It's one thing for a golfer to be booed by the gallery, quite another to be mooed. But there was Robert Landers swinging a sand wedge in the pasture behind his house to a bovine ovation. Landers's Legion—five heifers and a calf—chewed over his follow-through with contented countenances. "Out here, a ball that lands on a cowpatty is not an unplayable lie," said Landers as he hit from a dung heap. "You can tell when your ball hits one 'cause it won't bounce a bit." Has there ever been a more unorthodox chip shot?
Landers was uncowed and unbowed during the Senior PGA Tour qualifying tournament last month in Lutz, Fla. Wearing sneakers, lugging a garage-sale carry bag and wielding a set of glue-and-go clubs he'd bought from his cousin Steven Sosebee for $70, Landers, a hard-scrabble Texas farmer, shot a 73 in the final round. His four-over-par 288 tied him for sixth place, earning him $4,270. Even better, it earned him a berth on next year's Senior tour, where he'll be competing against the likes of Ray Floyd and Dave Stockton for $1 million purses.
"Just eight of the 111 entrants won full exemptions," says Steve Champion, a club pro who first met Landers last year. "Seven of the eight were either playing pros or solid club pros. Robert is the only one who will need the purse money to play on the tour."
Of the handful of steelworkers, mechanics and insurance salesmen to have qualified for the senior circuit since its inception in 1980, none have followed a more unlikely path than Landers, who has been trying to eke out a living on his farm since the clothing store he managed went bust two years ago. Since then, he has spent much of his free time—and there has been lots of it—chopping wood, raising cattle and honing his game with constant practice in his pasture. "The cows come in handy," Landers says. "They keep the grass down."
As plain and solid as an oak plank, Landers is a simple, practical man who may be slow to act but is unswerving when he does. Before Lutz, the most Landers had won in a tournament was $700, at the Texoma Senior Open earlier this year. "Imagine, $700!" he says guilelessly. "I was so happy, I didn't sleep for a week."
At 50 he is about to see his life changed by the lavish Senior tour, mostly in ways he doesn't care to think about. "How we're gonna deal with this deal I got us into, I don't know," Landers says. "I don't even know how to get to those tournament cities, or where they are."
He hates planes and hasn't flown since 1981. "Truth is, I haven't even had time to consider what I've done," says Landers. "The whole thing's like a fairy tale. Cinderella, maybe."
His wife, Freddie, demurs. "Except that Cinderella knew her stepsisters had fine things and that she was entitled to fine things," she says. "Whereas we were contented where we was at. In our wildest dreams, if we was gonna dream a dream, it wouldn't be this big.
"Until now, our dream was that we weren't gonna get any worse off. We were just a couple of nobodies from nowhere."
Nowhere is about 18 miles northwest of Fort Worth. It's called Azle, and you could clear downtown with a seven-iron. "I lived in Fort Worth for 10 years, but it was too fast for me," Landers says. "Being out here with the trees, the birds, the creek and the dirt is the best life I could ever imagine having."
He moseys around his dung-dotted practice range, pointing out the landmarks. Large plywood cutout cows are nailed to the sheds and scattered over the pasture. "Over that way is Dino's Cliff," Landers says, indicating the short precipice off which a calf named Dino once slid into a ditch. "There's Jenn's Gulley," he says, wagging a finger at the culvert Jenn the heifer plunged into. "Want to see Willie's corner?" Poor Willie was his beloved dog, who met his end between the blades of a mower and was replaced by a mutt named Oleo.
"Why did you bring another dog home?" demanded Freddie.
"Reason is," Robert said, "if I'm out cuttin' wood and a tree falls and kills me, I need something to say goodbye to."
Robert and Freddie met 20 years ago at Mitchell's department store in Azle. He was the manager; she was a clerk. "I was dustin' some purses when I first laid eyes on Robert," recalls Freddie. "I thought, Oh, he is so good-lookin'. He's gonna be hung up on himself. Of course, we were married to different people then."
They became friends but not intimates. Then Freddie's son died in a car crash, and her husband left her for a younger woman. Robert says his own wife "hated golf, hated guns, hated me." He would skulk around town, digging his hands deeply enough into his pockets to scratch his knees. "Freddie and I realized we had a lot in common," he says. "We were both thrown-away people."
Tears formed in Landers's eyes as he related all this at the farmhouse dinner table. Freddie had set out steaming bowls of corn, peas and mashed potatoes. Robert jabbed a fork into a heap of brisket. "This is Gus," he tells a visitor. "He was an ornery little calf, so he's probably tough."
The kitchen is decorated in Early Holstein, festooned with cow clocks, cow cookie jars, cow pot holders, cow soap dispensers, cow teapots, cow planters, cow refrigerator magnets—even cow bowling pins. Since Freddie lost her assembly-line job a few months back, she has carved out a slender living painting cows on old tenpins. "I sell them at flea markets every Monday," says Robert, "in these parts, everybody collects cows."
Their collection of live cows runs to 45. Robert and Freddie bought their first calves seven years ago at Smelley's Dairy in nearby Springtown. "Freddie and I didn't know anything about milking them," says Robert. "So I'd milk the right side, and she'd milk the left."
