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Shooting For Biscuits And Gravy

...lots of gravy. After winning $500,000 and top golfer honors for '81, Bill Rogers aims at '82

Two of the best-kept secrets in the golfing world are finally about to break through the cashmere curtain at the country club gates and become part of the public consciousness. One of them is that a slender 30-year-old Texan named Bill (Buck/Panther) Rogers has the most enviable bag of shots on the pro tour, and the other is that Rogers may be the nicest and most unassuming athlete who ever overlapped an all-weather grip. This last fact obviously goes a long way toward explaining why the British Open trophy, which Rogers brought home last summer, is sitting in the lobby of the Twin City Bank in Texarkana, Texas, next door to a Whataburger.

Bill Rogers' fellow competitors have been aware of his ability to hit artistic golf shots, all kinds, for the past three or four years. Nearly all of them agree that if you had to whap your drive in the heart of a narrow fairway, or if you had to sculpt a high fade with a two-iron, or if you had to land a five-iron on the preferred level of a green that had humps and swales in it, ideally you would want Bill Rogers to provide these services for you.

Asked recently if he was cognizant of the fact that his tee-to-green game was held in such lofty esteem by his contemporaries, Rogers grinned with a look of embarrassment and said, "What? You are trickin' me, son."

Sorry, Bill. To put it in the language of a folksy touring pro, you are the kind of golfer who at any time is apt to haul off and open up a 10-pound can of Hogan.

"That's strong," said Rogers, blushing again. "That's big strong."

Despite his locker-room reputation for being able to hit all those talent shots, however, it wasn't until 1981, Rogers' seventh year on the tour, that he began to believe in himself as something besides another pedestrian among the game's top 60 players.

What Rogers did last year was win seven tournaments and more than $500,000 on four different continents and get himself named the Golfer of the Year by a panel of his peers and by the PGA.

It was only the second time that a pro had collected more than half a million dollars, globally, in a calendar year. Tom Watson had done it in 1980. And only Severiano Ballesteros and Gary Player had ever won on four different continents in the course of a single season. Rogers' victories were achieved on the landscapes of North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

In order, Rogers won the Sea Pines Heritage Classic on Hilton Head Island, S.C. in March, the British Open at Sandwich on the coast of Kent in July, the World Series of Golf at Akron in August, the Suntory Open near Tokyo in September, the Texas Open at San Antonio in October and the New South Wales Open at Sydney and the Australian Open at Melbourne in November.

His closing stretch might have ignited a grass fire. He won five of the last seven stroke-play tournaments he entered, and he was second and fourth in the other two, which were in Japan and New Zealand. And between the two events he won in Australia, Rogers got on a plane and flew home to Texarkana for several days. That's 25 hours one way. You can't get the chicken-fried steak out of Bill Rogers.

Texarkana is half in East Texas, half in West Arkansas—the state line bisects the post office building—and not all that far from Louisiana in miles or culture. Crayfish are considered as much of a delicacy as biscuits and cream gravy. Rogers lives on the Texas side of this quiet, wooded, easygoing, good-old-boy town where a pair of clean Levi's with a crease in them and a new hunting jacket are considered almost formal attire.

Rogers was born in Waco, Texas, but from the age of 11 he was raised in Texarkana, as were his brothers, Rick, a lawyer in town, and Dex, an Air Force officer stationed in Oklahoma. Their father is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, which is why Rogers has dim childhood memories of living in West Germany, Morocco and Alabama before arriving in Texarkana. Today Rogers' father is also retired from the insurance business and has become a full-time golf fan, and if you ask him why he chose Texarkana as his home, he will point to a clump of tall pine trees and mention a good nearby fishing stream and say, "Anybody's crazy not to live in East Texas."

Curiously, many of Bill Rogers' deeds in 1981 went largely unnoticed and uncelebrated outside of Texarkana, where he is the leading sports figure in the community. Whenever he and his wife, Beth, are in town, the Union Jack is flown above the Northridge Country Club in honor of his British Open victory. Northridge is the club where Rogers grew up and learned his craft. He still hangs out at the club when he's home, practices there, is kept honest around the grillroom by his old friends, most of whom are older than he is; and it is to the club that he goes to seek advice about his game from the longtime pro, Jerry Robison, who taught him much of what he knows about golf.

Robison is the only man who knows there's a weakness in Rogers' golf game. "Chipping," Robison said not long ago after giving the question some thought. "Hell, he hits so many greens, he don't get a chance to practice it," he said, cackling at the joke he had made.

