After three straight second-place finishes, the Avis of golf has been taking a little time off. Rex Caldwell, ol' No. 2, which is a lot higher than he ever dreamed he'd be, skipped the Hawaiian and San Diego opens the last two weeks, leaving his speciality—the runner-up finish—to lesser mortals.
With his bell-bottoms flying and his Johnny Cash hairdo, Caldwell has come out of golf's boonies to almost win nearly every tournament he has been in this year. Along the way he has collected a fistful of dollars, exhibited a faceful of emotions on national TV and probably set a record for consecutive not quites, tough lucks and next times.
On Jan. 23 Rex, as in hex, lost a sudden-death playoff to Keith Fergus in the Bob Hope Desert Classic when his first extra-hole tee shot landed under the only tree in the Palm Springs desert. The next week in Phoenix, Caldwell came up short after eight holes of a sudden-death playoff with Bob Gilder. And then three weeks ago, in the Bing Crosby, Caldwell again finished second—tied with Calvin Peete, no dramatics in this one—a deuce behind winner Tom Kite.
Being No. 2 is unfamiliar to someone who in eight years and 275 previous PGA Tour tournaments had finished as high as second only once. And even that was with a partner, Chip Beck, in the 1981 World National Team Championship. Caldwell's shortcoming was that his swing was so bad that when it wasn't causing tendinitis in his left hand, it was responsible for his shanks, a terminal illness in golf. "Nobody ever had any respect for my game," says Caldwell. "Not even me. It's amazing when you find out how easy this game is. For me this run has been a fantasy. I love being a celebrity."
For sure, celebs get asked all sorts of questions, such as: Why do you dress in cowboy boots and hats? Caldwell was also queried about his passé polyester bell-bottoms. "I like the way they fit," he said.
"We call him Tush Caldwell," confided his friend Jana Little.
"Aaaaaw," said Caldwell. "Why'd you tell 'em that?"
Caldwell, who's 32, is one of pro golf's more unconventional personalities. His father, Tom, was an Air Force supply officer at Vandenberg Air Force Base outside Lompoc, Calif. and Rex played golf at nearby San Fernando Valley State College. After school, he worked for a summer at the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy in Stratton, Vt. It was there that Caldwell, then "a solid four handicap," persuaded another student's father to sponsor him on the mini-tour, and he was on his way.
After two years in the scrubs, he joined the PGA circuit in 1975 and was immediately recognized as a garrulous and humorous anomaly in an ocean of golfing stonefaces. "I'm not your stereotyped golf pro," he says. "I say dirt when it's dirt." He also has a penchant for wearing what he calls "my red pimp hat" at tournaments, and he caused apoplexy when he sported frayed jeans as a rookie.
Frayed nerves are what everyone got over the three consecutive weeks of Caldwell's brushes with victory, a journey enlivened by what he calls his "King Kong routine" of celebration. Certain moments linger: At the Hope he came storming from behind, slam-dunking birdies and all but roaring and beating his chest, to pull ahead of Fergus by a stroke late in the final round. The tournament was his, after all those years carrying a flat wallet. Alas, Caldwell missed a seven-foot putt on the final hole that would have wrapped it up. Now zoom the camera in on Caldwell's face as he watches Fergus line up a birdie putt from 20 feet on the 18th hole. If Fergus misses, which seems likely, Caldwell will make his first victory speech.
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.
Now, along with better iron shots, the result of a change in swing, he has developed a new fiscal approach, mostly because he won little money late last season and poured a lot of his meager resources into an unsuccessful enterprise that promoted corporate golf outings. Besides, he and his wife, Marjorie, have split up. And so for his address, says Caldwell, "you can list: in transit. Home is where I put my head on the pillow, usually a cheap motel." He's proud of his scoring record this season, and also that he got by on $28 a night during the L.A. Open. "I used to think you had to spend money to make money," says Caldwell. "This year I'm going to make a lot of money and I'm going to spend nothing."
Thus last week the tour's second leading money-winner was home (sort of) on the Texas range, in Abilene, visiting Jana. But some things never change. Caldwell says he's at his worst in practice rounds. During his break, he played a few holes with some amateurs at Abilene's Fairway Oaks Golf & Racquet Club and wound up getting buried, one day losing about $70. "I got to get out of here before these guys get the whole ninety-nine thousand," said Caldwell. "This country club stuff is rough."
With Jana and $99,013, Caldwell's no longer up a creek.