Diamond in the Rough : Robert Landers Comes Right Off the Farm in Texas to the Senior PGA Tour


There was a parade in Azle, Tex., population 9,500, recently, complete with a banner carefully strung across Main Street. In block lettering, it read: Robert Landers Senior PGA Tour . The honorees rode underneath in a convertible, sitting next to the Honorable C.Y. (“Call me Cy”) Rhone, mayor.

Rhone, 82, said he can’t remember anything bigger than Robert Landers in Azle, about 18 miles northwest of Ft. Worth.

“He’s done more for Azle than anyone’s ever done,” Rhone said. “Why, he’s brought us national fame.”


As it turns out, fame is where you find it. In this case, it is located on a farm in north Texas. It belongs to Landers, 51, and his wife, Freddie, an unlikely pair of middle-aged farmers embarking on the journey of their lives, trading a tractor for a golf cart, setting off in search of a dream.

Last November, against all odds, after cashing in $2,000 of his $10,000 IRA to pay the entry fee, wearing blue jeans and sneakers and using a $70 homemade set of clubs, Landers finished sixth out of 111 golfers at the Senior PGA Tour qualifying tournament to win a berth on the $33-million professional tour that stops in places Robert and Freddie hadn’t even heard of.

Today, it’s Ojai for the start of the FHP Health Care Classic, where Landers can see if that swing he practiced by hitting golf balls over the barn and the cows, the one that nobody taught him but himself, the one that has all Azle buzzing, the one that has put Freddie and him in airplanes for the first time in more than a decade, is going to keep them going in the right direction.

Playing golf for money might be hard, but it’s a job and Landers hasn’t had a steady one since Mitchell’s Department Store in Azle closed two years ago. He since has earned a living almost any way he could, chopping firewood, buying things at garage sales and reselling them at flea markets, selling off calves, making wooden reindeer Christmas decorations.

After playing five tournaments in four years, mostly on the Texas Barbecue Circuit, a series of two-round events in small towns, he decided to try the senior tour. Landers and his uncle composed a letter asking for financial help from his friends.

Freddie Landers thought her husband should cash in their $10,000 IRA, their only savings.

“I said ‘Robert, that’s just kind of like begging,’ ” Freddie said. “ ‘If you think you can play competitive golf, you take it. Then when it’s gone, you’ll have to go work.’ ”


Landers and Freddie drove to Lutz, Fla., for the qualifying tournament, in which Landers shot a four-over par 288 that earned him $4,270 and a full exemption for this year’s tour.

The Landers story since has become major golf news.

“I see us on TV or see our words in print and I say ‘My God, that’s us!’ ” Freddie said. “Sometimes I want to cry. I might say something that may be embarrassing and if I had any sense, I wouldn’t say it.

“But if I step in it, I will come right out and say, ‘Hey, I stepped in it.’ I don’t try to pretend and Robert doesn’t try to pretend to be something he is not.”

If the golf world was shocked, Landers’ uncle, Foster Stevens, wasn’t. The 75-year-old Ft. Worth man said Landers is the type who figures out something and then does it.

“Maybe not like other people, but in his own way,” said Stevens, who understands his nephew’s appeal.

“I like plain people. I’m a country boy and I like country boys. That’s the way Robert is. He doesn’t put on airs. He doesn’t have a big ego. He’s refreshing.”


He is also having a tough time in his new job. Landers made his debut at the Royal Caribbean Classic at Key Biscayne, Fla., and shot 75-79-74 to finish in a tie for 62nd. At the IntelliNet Challenge at Naples, Fla., Landers tied for 40th in the rain-shortened event with 73-74. Two weeks ago at the GTE Suncoast Classic at Tampa, Landers began with a 69 but finished with a 78-75 and tied for 58th.

So far, Landers has won $5,168. He is a long way from his goal of finishing in the top 31 on the money list to stay fully exempt in 1996. But, hey, it’s early. His expenses are covered by Dickies, a work clothing manufacturer, usually pants and gloves, the same that Landers sold at the department store.

“I can play better,” said Landers, who said he is not distracted by all the attention he has received, even if he can’t understand why it’s happening.

