Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. – Ray Floyd is sitting in the grillroom at the Old Palm Golf Club when Jack Nicklaus’s son Jackie walks in. He speaks with Floyd for a moment about the four-time major champion’s imminent appearance in the feature pro-am group during the Honda Classic. Floyd, who designed Old Palm and who lives in a cottage home on the property, tells Nicklaus’s son that he is looking forward to participating.
That’s the sort of golf Floyd, 70, plays these days–all casual, with friends, and to support charitable efforts. The World Golf Hall of Fame member won the 1976 Masters, the 1986 U.S. Open, and the 1969 and 1982 PGA Championship. He lost a playoff to Nick Faldo at the 1990 Masters when he hit his approach to the 11th green into the pond left of the green. Had Floyd won that Masters, he would have become the only golfer to win a major in four different decades.
But that’s okay. Floyd had a wonderful career and he knew when to retire from competition. He didn’t make a big deal of retiring from the game he had played so well for so many years, and at the highest levels. He knew it was time. He’d shot 78 the last time he played the Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters, and now, chatting at lunch in the comfortable grillroom full of golf books, with a tournament on Golf Channel in the background, he says, “I played as well as I could that round. I told Maria I’m done. I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I just didn’t show up [for the 2010 Masters].”
Maria, Floyd’s wife, died last September from a rare form of bladder cancer. Her death has been hard on Floyd. He sold their home in Palm Beach and moved into the cottage at Old Palm, where he takes his meals mostly at the club and where he says he has everything he needs: a splendid course that he enjoys when he tees it up, a state of the art gym, trainers, friends. Yes, he has everything, except, of course, Maria, to whom he was married for nearly 40 years. He smiles when he remembers what she said about his retiring from competition, when he simply didn’t show up at the Masters.
“She said I didn’t even know how to be a celebrity,” Floyd recalled. “I’d say that I didn’t want to go to this or that dinner, and that’s what she’d say.”
Floyd lived an active life as a bachelor, and he might have squandered his immense talent for the game had he not met Maria and had she not awakened him to his gifts and pushed him to work harder. I’m in San Francisco as I write, and Thursday night I had dinner at the California Golf Club with some friends who are members. One of them remembered Floyd in San Francisco many years ago, pre-Maria, and the times he enjoyed then.
“I had a before and an after career, before I met Maria and after,” Floyd says. “I look at our life together as I was blessed to have 40 years with her. That’s how I’m dealing with losing her.”
Floyd eventually took his profession seriously, all aspects of it. I remember setting up an interview with him on Hilton Head Island, S.C. years ago. We were to meet in a hotel at breakfast. Somehow the arrangements got mixed up, and we didn’t connect when I thought we were supposed to. I learned later that Floyd was calling all over the place trying to find me. We reached one another and then we met.
Floyd told me he had allotted 45 minutes for the interview. He said that’s the amount of time he prefers to offer during such a one on one session. That was fine, of course. He wasn’t wearing a watch. At one point he said, “Okay, there’s time for one more question.” I looked at my watch. We were coming up to 45 minutes. He knew.
In 1981, Floyd won the Canadian PGA Championship at the Westmount Golf and Country Club in Kitchener, Ont., a course I would love to see host the RBC Canadian Open. “That was a nice golf course,” he says.
Anybody who watched Floyd was aware of his distinctive swing. His right elbow flew off the side of his body, but that didn’t always happen. I asked him about the move.
“I did that because of injuries,” he tells me. “I had a classic golf swing when I won the 1969 PGA. Then as I started getting hurt I was athletic enough to get around the pain and be successful. But I got so flat and laid off and by the end of 1973 and into 1974 I was really struggling. I couldn’t get turned back enough to get my swing up where I had any power.”
Floyd consulted Jack Grout, Nicklaus’s long-time teacher (the new biography, Jack Grout: A Legacy in Golf, has recently been published, by the way; I’ll review it soon; Nicklaus contributes a foreword).
“Why don’t you get that elbow away from you?” Grout suggested. Floyd recovered the leverage in his swing, and his length returned.
That was years ago now, during an era when players hit practice balls to their caddies, who were retrieving the balls on the range. Players carried their practice balls in shag bags. Floyd remembered that one caddie was hit on the head at the Los Angeles Open, and was never the same. The range could be a dangerous place.
I could have talked golf with Floyd all afternoon. We chatted for at least an hour–no more 45-minute limit, and then we went our separate ways. I look forward to another meeting with him. He accomplished a lot in the game, and he has a lot to say.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein