News & Opinion

Beard leaves mark on golf with write stuff

Frank Beard celebrates his 80th birthday on Wednesday, a milestone that those of us who grew up watching professional golf in the 1960s and ’70s might find hard to fathom. (CBS Golf Classic, anyone?) Businesslike and bespectacled, Beard didn’t stand out from the Ban-Lon brigade like his golf bag, one of those orange Powerbilt staff models.

“He looks at you,” observed Furman Bisher, the late Atlanta sports columnist, “like an assistant bank cashier who wants some identification before he cashes the check.”

But Beard did differentiate himself in other ways. He won 11 times on the PGA Tour from 1963 to ’71, no small feat when some of the guys whom Beard was trying to beat were named Palmer, Nicklaus and Casper, plus Trevino, Player and Floyd.

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Frank Beard, who turns 80 on Wednesday, won 11 times on the PGA Tour but also leaves a literary legacy, as well.

And the Tour, despite a dearth of gym rats, was survival of the fittest, because only the top 60 players each season were exempt from Monday qualifying. If you weren’t a superstar, there was plenty of doubt in your Dodge, or whatever brand of car you drove city to city chasing the sun.

The Tour of Beard’s prime much more closely resembled the circuit of his golf ancestors than that of those who followed not very long after, when the travel and the money came easier. Beard won the money title in 1969, thanks largely to a $50,000 payday at Westchester, with $175,223. That, golf fans, even calculating inflation, is less than the average earnings ($1.3 million) on the PGA Tour in 2017-18.

With Beard, though, there was a hint of the future – of a time when some pro golfers pull back the curtain on social media and athletes write first-person stories on The Players’ Tribune. In addition to commemorating an important birthday, 2019 marks 50 years since he chronicled his life for the book, Pro: Frank Beard on the Golf Tour, a diary-style account written with the late Dick Schaap and published in 1970. Schaap, one of the top sports journalists of his generation, had collaborated with the Green Bay Packers’ Jerry Kramer, on Instant Replay, a 1968 bestseller in the star offensive guard’s words about the 1967 season.

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Beard set out on tour in ’69 with a tape recorder and a notebook in addition to his customary tools of the trade. “Dick had done the diary genre with Kramer, but it was certainly new for us on Tour,” Beard said. “Dick just did a marvelous job. It sounded like me. I would talk into the recorder most nights and mail him a cassette every week or two. We’d edit about every month. He said, ‘Just talk; keep talking. I’ll deal with it.’ When it was over, we must have had 2 million words on the floor, not counting the thousands that made the book.”

Pro was bombshell-free but not short of candor. Beard critiqued icons, suggesting Nicklaus’ best days were behind him and that “Arnie’s Army” could be a major pain. Of Dale Douglass, Beard noted an overly conservative style. “He doesn’t seem to have the drive you need on the final day to win,” Beard wrote. “You’ve got to go out and win it. They don’t hand a tournament to you. I guess I’m not one to talk. People say I’m not too bold either.”

In fact, Beard was most honest about the protagonist in Pro, himself, from his frugality to his insecurity. “The toughest person in the world to try to figure out is yourself,” he said. “You’re always rationalizing.” There wasn’t much difference between a good amateur’s shots and his own, Beard believed, except the frequency. “Anything he can do three times out of 10,” he wrote, “I can do seven times out of 10.” He noted that his wife, Patty, had said he was afraid to win because of what came with the recognition, a point with which he concurred.

“The only thing wrong with playing well is the attention you get,” Beard wrote. “You lose all your privacy. I can’t eat a meal at a restaurant without getting interrupted any more. It drives me crazy.”

It made sense, then, when Beard said: “We need a superstar, somebody colorful, to lift professional golf up to the next plateau, up to where the tournament minimum becomes $150,000 or $200,000, and I know damn well old Frank’s not going to fit that bill.”

Not long before publication – “I really liked the finished product,” Beard said – Schaap had some bad news. “Dick came up and said, ‘Beard, we just got kicked in the butt. Jim Bouton is going to release his book a couple of days before ours,’ ” Beard said. “Schaap said that book would sell far and away more than ours. He turned out to be correct. I got hammered for a few statements in mine, but Ball Four was much more of a tell-all than Pro. I know I’ve had a lot more people ask me about the book in the last 50 years than bought it.”

Pro wasn’t Beard’s only book. In 1992, in collaboration with John Garrity, he wrote Making the Turn: A Year Inside the PGA Senior Tour. By then, much had changed for Beard, a recovering alcoholic whose drinking had taken a heavy toll in the years after Pro was published.

“I blew everything the first time around,” Beard said. “I lost a relationship with God. I lost my family and whatever money I had. I messed up. I was just a shell of what I have become. He gave me a second chance, picked me up and turned me around. Right after I got remarried [to former LPGA pro Susan O’Connor, who died in 2006] I kind of saw the light and got sober. My life really turned around. I celebrated my 37th year of sobriety last December.”

A copy of Pro is hard to find these days, but the pro who wrote it isn’t. Beard tees it up a handful of times each week at one of two clubs near his home in the Palm Springs, Calif., area. The stakes aren’t high, perhaps what they were on a Tuesday in 1969, but given that Beard is one of the best golfers his age anywhere, there are days when he is still the leading money winner.

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1