Although it is the oldest professional tournament in the world, the British Open has never created quite the stir here that it should. Beth Rogers wasn't even at Royal St. George's to watch her husband's heroics. "I didn't know the British Open was a big deal," Beth said not long ago. "I do now."

It had started becoming a big deal for the Rogerses after the second and third rounds, in which Bill fired a 66 and a 67 and leaped into a five-stroke lead. It became less of a big deal in the early stages of the final round. Through the first seven holes at Sandwich, Rogers' game was shaky and his lead shriveled to one shot. It was at precisely this point that ABC's telecast came on live in the States. Hearts sank all over East Texas and southwest Arkansas.

In Texarkana, $300 also started to sprout wings, suddenly. That was the amount of money that Robison had collected from members and employees at the Northridge Country Club and given to Rogers to bet on himself—on their behalf—at the 25-to-l odds the legal bookmakers in England were offering.

"After he shot that 66 in the second round, a couple of waitresses in the grill room wanted to know if they could put in another dollar," Robison says. "When the TV came on, they said things you can't print."

When Rogers staggered off the seventh green at Royal St. George's after making a double bogey, he was hardly thinking about the bet. But he steadied himself and birdied the 9th, 10th and 12th holes, and struck beautiful shots from there in. Eventually he was able to win by four shots and take that triumphant stroll up the last fairway, which, at the British Open, is like walking through a roaring tunnel of love. He had simply played too superbly to lose.

"Right then, on the last hole. I decided I could afford to grin," he says. "That's the only time I thought about the $300 and how happy my friends and folks back home must have been."

Rogers' nickname "Buck" was inherited from his father, who probably got it from the comic strip during his football-playing days at Baylor back in the 1930s. The nickname "Panther" was bestowed on him by college roommate Bruce Lietzke because of Rogers' nervous habits both on and off the course. At times, he seems almost to leap at an iron shot or a short putt.

And as Rogers' friend and manager, Hughes Norton, of the International Management Group, says, "When Bill has a flight to catch, he gets to the airport two hours ahead of time. I mean that's when he gets to the gate."

So it was that at dinner on the evening before the last round at Sandwich, Norton and two other good friends of Rogers', Ben Crenshaw and Lietzke, did everything they possibly could to avoid the subject of the British Open.

"It's sort of a gentleman's agreement on the tour," Rogers explained. "You don't talk about it the night before when a guy's supposed to go out and win the next day. I didn't want to talk about it anyhow, for another reason. Ben had been in it for two rounds, but he'd played bad, and I know how much the majors mean to him. But he's a great guy. He's a good mimic, you know. He can talk like Miller Barber and imitate everybody's swing. People know that. What they don't know is, Ben can write like everybody. He's a great forger. He can sign his name just like Arnold and Jack—all the great players. We laughed all through dinner with Ben showing us how to sign every golfer's name."

The next morning Crenshaw was asked about the strong points of Rogers' game. "He's got control." Crenshaw said. "With his grip and his swing, he can't hook the ball. He's got the whole left side of a golf course eliminated before he tees off."

Which brings up one of the greatest strengths of Rogers' game—his ability to avoid the disastrous hook.

By way of explanation for the' right-handed non-golfer, a hook is a shot that either soars or darts from right to left with overspin, which means the ball can bounce or run into deep trouble if it's hit off-line. There is an old golf saying, attributed to Jackie Burke Jr.. that goes: "Never hit a hook. You can't talk to a hook." In other words, a hook doesn't stay in sight long enough to hear anything you might yell at it.

Ben Hogan fought a tendency to hook throughout his early career, but finally conquered it and won all of his big stuff, including four U.S. Opens, with a fade, which is a shot that goes from left to right. Ben has been quoted as saying he'd rather have a coral snake crawling inside his shirt than hook one tee shot.

Now Rogers' golf swing is being compared to Hogan's by certain people who claim to be keen observers of golfing mechanics. As Rogers was winning those titles in Australia, Peter Thomson, the five-time British Open champion, said that Rogers' grip was the nearest thing he had ever seen to Hogan's. Left hand on top, right hand weak. And no glove, just like Hogan. Thomson even noted that there were worn grooves on Rogers' grips, as there were on Hogan's, because his left thumb slides on the takeaway and the follow-through. Hogan had a sliding left thumb, too, said Thomson.

