My first recollection of Rocky Thompson was at Tyler’s Briarwood Invitational in 1962.
Now The Cascades Golf & Country Club, the old Briarwood course hosted an amateur tournament that was second to none in Texas during the 1960s. Thompson finished in a tie for second behind winner Dudley Wysong in 1962 but stood out because he putted with the backside of a flanged left-handed putter. Even a 9-year-old boy knew that was a little strange.
Later I would learn such oddities were common for Thompson, an original, an artiste in a world of cookie cutter golfers.
Thompson, 81, passed away in March but will be honored Monday morning prior to the start of the 14th Annual Texas Legends Pro-Am at Longview’s Pinecrest Country Club. The event is a fundraiser for The First Tee of the Piney Woods. A ceremony will take place at 9:30 a.m. with a clinic, lunch and golf to follow.
A native of Wichita Falls, Thompson played collegiately at the University of Houston during its heyday of winning national championships. Then, after a 25-year toil as “King Rabbit” on the PGA Tour without a single win, he won twice on the PGA Tour Champions and attracted attention for good golf rather than his antics that sometimes bordered on the bizarre.
Just to give you a feel for his outlandishness, Thompson was known for his 50-inch driver, “The Killer Bee,” that he used to gain more distance off the tee. It worked because he worked tirelessly to perfect an ultra-slow swing. The USGA has since banned drivers that exceed 48 inches.
Then there was his “low rider” putting style where Thompson stooped to simulate sitting on the side of a bed and rolled the ball beautifully. He discovered the method while sitting for hours at night in a hotel room, talking with his wife on the phone while rolling putts across the carpet.
In recent years, Thompson frequented a restaurant close to my condo in North Dallas. I would see him and his wife Elizabeth on occasion and wave to them. My last encounter was outside the restaurant where I gave Rocky a copy of my book about the old beer and barbecue tournaments and he promised me a copy of his famous, Wee Stick Man, signature.
Thompson was a man of his word as about a month later, a manilla envelope arrived with a Plano return address for the name Hugh Thompson. What is this I thought to myself as I opened the envelope and there it was, the Wee Stick Man with a note from Rocky inscribed, “Fore Pat!”
The Wee Stick Man was another invention from the clever persona of Hugh Delane Thompson. He was playing in the British Open at St. Andrews in 1978 and was in contention to win until the final round. Rocky said Jack Nicklaus won by default that week, one of his three British Open titles, because no one played particularly well. Thompson also remembered that he signed a few autographs after the first round and the next day, after he finished and signed his scorecard, about 100 little Scottish boys were in a queue for his autograph.
“We want a Wee Stick Man,” the children shrilled in unison.
Rocky’s creative signature made the rounds in the “Auld Grey Toon.”
When I was a junior golfer and in the ninth grade, I was invited to attend the 1968 Colonial by the late Bob Johnson, father of lifelong friend Don Robert Johnson. We were joined by mutual friend and fellow golfer Mark Triggs.
We piled into Mr. Johnson’s Buick and were off to the big city early on a Saturday morning. We arrived with the dew still on the greens and walked near the third green for an up-close view as recommended by Mr. Johnson. I don’t recall many details except that it was late, almost twilight, when we trekked back to the Buick for our trip to Tyler. We had made a day of it at Colonial.
As we walked along the par-5 first hole at Colonial on our way to the gate near the third green, a big red Cadillac convertible was cruising down Country Club drive with the music blaring. Mr. Johnson said, “oh, that’s Rocky Thompson, he’s a bit of a wild one,” or something to that effect.
I was only 15 but I knew Rocky T. was having fun and no doubt on his way to having more fun. I later learned that his Caddy convertible was named “The Rockmobile.” Those were the days of Batman with his Batmobile.
Fast forward 20 years and I am leaving the Atlanta Country Club at about twilight on Friday of the Bellsouth Classic. I had followed Payne Stewart earlier and was headed home. There was a lonesome figure on the putting green, and I recognized Thompson as I strolled by. I called out his name and he waved me over. Soon I was talking with him inside the ropes.
It was a pleasant chat and I finally asked him how, at age 49, he managed to get into the field of a PGA Tour event. He was cheerful, having just made the 36-hole cut, and explained how he was a veteran PGA Tour member for having made 150 cuts during his career and thus was on a list to enter if enough players decided not to play. Good fortune had allowed him to play and he made the best of it that week.
To my surprise, as I was bidding him goodbye, he said he had some tickets for me if I wanted to come out and watch more golf over the weekend. I took him up on it and even had a primo parking pass for Saturday and Sunday. It was such a spontaneous nicety that I have never forgotten his kindness.
Another thing I remember from that conversation was that Thompson estimated at the time that he had played in more than a thousand golf tournaments in his life. I did the math and with only 52 weeks per year, he had basically played every week for 20 plus years — amazing.
Thompson never did anything but play golf. He never had a “real job.” His dad was a successful oilman and paid Rocky to hit practice balls when he was young.
Barney Adams of Dallas changed golf in the early 1990s when he invented the Tight Lies club that was the predecessor of the hybrids now a part of every golfer’s set of clubs. Adams had been calling his club the Tight Lies but when he was about to introduce the club to the public, he decided on a more universal name. But Adams ran into Thompson at the golf range that evening before heading back to office and Rocky told him not to change the name, that the name Tight Lies was the coolest name ever. Adams went with Thompson’s instincts and the rest is history.
Thompson’s father also was shrewd by incorporating a small town, Toco, near Paris in Northeast Texas, for the purpose of selling beer, wine and liquor. Upon his father’s death, Rocky became the mayor and judge of Toco and once told me over the phone that he couldn’t visit long because the City Council was meeting after lunch. He mentioned that his personal chef was preparing Cornish hens that day. The mayor was living in style.
When I got word that Rocky had passed away, it hurt. I hate it, though I somehow find it comforting that a Texas sized personality like his faded into the sunset at about the same time as Larry McMurtry, a Texas writer of distinction from Archer City near Wichita Falls.
Both men had lucid imaginations and made life more fun for the rest of us.