Fifty years ago, when Don January won an 18-hole playoff over fellow Texan Don Massengale for his only major championship, January was known as golf’s original "Bones," a reference to his 6-foot-1-inch, 150-pound frame. The Associated Press story detailing January's triumph described him as having "the lean, leathery looks of a movie frontier marshal."
January, 87, who won 10 times on the PGA Tour and 22 more titles on the PGA Tour Champions, says he has shrunk a couple of inches and his waistline has expanded to the point that one of his grandkids once questioned the genesis of his nickname.
"In my youth, if I turned sideways in the wind, I could hum," January cracked. "Now just don't call me late for dinner."
The 1967 playoff victory at Columbine (Colo.) Country Club snapped January's hard luck in such affairs. In 1961, January bogeyed two of the last four holes at Olympia Fields, slipping into a playoff with Jerry Barber, who made a 60-foot birdie on the 72nd hole. In the first 18-hole playoff following the PGA's switch from match play to stroke play, January bogeyed the last hole to lose by one despite shooting 68. He also had lost two previous playoffs: the Western Open in 1956 to Mike Fetchick and the 1964 Lucky Strike International to Chi Chi Rodriguez.
In winning the 1967 PGA, January earned $25,000, his largest paycheck at the time. He fell two strokes behind through five holes of the playoff, before making birdie on four of the first six holes on the back nine. He broke a deadlock with a 30-foot birdie putt from the fringe at 10, and his three-quarter pitching wedge at 15 danced to a stop inside 3 feet en route to shooting a 3-under 69 and a two-stroke victory.
January trailed by eight strokes at the halfway mark and rallied with 70-68 to tie Massengale at 7-under 281.
January, who will turn 88 in November, was part of three NCAA team championships at North Texas State (1950-1952), and a founding member of the Senior PGA Tour. He's also a terrific storyteller who can riff on a variety of topics.
I won the first official event on the Senior PGA Tour, the 1980 Atlantic City Senior International. I remember both my boys were with me. One of my sons, my youngest, Richard, caddied for me. We had a pretty good field there. I remember Mike Souchak and I played together in the final round. He made a couple of bogeys late.
We didn’t know if the Senior Tour was going to work. We saw the Legends of Golf take off. If I had to hang my hat on a couple of names, I’d hang them on Julius Boros and Sam Snead. They were the big names. We played a lot of little pro-ams all over the country to promote this thing. The tournaments kept growing each year, from two to four to nine to 14. Julius said, 'I don’t care where we play or how much we play for, just get me out of the house 10-12 times a year.' Oh, what a sweet man he was. Someone asked him one time, 'Why don’t you retire?' He answered, 'To what? All I do now is play golf and fish. Why would I want to retire?'
Corporate America saw a place they could get close to golf and entertain their customers. It was like one big corporate outing. I told the guys to get their coat and ties on and go to every damn one of them. Don’t all sit at the same tables. Spread out and meet the people. If it wasn’t for the amateurs, there wouldn’t be any tournaments. Get out and touch those bases. They did. They took it to heart. They all made it a success.
My dad was a roofing contractor. I’ll tell you, there was no shame in that. It was hot in Texas. I’d go to work with him at 4 o’clock, get off at 11 and play golf all afternoon. He told me, 'Boy, go get an education so you don’t have to do this.'
I had run-ins with the USGA. I gave up on them. I don’t agree with the things they did and still do. I stopped playing with them in 1976. I never entered the U.S. Senior Open. Not one time. I reckon Miller Barber wouldn’t have won three in a row if I had entered.
My bad blood with the USGA stems from when they took my amateur status away from me when I was in college. I went to North Texas State University. The Mexican Golf Association used to pay the team’s expenses to play in the Mexican Open. They put us up in rooms at the club. The USGA said that makes you a pro. We never got any money. So, they took our amateur status away. The only problem was, I didn’t go that year. They didn’t investigate too well. I was over in Louisiana with Byron Nelson that weekend playing in a couple of exhibitions. I figured I could learn more from Byron playing in the tournament. Byron got behind me and told the USGA, 'Hell, Don wasn’t even there,' and they better investigate a little better. It took a couple of months and they gave me my amateur status back. I got a 2-3-page typed letter from [executive director] Joe Dey. It never once said they made a mistake. It never once said they were wrong. It never once said they were sorry. It talked about being a pure amateur, which is pure bull. The U.S. Amateur in my time was nothing but the U.S. Country Club Championship, and if you were from west of the Mississippi, you didn’t get on the Walker Cup team.
When I came out of the service, I was married and I had one child. I told my wife I want to give the tour a try. So, I did. After the second year out, I had a bad year. I told her I’ll give it one more year, and if it doesn’t get better I’ll find something else to do. It got better. I was never a world beater. My game was pretty good. I was a spotty putter until I found a Ray Cook Zebra putter [in 1975] and became a good one. I just thank the Lord that my wife let me be who I am. I met some wonderful people. I got to travel all over the world. I got to be my own boss all these years. It’s something when you can wake up in the morning and if you don’t want to get up, you can just roll over.
Everyone thinks the tour is such a glorious way to make a living, but it's far from it. Hell, back then I couldn’t get home. My family couldn’t travel with me. I couldn’t afford that. They sacrificed a lot, and I sacrificed a lot. We drove everywhere, and we were three to four to a car. If I wanted a week off, I had to take three, and I couldn’t afford three without a paycheck. You had to do what you had to do, and I had to stay out there and play all year. My only regret in my life is, I wasn’t around my kids enough. I was gone so much. But if I had it all to do over again, I would.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak