Johnson: Champions Tour’s senior member John Jacobs has had a life full of fun and tall tales
Cigar-smoking veteran touches on Vietnam, tall tales and the zest of life
Puffing industriously on the inevitable cigar, John Jacobs ambles leisurely off the 18th green at Canyon Meadows. The sculpted salt-and-pepper beard makes him look a bit like comedian Foster Brooks in sunglasses.
As a clearly-up-to-no-good fellow toting a voice recorder approaches green-side, Jacobs regards the interloper with mock suspicion. “Whatever it is,” he says, “I didn’t do it.”
Trouble is, John Jacobs, by word of mouth, apparently did do it. Whatever. Pick a time, pick a place. Always in the funniest possible sense.
At least, that’s the legend.
In people’s imaginations, he’s been photo-shopped into more places than Forrest Gump. The oldest guy currently swatting balls about on an old guys’ tour (pipping Hale Irwin by a mere three months), he’s the only one in this Shaw Charity Classic Field able to hearken back to the ’98 seniors tournament contested here in town, at Glencoe.
Since then, the tales have only gotten taller.
“Whatever you’ve heard?” protests Jacobs, none-too-convincingly. “Lies. All lies.”
Relenting, maybe unable to help himself, he then proceeds to burnish the legend.
“The stories go all the way back to the time I was in the service. When I got to Vietnam, I got there at night, pitch black, and they put us in tents. Well, I wake up in the morning to go to the bathroom, and — lo and behold — I discover we’re right beside the eighth hole of a golf course!
“There’s a little wire fence between the tents and the course, but it’s easy enough to jump.
“And I’m thinking ‘Gawd damn, here I am, I land in Vietnam and I’m on the edge of a golf course. How sweet is this?!’
“I ended up winning the club championship there and then I went to Thailand and represented Vietnam in the Asian Cup. Four of us in all. Most guys take their R&R, they go wherever. I took my seven-day leave to play in the Asian Cup. I mean, I’m 6-3 and the tallest any of the guys on any of the amateur teams is 5-foot-4.
“And I’m thinking ‘How sweet is this!?’”
How Sweet is This? Pretty good title for Jacobs’ autobiography, and no fear of copyright infringement on Jackie Gleason’s signature line. Even on a tour overflowing with storytellers, he’s a character.
Jacobs loves the ponies. The Daily Racing Form is reportedly his favourite ongoing piece of literature.
His Champions Tour profile lists his college affiliation as USC. He claims to have spent three days there.
He enjoys having a good time. There are military tales of him being shipped overseas for a dalliance (“Well, I was at Fort Hood, Texas, at the time and the general there thought I was fooling around with his wife,” Jacobs explained in a fantastic 1998 Los Angeles Times piece. “Actually, it wasn’t me but another guy in the pro shop”), and of him giving golf lessons to the wife of then-South Korean premier Nguyen Cao Ky.
And then there are the stogies.
“Well,” he says, regarding the remnants of the latest, “these are Cubans. I got a guy in Costa Rica. He gets them from Cuba, they go to Costa Rica, they put the fake bands on them and somehow they end up at my house.”
A lovely morning Thursday, as Jacobs carved out a tidy five-under 65 in the first pro-am group out on the first tee. Any day a fella can beat his age by three shots is a good day.
“When you’re with your pro-am guys, it’s fun,” he says, shrugging. “The mindset’s different. I got lucky, holed out an 8-iron for eagle. Made another eagle on a par-5. In between I made a couple birdies.
“Yeah, a lot of fun.
“I just wish I could do it again (in Round One on Friday).”
Handed a club at four years old by his dad Keith, who ran Montebello Golf Course in L.A., the young John Jacobs was what uninspired scribblers like to dub “a natural.” Hit his first 300-yard drive at 13. Became a Southern California amateur champion.
But all the talent, the latent promise, didn’t translate into immediate professional success, joining the PGA Tour after leaving the service. In 12 years out there, he pocketed just $119,776. His best finish? A second at Jacksonville, Fla.
Thing is, Jacobs was too busy enjoying himself. But, typically, no regrets in hindsight. A welcome lack of self-recrimination.
The Champions Tour afforded him a new lease on his golfing life. Better late than never, they say. He’s played in 430 senior events, won five times and pocketed $8,739,263.
“I’ve had a nice life,” says John Jacobs. “A real nice life. When I’m home, some of my friends have jets and we fly around and play golf. I’ve got my good friend, Gary McCord, and we have a ball. I’m very lucky golf is the game I grew up playing. I thank my dad for running a golf course when I was kid.
“Any friend I’ve ever had I’ve never lost him. I treat everybody the way I want to be treated. And we go from there.”
And those stories that continue to grow, to take new life, as the years, and the tournaments, roll by?
“Ah,” he acknowledges, with a dismissive wave of a hand, “they’re all probably ... probably ... well, at least probably pretty close to the truth.
“But I’m 68. I’m still here. I can still play a little bit. When the guys sit around having drinks they tell the stories, and re-tell ’em, and tell ’em again, and they seem to get a little better every year. And I just laugh it off.”
John Jacobs smiles and ambles off, heading toward the Canyon Meadows clubhouse.
“Hey,” he calls back jokingly, “do me a favour, willya? Those yarns? Don’t embellish any of ’em if you can help it.”
No worries. No need.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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