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Former Dairy Farmer Is Big Cheese : Golf: Senior PGA Championship victory two weeks ago has made Wargo a crowd favorite for Las Vegas Classic.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was largely by accident that Tom Wargo became a golfer. His meteoric rise in the Senior PGA tour is by no means an accident, though.

The Michigan native didn’t know anything about golf until he was 21, but at 50 he’s the sensation of the tour for the 50-and-older group.

Two weeks ago, Wargo, who failed to make it in qualifying school last fall, leaped into the limelight when he beat Bruce Crampton on the second playoff hole to win the Senior PGA Championship at West Palm Beach, Fla.

Wargo, a PGA club pro who won the major tournament in only his sixth senior event, is already a gallery favorite at the $700,000 Las Vegas Classic, opening today at the Desert Inn & Country Club.

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Among those in the field with Wargo are defending champion Lee Trevino and the two leading money winners, Mike Hill and Al Geiberger. Among the other challengers are Crampton, last week’s winner Dave Stockton, Jim Colbert, Tradition winner Tom Shaw, George Archer and Chi Chi Rodriguez.

Wargo, who did not take up golf seriously until he was 25, captured the fancy of a big national audience when he held off Crampton’s remarkable late surge in the PGA.

Until that fabulous week, Wargo had to qualify on Mondays to play in four tournaments, had made more than $70,000 and hardly anybody had heard of him.

Everybody knows him now. In fact, he’s being overwhelmed by well-wishers.

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“You can’t believe how our life (his and wife Irene’s) has changed,” Wargo said. “It’s a pretty good feeling to walk through a casino and hear someone say, ‘There’s Tom Wargo. Hi, Tom.’ People call at all hours. We just can’t accommodate everyone. But it sure is different. Mostly, we’re enjoying it.

“I guess I’m not the only boy to grow up on a farm and not know anything about golf.

“It was sort of an accident that I played my first round of golf. A friend and I had been out all night partying, drove by a golf course around dawn and decided to play. We had a lot of laughs and a lot of whiffs.”

Four years later, Wargo, who had worked on an auto assembly line, as a dairy farmer and an ironworker, began playing golf seriously. He was 25 and started practicing regularly because his bowling buddies played $2 Nassaus.

“I developed the bug and we went broke while I learned to play the game and became a PGA apprentice,” he said. “I never had a lesson and was completely self-taught. Later, my wife and I ran a course in Centralia, Ill. I mowed, I taught and occasionally I played in nearby tournaments. Eventually we borrowed $10,000 and bought the course.

“I started thinking about the seniors five years ago. I saw the success club pros Jim Albus, Larry Laoretti and Mike Joyce had.

“I was sure I would give it a try when a year ago I did real well in the regular PGA tournament. I was 49 and one of the juniors, then. I finished 28th and thought I was ready.

“After two rounds I was leading qualifying school. It was a real disappointment when I finished 10th. Only eight qualify, but I was told I would still get to play in 10 or more tournaments later in the year.

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“I was playing a small tournament in Florida and decided to try for one of four qualifying spots on Monday at the first tournament of the year at Key Biscayne.

“I qualified and won $12,000. I missed the next week, but at Tampa, I made the field, finished fourth and won $24,000. I knew I could play with these guys, we didn’t need to spend our small nest egg and life was great.

“I played poorly last week, because I was still in the clouds. I think I’m finally settling down. I’m ready to play.”

His goal to win an event accomplished, Wargo has one more. He’s ninth on the money list with $183,000, far more than he ever earned in two years.

“But, we are going to play almost every week because if we finish in the top 31, we will be exempt all of next year,” he said. “That would be an accomplishment for a guy whose job used to be to milk a dozen cows.”


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