesn't know Robert Frost from Jack Frost, but this is a poem his mother, Hilda, used to spoon-feed to little Larry as she tucked him in, back in Mahopac, N.Y. The poem has somehow shadowed his nomadic life and is now taped to a wall above the dinner table in his mobile home. The poem is called If, composed, says Laoretti, "by some English guy," better known as Rudyard Kipling. Laoretti's words are at first tough to grasp—enunciation is difficult when you have a giant cigar clutched in your teeth—but they eventually make sense:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too.
"Hell of a poem, huh?" he says, with a wink. Sure. Who ever thought Laoretti could trust himself? Isn't this guy up to wife number 3? Didn't he dash from pro shop to pro shop during a less-than-distinguished career as a teaching pro? And isn't his entire game just a gimmick? Isn't he just a glorified club pro? A guy who puffs on a cigar while he swings? A guy who once had his pregnant wife carry his clubs? He couldn't win a major, could he?
But in July, there was Laoretti, winner of zero tournaments in his 32 years as a pro, in the final round of the U.S. Senior Open in Bethlehem, Pa., appearing as if from a puff of his own cigar smoke and dogging everybody who had said he would have the Grim Reaper for a caddie that day. Here was the guy with the two-dollar cigar and the 59-cent swing, hitting every fairway and 17 greens in regulation on Sunday to whip Nicklaus, Trevino, Chi-Chi and everyone else by four shots. He swaggered off the course with his lips curled around his Te-Amo and chortled, "I fooled them all, didn't I?"
It's important to note that when Laoretti says, "Fuhgeddabowdit" (translation: "Forget-about-it"), what he means is "yes." Four years ago when he and his girlfriend, Susan Kulkaski, reached the moment of truth in their relationship, she understood him perfectly.
Susan: "Do you like these pumps?"
Susan: "Will you leave your wife?"