Tournament of Champions : COLOR OF MONEY : Ken Green Getting Results on the Tour Doing It His Way

Times Staff Writer

His last name is Green, his favorite color is blue, and he thinks the importance attached to golf’s 4 major championships is a “figment of the media’s imagination, Jack Nicklaus’ imagination and a few other golfers.”

His first name is not Hubert. It’s Ken. He is not a doll, although he does get wound up. Last year he broke five clubs. On the course.

Green is not a clone, either. Or anything else you might expect from the PGA’s sanitized conveyor belt, which for years has threatened to turn pro golf into Blonds R Us.

He wears his glasses thick, his dark hair short, his baggy pants pleated and his heart on his sleeve.


He speaks his mind when asked. And when not asked.

He is 30 and the winner of more than $1 million worldwide in 1988, when he finished first in eagles, fifth in putting, 11th in scoring and fourth on the PGA money list.

He is part Tommy Bolt, part Mac O’Grady and part Thomas Paine, the early American author of “Common Sense” who once said, “Character is much easier kept than recovered.”

But mostly Green is himself.

Said Paul Azinger, the PGA’s player of the year in 1987: “A lot of guys are one way in a practice round and another way on camera. Ken Green is the same way. And he doesn’t care what anybody thinks.”

Although he is competing here this weekend in the MONY Tournament of Champions at La Costa, Green is never far in spirit from his home in Danbury, Conn. His regular caddy, Joe LaCava, from nearby Newtown, is his cousin. Before that, his caddy for 2 1/2 years was his sister, Shelly, who used to say you could tell her from the other bag-toters by her blue eye-liner.

Green’s initial reaction to Augusta National, golf’s Sistine Chapel, was as unpredictable as his temper. After firing a first-round 68 for a share of the early lead at the 1986 Masters, he said: “I am not impressed with Magnolia Lane.”

This, of course, was first-degree blasphemy. It is now almost 3 years later, but he refuses to back off.

“There are a lot more drives in Connecticut that are a hell of a lot more prettier than Magnolia Lane was,” he said Wednesday. “That’s my honest opinion. I get a lot of abuse sometimes for the things I say. But that’s the way it is.

“My feeling is that if somebody watches me for 18 holes, they’re going to talk about that when they go home. Some people are going to enjoy what I do, they’re going to enjoy the golf, they’re going to enjoy my comments, they’re going to enjoy me flipping the ball around or the club around. Other people are going to hate it, and they’re going tell all their friends what a terrible young man I am.”

Before the tournament here began, they threw a press conference for Arnold Palmer, a man the other players still refer to as “the King.” Palmer benignly held court on subjects ranging from putting, course conditions and confidence to the recent dominance over Americans by the Europeans in Ryder Cup play.

“The Europeans have worked a little harder,” Palmer said.

That rankled Green.

“The thing going on right now about the Europeans knowing how to win, or working harder, or wanting to win versus Americans is such a crock,” he said.

“First of all, I never knew you could compare players on the basis of alternate shots or best ball (the Ryder format). I don’t believe that’s how you determine who the best players in the world are.

“Maybe this is Arnold’s way or Jack’s way to give us (the Americans) a little push to play better. But it’s a crock.”

So, too, says Green, is the criticism leveled at the U.S. tour for its failure to produce a dominant player. Curtis Strange, he points out, has won the money title 3 of the last 4 years.

“What do they expect?” Green asks. “Four out of four? Jack never did that. What Curtis has done should shut everybody up. But it hasn’t.”

Let’s quickly review the bidding here: Magnolia Lane is unimpressive. Arnold Palmer’s proclamations on European golfers are a crock. Female caddies are all right. Breaking clubs is honest emotion. And the majors are a figment of Jack Nicklaus’ imagination.

“We’re in a world right now where, as golfers go, supposedly there’s no one out there that has a personality or any color,” Green says. “Then, if you find someone that’s a little radical, he gets criticized for being radical. It’s a no-win situation.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the golf world eyes Green warily. The feeling is mutual. He is perched on the precipice of its Establishment, and he isn’t sure whether the next step is up or down.

“We’re incredibly spoiled,” he says of professional golfers, too many of whom get bent out of shape when the courtesy car and keys aren’t waiting at the airport each week.

Green rented his car this week.

