"I'm Capable of some good golf," declared Jim Albus last Saturday night as he sat on a bench in the players' locker room at Myrtle Beach's Dunes Golf and Beach Club. "And I'm capable of some bad golf." He shrugged.
Albus, 54, brings new depth to understatement and establishes a new low for low-key. Flamboyant for Albus is lightly touching the bill of his cap in acknowledgment of fan applause. "This is just the way I am," he says. "I used to be more emotional when good and bad things happened, but I found out that in both cases, it hurt me."
Heading into Sunday's final round of the Golf Magazine Senior Tour Championship, to which only the top 28 money-winners for the year are invited, Albus was 15 under par and six strokes ahead of the nearest competitor, Raymond Floyd. Even Floyd, grumpy all week because of putting woes and because he has not "had the year I expected," conceded after Saturday's round that it was "possible but not probable" that he-could catch Albus. "He's on fire," groused Floyd.
But even with a six-stroke lead, Albus was wary of Floyd. "He's going to come out like a caged lion," he predicted.
If only Floyd had been that tame. After just four holes Sunday he had chewed Albus's lead in half. And by the 10th hole they were even. "I wasn't surprised," said Albus, "when he caught me." But unbeknownst to anyone, the real fun hadn't even begun.
Albus, showing both his talent and his mettle, refused to fold up like a cheap paper fan. Said Floyd, marveling, "After I caught him, he started playing his best." Both birdied the 72nd and final hole—Albus had to make a difficult 15-foot putt—to end regulation play in a tie, 15 under par. Floyd had shot 66, Albus 72.
On the first sudden-death hole—the 385-yard par-4 18th, for the convenience of TV and the gallery—Floyd's tee shot found the left rough and Albus was in the driver's seat. But Floyd, ever the shotmaking genius, extricated himself with an approach to within 18 feet of the pin. Both got pars.
For the second sudden-death hole, the two were asked to play...what's that? The 18th again? That's right. For the convenience of television, they drove back to the 18th tee. Both got pars again. Back to the 18th tee.
The third time around Floyd drove way right into the rough, and then his approach went 50 feet past the pin. Albus hit within 12 feet. But both two-putted. Suggested an onlooker, "Why don't they just flip a coin?"
The fourth time off the tee on 18, Albus got in trouble in the right rough, and it was Floyd's turn to be in the driver's seat. But Albus hit his approach 20 feet from the pin, and both got pars.
Here we go again. On the fifth extra stroll down 18, Albus got yet another par. But this time, in the gathering darkness, Floyd knocked in a 12-foot downhill putt—to win. "That's what you play golf for," said Floyd. "It's the exhilaration. It's the ultimate. I play golf to win. But I empathize with Jim. The hardest thing in the world is to play golf with a big lead."
Asked later how he rated his own playing with a lead, Albus said, "Sort of a B minus. A 72 is not too bad. It just wasn't good enough." The victory was Floyd's fourth this season in only 20 tournaments and earned him $240,000; he finished in the top three seven other times and closed out the year with $1,382,762 in official money.
Albus, a two-time winner on the tour this year, is one of those seniors fans love to root for. He was a club pro for 21 years, and in his best years he made around $80,000 in salary, plus whatever more he could win, which normally put him around $100,000. He joined the Senior tour in 1990, whereupon he promptly earned $14,433 in his first year. "I thought I could be competitive," he says. "I wasn't sure."
These days, he is competitive but still not sure. By winning second-place money of $141,000 on Sunday, he lifted his earnings for 1994 to more than $1.2 million. The money-winning champ this year is Dave Stockton, who finished sixth at Myrtle Beach and ended the year with $1,402,519 in earnings to become the first senior player ever to win more than $1 million two years in a row.
Watching Albus last week over 72 holes on the shores of the Atlantic was a treat. Typically, hard-core fans watch Floyd for his chipping, Jim Dent for his driving, Stockton for his putting, Chi Chi Rodriguez for his nonsense. People watch Albus for his journeyman but serviceable all-around golf. Understand, sometimes it's just barely serviceable. In five of the six tournaments leading to this one, Albus had finished no better than a tie for 17th. So he didn't swagger into Myrtle Beach.
The Albus game is solid, compact, concise. He does not take chances. He never forgets that the idea is not to hit the longest drive or to bend a wood around a tree or to reach a par-5 in two or to have a pretty swing. The idea is to take the fewest strokes. "I have a simple swing—slow, a little goofy in spots," he admits. He wishes he could putt better and, of course, drive better, and also hit his long and short irons better. Albus is the tour's leader in two categories: birdies and self-deprecation. Among his golf attributes is a deliberate, even agonizingly slow backswing. His demeanor is always, hit the ball, go find it, hit it again, be stoic, and let's not act stupid.
Conversely, his playing partner for three days, Rocky Thompson, who shared the second-day lead at nine under, diverted Albus's attention with extraneous concerns. Thompson didn't like where a photographer was standing; he didn't like his tee shot on one hole, and leaving the tee, he jumped into his golf cart in a white heat and almost drove into two spectators; and he went into a tirade at his caddie, whom he found guilty of not holding the flag-stick properly. Thompson finished 10th.
Meanwhile Albus was calm, a gentleman. When trying to maneuver through the crowds with his cart, he called out pleasantly, "Number 1 hacker coming through. Excuse me, excuse me." A fan congratulated him, and Albus said, "So far, so good." As he moved along, playing with his diminishing and finally nonexistent lead on Sunday, no doubt he was thinking back to the previous evening when he had said, "A big lead is better than a small one."
On Saturday he shot a 66, went from nine under to 15 under and held off a Floyd charge, which included a 50-foot putt on 11 and a chip-in on 12 from a bunker, both for birdies. Albus characterized his six-birdie, no-bogey round as "pretty good."
But Sunday will live in his heart in infamy. Yet it shouldn't haunt him. He played well, brilliantly at times, and with courage at all times. And best of all, he took his defeat with grace. "I do have this empty feeling in my stomach," he said afterward. "I played sort of O.K., but it wasn't good enough. It was enjoyable—I like playing with Raymond, but I don't quite like the outcome." Ultimately, what happened to Albus is he played good golf but lost.
Despite this temporary setback, Albus admits he may be an inspiration to some. "I guess I give some guys encouragement," he says. "People tell me, 'If you can do it, I can do it, because I know I can beat you.' "
Floyd won for the fourth time in 20 tournaments, but he had to climb a big hill for his victory.
Albus, the everyman pro, faltered early on Sunday, but he hung tough in the playoff with Floyd.
Out on the course, the fiery Thompson can occasionally make life a little rocky.