Editor’s note: This column originally published in The Charlotte Observer on Dec. 18, 2006.
I went looking for a legend the other day.
His name’s Leon Crump. Talk golf for a while at any course in the Carolinas and, sooner or later, his name will come up.
Those of you who bring up the name, or are fascinated by it, will be pleased to know ol’ Leon came out a winner.
He has played more golf than Arnold Palmer, probably somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 holes, 90 holes some days, most of them for money.
He has shot the outrageous score of 58 three times. He has played with everyone from five-and-dimers at ratty public courses to movie stars and famous golfers and notorious gamblers across the country. He has played crazy bets, such as hitting shots with a paper cup over the ball, and he has played in the U.S. Open. He has written a book, “Drive For Show, Putt For Dough” (HarperCollins).
Famous gambler Amarillo Slim called him “the best money player in the world,” and he might have been. He always wanted to play Jack Nicklaus for a million dollars – not that he had the million – to see if Nicklaus could beat him playing for his own money.
That suggests he was cocky. He wasn’t. I’ve heard him discussed dozens of times, maybe hundreds, and never heard an unkind word about him.
Leon Crump is a relic of Charlotte sports’ colorful past, when there was a character on every street corner. They seem to be gone now, reason enough to go looking for Leon.
I found him at home in a toney neighborhood in Concord. He’s 71 years old, but he looks pretty much the way he’s always looked, except for the white hair. Parked in his driveway were some of the cars he’s restored – or had restored – a couple of El Caminos, a Monte Carlo, a ’51 Chevy.
“It’s something to take up my time,” he said. He said that three times during our conversation.
He plays a lot of checkers at the auto salvage place, he said, something to pass the time. He plays golf a couple of times a week with a bunch of guys for what would have been tip money back in the day, something to pass the time, he said. He plays golf with his wife, Claudette, and daughter, Rhonda, on Sundays and helps Claudette at her tax consulting firm in season.
It’s a quiet life, a million miles away from what it once was. He’s the gunslinger who put away his guns. They used to come looking for him, and he never hid from them. He traveled to towns looking for them and lots of times played for money that could make a man rich if he won it all.
He got robbed a couple of times, arrested once in a comical scenario playing dice on the porch of the old Eastwood clubhouse, and learned what the blues singers were singing about when he went from flush to flat broke more than a few times.
He gave it up, the big games, when he married Claudette about 10 years ago.
“I don’t really miss the action,” he said when I found him in Concord. “I wish I could still play like I did then, but ol’ Mother Nature took care of that, although I did shoot a 64 a couple of years ago. Now I shoot in the mid-70s, a long ways from what it used to be.”
What was it about Leon Crump that made him fearless, gutsy enough to play for tens of thousands day after day, while most of us freeze over a 3-foot putt for $2?
“I never worried about the money,” he said. “I don’t remember ever worrying about the money.”
Crump tried a couple of times to qualify for the PGA Tour but failed, once when he discovered he had too many clubs in his bag and incurred a four-shot penalty. He missed by two shots.
“It just wasn’t for me,” he said. “I’ve always played shooting at the flag. I was a match player. It’s a mind-set. Lots of times in medal play, you have to shoot for the middle of the green. It felt like a Sunday round of golf.”
So, I asked the old gunslinger, would you do it all over again?
“Yeah,” he said, “I think I’d do it all over again. I’ve had an awful good time in my life.”
This felt good, recalling times when vanilla was a matter of choice, not the flavor of the day.