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Original Issue

caught in the glare

Despite his Vegas roots, cocky walk and flashy pro golf debut, Robert Gamez isn't all glitz

Those who hung around remember the stretch limo parked outside the Bay Hill clubhouse. Long white job.

In the gathering darkness in Orlando, Fla., last March, laughter carried from the hospitality tents. Revelers were toasting the shot of the 1990 golf season: rookie Robert Gamez's seven-iron from the fairway for an eagle on the 72nd hole of the Nestle Invitational, to nip Greg Norman for the championship by a stroke.

And there was this flashy limo in the drive, a vehicle suitable for a rock star. It was waiting for Gamez.

Catch the scene. The chauffeur jumps to attention. The tournament champion saunters out, a chunky, handsome warrior with round Aztec features and an unhurried way of moving. He is a cool, groomed character surrounded by sycophants, light glinting off his gold necklace and bracelet. The happy entourage piles into the limo and glides off into the night.

Now catch this scene. It is nine months later, the week after Christmas, and Gamez is standing in his new house in the Canyon Gate development in Las Vegas. The pond on the golf course below his balcony is frozen. And Gamez looks a little frozen himself. His 3,200-square-foot bachelor pad is behind schedule and lacks a few amenities, such as furniture, water and heat.

"Man, I wish that was turned on," he says, eyeing a big Jacuzzi parked on the plywood subfloor outside the master bath. "Or that." He nods at a marble fireplace that will eventually warm the air above his tub. It's easy to picture Gamez in the Jacuzzi, with bubbles up to his chest, one hand holding a highball glass, his PGA Rookie of the Year Rolex gleaming on his wrist.

What about putting a slot machine on the wide windowsill, Robert?

"I'm not like that," he says with a laugh.

He's not? Getting an accurate read on Gamez has occupied PGA Tour observers since January 1990, when, at 21, the University of Arizona dropout won the Tucson Open, his first tournament as a Tour member. The search for his soul gained urgency after his lightning-strike win at Bay Hill, which came against a world-class field on a very tough course. No one expects Tour rookies to win $350,000 before the buds are out on the trees up north. The question was raised: Who is this guy?

The ready answer: The Vegas Kid. Desert hipster, cool and cocky, born and raised in the neon lightfall of the Strip. Mom used to be a blackjack dealer, Dad works in the warehouse at Bally's. The Kid drives a shiny blue Lexus when he's home, popping his hands on the steering wheel to the chatterbox rap of Young MC and 2 Live Crew. Plays his practice rounds with high rollers at the Desert Inn, Shadow Creek and Canyon Gate. Pockets their money, too. Possible endorsements: Ray-Ban, Rolex, Gucci.

The trouble is, if the Vegas Kid is an image worth cultivating, Gamez hasn't sold himself on it yet. In the flesh, he comes off as 20% Vegas and 80% kid. He still expects his mom to make his favorite breakfast: bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. "Not the frozen hash browns, the real thing," says Clara Gamez, happily wielding a frying pan.

Robert even lets his irrepressible younger brother caddie for him—is that cool?—and merely rolls his eyes when Randy astonishes bystanders with his "my-brother-can-beat-your-brother" boasts.

As for the white limo, the Gamez brothers had arranged to use the car for a trip to Disney World after Robert had completed the second round of the Bay Hill tournament, became good friends with the limo driver, went through the Burger King drive-thru in the car, the works," Gamez recalls. Two days later the chauffeur showed up at Bay Hill to watch Gamez play the final round, and when the rookie won, the driver promptly wheeled the limo up to the door for a victory ride.

"It was neat," says Gamez. "I told the driver, 'Take us to Taco Bell!' "

So you see, the whole hipster pose is only skin deep. The Vegas Kid likes his milk and cookies, and he isn't above joining some of his fellow touring pros for an evening of Christian fellowship. More likely endorsements: Jell-O pudding, Nintendo, Ore-Ida frozen hash browns. (Sorry, Mom, but business is business.)

This question of whether Gamez is of Vegas or simply from Vegas is not a new one. It tormented officials of the United States Golf Association two years ago, when Gamez was an amateur under consideration for the U.S. Walker Cup team. The USGA has a strict definition of a "true amateur" and looks with disfavor upon golfers who mingle with professional gamblers and play high-stakes fairway games. According to USGA president Grant Spaeth, his people made discreet inquiries into Gamez's fitness to represent his country in the biennial matches, a search that yielded resentment from those queried about Gamez's character. Says Spaeth, "I got a lot of complaints about the stuffed shirts at the USGA investigating young Gamez."

The USGA found nothing that threatened his amateur status. "And Robert Gamez was the most wonderful thing to happen at the Walker Cup," says Spaeth. "He was a treasure." In fact, last August at the Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta, Gamez, who scored 3½ of a possible four points, was the only bright spot for the Americans in their 12½-11½ loss to the British and Irish golfers. Said U.S. team captain Fred Ridley, "He's got no fear."

There is another view of Gamez. Some observers think he is too cocky by half, that he hasn't paid his dues. Partly it's his arrogant stride, which is a more compelling feature of his game than his sound but unremarkable swing. One writer observed, "He doesn't walk to the first tee, he styles."

And partly it's his refusal to defer to tradition. He offended purists last April when he said he might win the Masters in his first attempt. Randy, an expert in flame-fanning at 19, crowed, "He's gonna eat this course up! He's gonna set this place on fire!" Callers to an Augusta radio station nominated Robert for Geek of the Week.

"I don't like it when people say I'm cocky, because I'm not," Robert responds. "I'm confident. Arnold Palmer talks like I do at Seniors tournaments, and they call him a fierce competitor. But I'm cocky. I don't understand that."