Freddie christened each calf. "If they didn't have names," Robert says, "we wouldn't know who we was talkin' about." There was Spooky, Daisy, Rocky, Dino and Hope. "Hope was sick," says Freddie, "and we hoped she'd live."
In fact, the only one that wasn't sickly was Rocky. "One morning we went out to feed them," says Robert, "and Rocky was lying out there, and he was dead."
"We tried to make his eyes move," says Freddie.
"They didn't," says Robert with heavy finality.
The herd grew with the addition of Sundance and Teensy and Wobbles and Peekaboo and Dirtsy. "Another's called Moolah, because we're gonna have some money now," says Freddie, who thinks up names faster than a bad-check artist at a teller's window.
As a kid Robert couldn't afford to play golf. He was 22 when his uncle Foster taught him the basics. "I improvised from there," Landers says. He scraped together enough for a driver, a sand wedge and a Patty Berg eight-iron. A year later he got his first putter.
He started to play seriously six years later, in 1972, though always on municipal courses. He qualified for the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur in 1980, missing the cut in both, and twice was the low amateur at the Texas Open. However, a pinched sciatic nerve curtailed his career, and he stopped playing competitively in '81 to ease the pain that made his left leg go numb. The move to the country in '87 proved salubrious. "Farm life strengthened me," he says. "After building fences, hauling hay and splitting logs, golf does not hurt."
Landers got to thinking about the Senior tour in 1991 and prepared for it with a sense of sacrifice and stern calling. He played the Texas Barbecue Circuit, a series of two-round tournaments run by civic groups in small towns. Most other days he would whack balls in the pasture, walk after them and whack them back. Sixty thousand practice balls a year. Finally Freddie said, "Either you're gonna play, or you're gonna get a job."
So Robert composed a letter to friends and local business people about backing him in his effort to join the Senior tour. The prospective said, in part, "I will work hard, and there will be winnings."
But he never sent the letter out. "Forget everybody," Freddie told him. "You're gonna do it on your own."
To cover the $2,000 entry fee for the Senior tour qualifying tournament, Robert cashed in an IRA. Also, some buddies at a nine-hole muni where he plays put out a jug. "We raised 50 bucks," says Champion, who owns and teaches at the Casino Beach Golf Academy, in Fort Worth. "Robert graciously accepted."
After successfully competing at the regional qualifier in San Antonio, Landers advanced to the finals. Or more precisely, puttered. He and Freddie made the 1,300-mile trip to Lutz in their 1989 Chevy.
Playing in his muddy Reeboks, Landers cut an unimposing figure. He wouldn't wear the new Foot Joy golf shoes that Freddie made him buy, because he hadn't worn spikes in more than five years and thought he would scuff the greens if he dragged his feet. "Everybody in Lutz knew us as the Farmers from Azle," says Freddie, who rode in the cart with Robert wearing a bandage on her nose because Sundance had kicked her in the face. "We looked plenty pitiful, but nobody treated us ugly."
Fighting head winds up to 40 mph that were the result of tropical storm Gordon, Landers shot an opening-round 72, which put him in a tie for fourth. "Gordon helped me a lot," he says. "I can keep the ball down and control it. Some golfers shot themselves out. They couldn't handle the weather."
Much less the competition. "Q school is the toughest event I've ever played in," says veteran Senior tour player Rocky Thompson, a 30-year pro. "If a man is good enough to get one of the eight spots, he should succeed. On the other hand, I've seen some talented qualifiers not play to their capabilities when they're upside the Trevinos, the Stocktons and the Floyds. They get too excited. You've got to be pretty sure of your game."
Which Landers is. "I've always been very insecure," he says. "Golf gave me greater self-esteem. I'm now to the point where I feel equal to the next guy."
In this case, equal is more steady than exciting. "Fm not much into risk," Landers says. Nor is he much into sand or water. Over 72 holes in Lutz, Landers hit into only two bunkers and two ponds.
He relied on a reconditioned three-wood, which has a graphite shaft he found in a garbage can. "Robert spent $12 on that club," says his friend Jerry Hamilton. "That's really extravagant for him."
Landers wasn't being cheap, just frugal. He used a coupon that got him and Freddie into a Ramada Inn for $34 a night. During the entire 10-day trip, they spent $69.35 on gas, $4.59 on Advil and $147.75 on food and other necessities. "We would have spent less." says Landers, apologetically, "but we had to buy a couple of pillows for my back."
In Lutz he used only seven balls over four rounds. "I would have used fewer," he says, "if the two hadn't landed in the drink." He had intended to use the same ball the entire final round but reconsidered when he double-bogeyed the 15th. "By golly, using a new ball turned out to be a good move," he says. "I parred the last three holes."
After Robert qualified for the tour with a short putt on 18, he and Freddie embraced. And cried. And embraced. And cried. But they didn't futz around Lutz. "I had to get back to Azle to chop firewood," Robert says. "I had promised some folks I would have it for them by Thanksgiving."
So how did Robert and Freddie celebrate? "On the drive home," says Robert, "we stopped at a Waffle House instead of a McDonald's."
"And Robert left the waitress a $2 tip!" says Freddie.
Robert and Freddie split the milking duty, but he splits wood himself to build up his strength for golf.
American Gothic: With Freddie's support, Robert's dream of playing the Senior tour is coming true.