As Bill Rogers walked off the third green at Oak Hills Country Club early in the second round of the 1988 Texas Open, he even never slowed down. He headed straight up the hill, into the clubhouse, to his car and out the winding driveway -- as far away from the tournament and from professional golf as he could get.
It was another dissatisfying hole in another dissatisfying season in what had become a very dissatisfying professional golf career, but Rogers was finally finished.
“I just threw my hands up and said I had had enough,” Rogers recounts. “Boy, that was a low point.”
Fast forward 14 years later to the 2002 SBC Championship at Oak Hills in his hometown of San Antonio. Rogers walked off that same third green with a solid par and a smattering of applause and recognition, handed his clubs to his brother/caddy Rick and prepared for another hole in his Champions Tour return.
After more than a decade of running as far away from competitive golf as Superman ever avoided kryptonite, Rogers was finally back to the profession which had caused him so much pleasure and so much pain.
“In my heart of hearts, I wanted to see if I could get back,” Rogers said. “I think I can help out Briggs Ranch (the San Antonio private course where he’s a part owner) and I think I can gain a measure of satifisfaction. What is that? I don’t really know, but some measure of personal enjoyment.”
So far, the results have been decidedly mixed with only one top 20 finish in the first three months of the season, but Rogers admits to plenty of flashbacks from his former life.
“Sometimes in the middle of a round or after nine holes, I’ll think, this is what I used to do as good as anybody,” he said. “I had as much talent as the next guy in my generation and I achieved more than I ever thought possible, so to have another chance like this is very gratifying. I feel I’m the most fortunate man around.”
After 14 years of folding shirts and planning member outings in his safe and comfortable club pro job, the holder of golf championships worldwide, along with years of painful scarring and emotional retreat, is back in professional golf.
“It’s quite a unique story,” Rogers marvels. “Some guys never get started, some guys never make it to the top, but I’ve been to the very top and the very bottom and every station in-between. You can say I’ve come full circle.”
Taking advantage of a one-year Tour exemption for past champions, Rogers is now a full-time player on the over-50 Champions Tour, a fully-exempt member of an organization he vowed never to join again, after becoming the poster boy for PGA Tour burnout in the late 1980s.
“Of course Bill burned out. It broke my heart to see him struggle like that,” says Beth, his wife of 30 years. “I’m sure people wonder what the heck happened to Bill, but at least they wonder. If they didn’t know who he was, that would really hurt.”
There weren’t many golf fans in the 1970s and early 1980s that didn’t know about Rogers and his impressive golfing resume. After a solid college and amateur career, Rogers turned pro in 1973 and enjoyed a steady diet of success including a victory in the 1978 Bob Hope Desert Classic.
But in 1981, he burst onto the professional golf stage with seven victories worldwide including the British Open at Royal St. George’s, the World Series of Golf, Texas Open and Sea Pines Heritage at Hilton Head, not to mention overseas wins in Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
“My career was always going up just like this,” Rogers motions with his hand on a steadly upward plane. “And then after 1983, it went just like this,” he continues with a steady downward move.
The problem for Rogers was that after ’81, there were no more seasons remotely like that for the tall, lanky Texarkana, Texas resident, and after a 1983 victory in New Orleans, there were no more wins and very few good times.
“Golf is a game that when it’s going good, you think it will never stop and when it’s going bad, you think you will never get off,” said fellow Texan and good friend Ben Crenshaw.
“I know Bill Rogers is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and a great asset to return to our Tour now. We are players, this is what we’ve always done best, Bill and I.”
“I don’t know if he ever thought of himself as a world class player after 1981,” added college roommate Bruce Lietzke, Rogers’ closest friend on the Champions Tour. “If you’re going to do it right, after you win seven times in one year, then you have to defend seven times,”
“He didn’t have time to rest in the off-season, got tired and burned out and his confidence was shot.”
Players who faced Rogers in his prime and have now seen him for the first quarter of the 2003 Champions Tour schedule, still remember the man called “Panther” for his stalking ways on the course and his fierce, piercing eyes.
“Bill was a lot better putter than people gave him credit for and he hit the ball very, very straight,” says Lanny Wadkins. “He was a great player in the early 1980s.
“The thing about Bill is that he just did not like to travel and be away from his family. Some guys do that and can handle it, some don’t and Bill just didn’t.”
After his breakout season in ’81, Rogers’ daughter Blair was born in 1983 and his son Ben followed in ’86.
Then the self-described perfectionist who beat himself up mentally on the golf course and could bring his sour moods home, discovered something even worse than not having success on the golf course.
Loathing the very sport he had played since age 9.