“They ought to give the courtesy cars to the guys who just came out of the qualifying school,” he says. “Those are the guys who need to save 200 bucks.”

Is Ken Green good for golf?

“I don’t know,” Azinger says. “I wouldn’t say, ‘Hey, he’s definitely good for golf.’ I wouldn’t say he’s terrible for golf, either.”

Fact is, the golfing Establishment hasn’t quite figured out what to make of Ken Green. He is consistent in his ability to defy prediction.

“Ken Green is as unpredictable as the weather,” Azinger said.

But, Azinger added, Green is immensely talented. Long enough off the tee to rank 27th among the tour’s drivers. Delicate enough around the greens to have finished 13th in sand saves and second last year in the overall category that combines all the tour’s statistical departments. And confident enough now to finish first regularly.

“He could win 7 tournaments out here this year,” Azinger said, matter of factly.

It’s even fun to watch Green practice. On the chipping green, he will wedge a handful of balls near the cup, then, without picking them up, feather them back into the rough 10 yards away. He takes a full swing that touches nothing but the ball, which arcs softly before plopping back into the long grass.

Azinger remembers the days when he used to play practice rounds with Green and Green’s good friend Mark Calcavecchia. Before teeing off, Calcavecchia and Green would stand around, dreaming up wild wagers, such as putting a ball on top of a stake 3 feet off the ground and laying 7-1 odds on $10 that they could chip it into a bucket 40 feet away.

“Innovative,” Azinger said. “They’ve got imaginations. They didn’t always wedge it into the bucket. But that’s just the way they were, always making crazy bets. But paying up when they lost.”

CBS announcer Gary McCord nicknamed Green “Flipper” when Green started nonchalantly tossing his putter to LaCava after making putts. The two have perfected their act to the point where Green doesn’t even look for LaCava anymore before flipping the putter behind his back or over his shoulder. LaCava says he hasn’t dropped one yet during a tournament.

“Good-hands people,” Green says.

Green won his first 1988 tournament, the Canadian Open, in September. The next week at Milwaukee, he shot a 61 on Saturday, equaling the lowest round on tour all year, and eventually won by 6 strokes. This despite chest pains and dizziness on Sunday that almost forced him to withdraw.

“On about the sixth hole, he turned to me and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish this thing,’ ” LaCava said. “I told him, ‘You’d better.’ ”

Green did. A cardiologist later diagnosed the problem as a pinched nerve or muscle spasms.

So Green kept playing. Two weeks after Milwaukee, he finished sixth at Endicott, N.Y. Then he was second at Pensacola, Fla. Then 12th at Orlando, Fla. Then fourth at Tucson. Then third in the Nabisco at Pebble Beach.

Four times in 1988, Green earned 6-figure paychecks. Then he jetted to Japan, where he won $221,000 by finishing first in the Dunlop Phoenix. His U.S. tour earnings in 1988 were $779,180. The victory in Japan pushed him over the million-dollar mark, an accomplishment obscured when Strange became the first player to make more than a million in a year on the PGA Tour.

“It was an incredible stretch,” Green says. “Yet I think I should have won 6 tournaments instead of 3.”

All this from a golfer who failed twice to get his tour card and had to enroll in the PGA’s qualifying school three more times before graduating for good in 1985.

In 1984, Green finished 156th on the money list with earnings of $20,160. To put that in perspective, LaCava made almost 3 times that much carrying Green’s bag in 1988.

“It (1984) was probably my nightmare,” Green says. “It was scary. Everything was a disaster. My personal life was splitso. My golf was psycho. It was just a combination of everything.”

Golf, his first love, was no longer fun. But he decided he would give it one more shot.

In 1985, Green bounced back and won $151,355 and the first of his 4 PGA Tour titles, the Buick Open at Flint, Mich.

In 1986, he found Ellen Targett, who would soon become his second wife. “She gets a ton of credit from me,” Green says. “If you want to have a good life on tour, you’ve got to have a good wife. It was like in the movies when you fall so much in love with somebody that it makes such a difference. It’s like Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour all over. But it’s real.”

So are the dollars they’re paying him to play a sport that most others pay their own money to play when they aren’t working.

“People forget how lucky we are,” Green says. “Other golfers forget how lucky we are. It can be difficult out here. And you can bitch and moan. But a day doesn’t go by out here where I don’t think I’m a lucky person.”