“My wife and I, we talk about it a lot,” he said. “As a matter of fact, from the very first day, we had no idea. I guess nobody did. For sure, we felt we were truly blessed, golly, just to qualify.

“That was enough. Even before that, we were happy at home on the farm. We didn’t desire anything else other than just to be able to be comfortable and maybe not have to spend the rest of our life working for minimum wage.”

Landers met Freddie at Mitchell’s, where she was a clerk. Soon, they married, the second time for both. Freddie had the farm, about 73 acres, five miles outside of Azle. They had some cows, then they would buy a registered bull to produce some calves, which they would sell. If they were lucky, they would keep a calf for themselves to eat.


“We live a little different than most of the people we know,” Freddie said. “We just economize. We don’t want a lot. We get asked umpteen times, ‘What would you do if you really make a lot of money?’ It’s really like, what do we need?”

The Landerses don’t have a garage, cable television or take a newspaper, but they do have a bunker. Landers dug a hole, then carried sand from the riverbank and sifted it with a wire screen to make a bunker so he could practice hitting his sand wedge. But once the cows discovered the sand, they claimed it for their own.

“I don’t know why, they just won’t leave it alone,” Landers said. “They like to lay down in there.”

The cows also claimed another piece of Landers’ practice range.

“I had a flag out there, but the cows ate it off the stick, so now I just got a stick,” Landers said.

He actually was a pretty good golfer as an amateur. He won the Ft. Worth city championship three times and was the low amateur in the Texas Open twice. He didn’t play competitively from 1981 until 1991 because of a pinched sciatic nerve that made his left leg numb, but working on the farm made him feel better, so he started thinking big. He started thinking about the senior tour.

He practiced on his farm and at the Casino Beach Golf Academy on Lake Worth, a nine-hole layout where Stevens plays. Landers gave lessons there too, when he wasn’t dealing with cattle, chopping firewood or reselling items at the flea market.


He hasn’t worn spikes since 1983, mainly because he prefers sneakers.

“It’s a habit,” he said.

He hopes that feeling comfortable on the tour and playing well become the same habit.

His new peer group seems to be in his corner. Buddy Allin and Rocky Thompson are friends. Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Gary Player all have said nice things about him. Former PGA Commissioner Deane Beman said Landers is an inspiration to Americans and the symbol of what’s right with golf.

“Actually, this is about the only sport something like this can happen in,” Beman said. “You just grab your spikes . . . can’t say that, I guess. You grab your clubs and ball and tee it up. I don’t know anything better than that.”

Landers doesn’t, either. He’s not exactly sure where he and Freddie are going, but they are both well aware of where they are from.

They’re also having to change at least a few of their habits, such as traveling. Airline travel is becoming old to Landers, who now has logged two flights in 15 years, but their flight to Los Angeles was only Freddie’s second time on an airplane. The first one was for a dairyman’s convention in Chicago in 1965.

It’s a brave new world out there as they hit the golf trail. Back in Azle, Freddie’s adult daughters, Vicky and Lisa, are taking care of the farm, but, in the meantime, Robert and Freddie are coping with the burden of being nouveau celebrities in the big-time league of professional golf.

“At first, I thought we were oddballs,” Freddie said. “I didn’t want people to look at us and make fun of us, you know. But it’s a real privilege to sort of respect the average person. Robert is who he is, although it may not be the average norm.


“People from all over the country have been wishing us well. I think, ‘Good gosh.’ I think what we can do is to give people hope, to let people know really and truly that good things happen to good people. Don’t be discouraged. Have faith.”

Landers has not forgotten the advice he got from golfer George Burns in 1980 as they stood on the practice tee before the 1980 U.S. Open. Landers qualified at Ft. Worth and wound up shooting 83-77 to miss the cut.

“He said, ‘No matter what anybody says to you, you’ve earned the right to be here, just like anybody else,’ ” Landers said. “I remembered that always. That’s like how I feel about this tour. The good part about this job is the honor of it and how it gives everybody the same fair chance.

“That’s all I’m looking for and all I want.”