"Can you believe that?" was Rogers' reaction.

Whereupon his grips were examined and there were indeed places worn in them from his sliding left thumb.

"O.K.," said Rogers, "but I sure don't know where Hogan's were."

Rogers' swing, which features a late release and looks at times as if it is more hands than anything else, came to him naturally, but he gives all the credit to Robison for refining it. When things don't feel right to him, he always goes back to the man he still addresses as "Mr. Robison."

"Aw, I haven't done much for him," Robison will tell you. "He was always gonna be special. I did put his left hand on there when he was a kid and told him not to move it."

The fact is, Robison had a good bit to do with getting Rogers' swing back to where it belonged last spring. Rogers started off the season as if he might have to look for a new profession. He performed decently enough in Tucson and Palm Springs, but then, in succession, he missed the cut in Phoenix, tied for 47th in the Crosby, missed the cut in San Diego, missed the cut in Hawaii, missed the cut at Bay Hill and missed the cut at Inverrary. And this happened at a time when Rogers hadn't won a tournament in the U.S. in three years. He went home to Texarkana to see if some crayfish would help, or biscuits and gravy, or discussing ducks and birds and other worldly matters with another friend, Bruce Barton, at the Barton Motor Co., a used-car lot near downtown. Or maybe even playing a little friendly gin in the grill room at the club after going over his game with Robison.

Rogers began swinging like himself again, buoyed his confidence by going off to the Pacific and beating Isao Aoki in a couple of exhibitions in Tokyo and Manila. He came home and two weeks later won the Heritage.

He continued to feel good hitting the ball for the next three months, although he didn't win. "You know it when you're just gettin' by out there," he says, "and you know it when you're hitting it on the club face. I was keeping it on the club face."

At the U.S. Open at Merion he played elegantly all the way and finished tied for second behind David Graham. It was the best he had ever done in a major. He was overjoyed with his performance, as happy as he had been on another occasion of major importance in his life, which was when he made it through the tour's qualifying school in 1974.

"The qualifying school was torture," Rogers says. "I didn't sleep the two whole weeks we played. I mean, if I don't make the school, my life is over. All I know how to do is play golf. Tell you what. I can't honestly look back and say that winning a tournament—even the British Open—made me any happier than getting through the school. That's pressure, son. If you don't make the school, you're talkin' about a grocery clerk."

After the U.S. Open, Rogers took his silver runner-up medal back to the motel that night and looked at himself in the mirror and said, "You know what, son? You can play golf."

Fade-in montage: A month later he wins the British Open. After that he holes a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win the World Series of Golf, wins the Suntory Open for the second year in a row, drops a 4-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole to beat Crenshaw in the Texas Open, wins the New South Wales Open, sinks a 5-foot birdie putt on the last green to win the Australian Open and becomes Golfer of the Year.

For all of this. Rogers has yet to learn how to do one thing, which is kind of nice. He hasn't learned how to act like a superstar.

Only the other day he was sighing about the fact that he wouldn't be competing in the Crosby. The Crosby hadn't been something that he was aching to enter this winter, but his older brother. Rick, the Texarkana lawyer, had yearned to play in the glamorous tournament as Bill's pro-am partner. Beth, on the other hand, was hoping her husband would forgo the Crosby because that was the very week when she had hoped they could move into their new home near the Northridge Country Club.

Rogers went through the normal channels in asking if his brother, a good amateur player, could be invited to the Crosby. The answer was no. Rogers asked again, going to higher-ups among the Crosby officials, and then, after hearing nothing for a long while, learned that his request had been denied again.

Several people told Rogers he had gone about it the wrong way. He was the British Open champion, after all, and the Golfer of the Year. The Crosby officials should have been reminded of those facts. Did Rogers have any idea how Nicklaus would have handled it? Watson? Trevino? He ought to have used some muscle. All the Crosby officials would have to do to make room for Rick would be to ask some ad salesman or agency guy to spend the week in the bar instead of the ice plant at Pebble Beach. No brother, no Golfer of the Year. That's what the Crosby sponsors should have been told.

"Aw, I couldn't ever do a thing like that." said Bill Rogers, who is contentedly staying home in Texarkana this week, wondering when he and Beth are going out for some crayfish.



Bill and Beth may live in a town divided, but they're very close.



The Union Jack is hoisted over Texas.



Robison (left) and Rogers often relax with a game of gin in the clubhouse grill room.



A new Bill the Conqueror at Sandwich.