“The low point for me came in 1986-88 where my most vivid thought was I would rather be anywhere else but on the golf course. I’d be walking down the fairways and the demons would come and I’d think I’d rather be tarring roofs or flipping hamburgers, than be doing this.”
Beth Rogers, who was standing a few feet away from her husband when he stalked off the 3rd green at the Texas Open, never to return for another PGA Tour season, vividly remembers those tortured days.
“Well,” she says after a long pause when asked to recall the event. “That was very interesting, but that was it for Bill. It was just very freighting because Bill didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do.”
The only thing Rogers knew for sure at the time was he wanted to get as far away from playing competitive golf as possible.
“Anybody who knows Bill knows quitting in the middle of the round was so out of character for him,” Rick Rogers says. “He’s never brought it up and I haven’t either, but I think he was just so embarrassed by the way he was playing out there and he felt he was cheating the people who had paid money to come see him play.”
So with three years of fully exempt status left from his World Series of Golf victory, Rogers left professional golf behind for good, playing in only one more Texas Open as a favor to friends in 1991, his last competitive Tour strokes for a decade.
After turning down a golf architecture partnership, Rogers heard about an upcoming opening as the head pro at San Antonio Country Club in his newly adopted city. With no other good choices available, Rogers did something he says no self-respecting Tour professional, much less a major championship winner, would do. He actually applied for the job, hand-typing his resume on his dusty college typewriter.
Who knew presiding over ladies’ guest days, giving well-heeled members playing lessons or planning junior clinics would prove to be so therapeutic.
But that’s exactly what Rogers found out during his 11-year tenure at the city’s blue blood establishment, which helped heal years of golf scarring.
“I think that’s well put. It helped me in my healing and to overcome some scarring,” Rogers admits. “It came along at the right time and was a very good thing. The scarring was pretty deep and I wanted to get as far away from competitive golf as possible.”
More importantly, the members, impressed by Rogers’ golf celebrity status, allowed him the freedom to hunt and fish, play golf and travel, taking his family on summer trips to England to see the tennis matches at Wimbledon.
“I don’t think I was ever meant to be a lifer on the PGA Tour. I think I outsmarted the system by leaving when I did,” he said. ”There is a big price to pay out there, a big price and boy I’m so glad I came home and that’s what I did was really come home.”
Rogers turned to the fairly stable life of nights and many weekends with his family, a growth of his personal faith in Jesus Christ, which he says has sustained him in many dark times, and the promise he would never confront his golf past again.
He scattered his trophies and treasures across Texas so even his wife has trouble remembering which old tournament memento is at what location.
San Antonio golf promoter Buddy Cook, who had once offered Rogers the player a place to practice in the late 1980s, offered him another chance to become a part of the new Briggs Ranch club he was forming in 2000. When Rogers moved over to Briggs Ranch a year later, he was still content in his job as a career club pro.
“Sometimes it’s how you handle the struggles and Bill handled the struggles very well,” Cook said.
But Cook knew that Rogers had been favorably reintroduced to the pro game in 1999 when Crenshaw asked Lietzke and Rogers to serve as his assistants at the stirring Ryder Cup matches at The Country Club.
It was like stepping out of a decade-long time warp, but Rogers enjoyed his time as a golf fossil come to life.
“I remember Tom Lehman coming up to Bill and saying he had always wanted to meet him and I mean, Tom had been on the Tour a long time,” Lietzke says.
Cook, who also serves as the tournament director for the Seniors SBC Championship, offered Rogers a sponsor’s exemption for the 2001 event.
“I still had a lot of self-doubt, but I was interested to see what happened,” Rogers said.
In 2002, he accepted Leitzke’s invitation be his partner at the Legends of Golf, where the twosome won in a rout in the unofficial two-man competition. More importantly, Rogers poured in five second-round birdies and an eagle to stake his team to the win.
Liezke also knew PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was getting ready to add an exemption category on the Champions Tour for past major winners who didn’t qualify on the career money list and proposed his friend Rogers as the leading candidate.
The two college buddies now have dinner together many nights on the road and Lietzke said he’s constantly looking for positive and negative signs of the old Rogers.
“I look for signs of what I saw in the late 1980s. I know what to look for and I want to make sure those old ghosts don’t return. He remembers those days and he never wants to go back there again.”
“They’re buried pretty deep,” Rogers laughs when asked about his golf war wounds. “I’m bobbing and weaving a lot out here, but I’ve already achieved some personal satisfaction and most importantly I think the best is yet to come.”
Those who have followed Rogers’ career, probably never thought they would hear that association with professional tournament golf ever again.
“I think I’ve changed so much, it’s unreal. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, then you’re just stuck.”
Bill Rogers has truly come home again and for him home is a green grass heaven.