After Gamez made his pre-Masters boast, Tour veteran Ben Crenshaw—who won his first tournament as a pro in 1973 but had to wait three years for another win and 11 years for his only Masters title—tried to explain. "There is a difference between cockiness and confidence, and Robert is playing with a great deal of confidence," Crenshaw said. "But the first time around Augusta, you've got a lot to learn. And he'll learn."

Crenshaw was right. Gamez shot 73-76 and missed the Masters cut by a stroke.

"He'll get over this in a minute," Clara said, but her son's play the rest of the year indicated otherwise. In 12 subsequent Tour events, Robert missed five cuts and finished no higher than 19th. "I was inconsistent," he says. "I didn't play that badly the rest of the year, but I didn't know the courses, and I had trouble scoring."

Sometimes, too, he let bad rounds blow his concentration and his cool—notably at the Nabisco Championships in Houston, where he punctuated a third-round 81 with some club-tossing and glowering. "I was most discouraged by that," he says, "because I worked real hard in college to get my temper under control."

The truth is, Gamez was anything but consistent last year, even in the week before the Nestle, when he turned the third round of the Players Championship into a water ballet, splashing ball after ball into the shallows surrounding the island-green 17th at Sawgrass. ("I don't want to play this game anymore," he told his mother after posting an 11.) A week later he stroked the 176-yard blow that earned him a well lit spot in the Gallery of Great Shots That Beat Greg Norman.

Bold move, sure, winning like that. But it's why Tour fans may someday take to Gamez's proud gait the way they once took to Arnie's manner of hitching his pants. Says Spaeth, "He's cocky in the necessary way."

He's also elusive in the necessary way, hiding his inner self from reporters who want to know what makes Gamez tick. His most notable effort at self-definition, so far, is his insistence that people call him Robert—not Bob or Bobby, and certainly not Gomer, which his Arizona teammates dubbed him. More revealing is his stubborn refusal to discuss his Hispanic heritage. "I'd rather not be stereotyped like that," he says. "I just want to make my own name."

Ask Tony Gamez about his background, and the same wall goes up. "I'd rather not elaborate on that," he says with a nervous smile. "There's a big market out there for Robert, and I don't want to restrict him."

Tony is a calm, immensely likable man. A past president of the junior golf program that Robert grew up in, Tony fell in love with the game in 1959, when he served as a course marshal for the Tournament of Champions at the Desert Inn. Before that, Tony says, he had no interest. "It was a rich man's game."

Though Tony and Clara worked for the casino industry, the Gamezes say the six miles between their house and the Strip was sufficient to insulate their sons from temptation. Just to be sure, they filled the boys' hours with fun and games. Robert swung a golf club for the first time when he was two, and Tony put him in the hands of Tropicana Hotel professional Dick Huff at 14. In his teens Robert was a star golfer at Clark High School and a regular at American Junior Golf Association tournaments. Juniors couldn't tee off at the Las Vegas municipal course till afternoon, so Clara got up at 4:30 on summer mornings to play nine holes with her son before the course opened.

With two supportive parents weaving this caring cocoon, Robert seems to have escaped not just the seamy side of Vegas, but also the idea that he is less than anybody's equal, on or off the golf course. Seen in this light, his shunning of the Hispanic tag may simply reflect his father's apparent conviction that being Mexican in America is a handicap. Says Tony, "I just wanted a better life for him."

Another measure of the degree to which Robert's golf career has become a family enterprise is that Clara has negotiated a management agreement with Pros, Inc., making her Robert's full-time co-manager. Moving cautiously, Clara so far has signed her son to endorsement deals with Nike and the Ko Olina Golf Club in Hawaii.

And then there's Randy, who seems to have stepped off a Bart Simpson lunch box. At Augusta he wore a provocative T-shirt—IRREVERENCE JUSTIFIED—and served up two quotes to the media for every one of Robert's. Asked if Randy gave him advice, Robert said, "He tries, but I don't listen. 'Shut up and carry the bag,' that's all I ask."

"Our biggest thrill," says Tony, "is that Robert hired Randy to caddie for him. We feel rich because of the way our two boys have grown up."

Robert, of course, feels rich because he is rich. His official 1990 prize money of $461,407 broke Keith Clearwater's Tour record for rookies, set in 1987. Gamez's rookie triumphs have also boosted his fee for corporate outings, gotten him invitations to lucrative pro-ams and qualified him for big-money, limited-field tournaments such as the Nabisco and the Tournament of Champions.

Golf is rhythm, of course, and the rush of success may have thrown Gamez off his game. He doesn't think so. "I think it was just not knowing the courses," he insists. "I never lost my ball-striking ability, even when I struggled."

After the first three stops of the 1991 Tour, Gamez still seemed to be struggling. He missed the cut in last month's Hawaiian Open, and at that point had won only $14,428 for the year. As the defending champion at Tucson, he wound up tied for 46th while a 20-year-old amateur, Phil Mickelson, was beating the field and stealing the spotlight from him.

Gamez isn't worried; not outwardly, anyway. "I feel like I can win the big ones, and I'd like to win one this year," he says. "I want to be known as a contender on the same level as Curtis Strange and Greg Norman."

So here's Robert Gamez, striding into his second season on the Tour. And here's his future, waiting like a big white limo in the drive.



Raised dose to the Strip, Gamez took on the high rollers but not their life-style.



Gamez got his comeuppance at the Masters, missing the cut.



While caddying for his older brother, Randy (left) has also been his biggest booster.



When Clara's not cooking home fries, she helps manage her son's career.