Bond on the Bayou
Tommy Moore and Kelly Gibson were best friends and the best players in New Orleans, then the bond was broken when Moore died at age 35
April 20, 2015
By Brian Allee-Walsh , Special to PGATOUR.COM
NEW ORLEANS -- Each spring, when the heavenly gates to Augusta National swing open and another Masters plays out for the ages, Kelly Gibson remembers a pact he made with Tommy Moore, an inseparable boyhood friend who shared a common dream and deep-rooted passion for the game of golf.
One day, they would walk on that hallowed Georgia ground, not as spectators or guests of a member, but as part of an elite field in pursuit of the Green Jacket.
"If Tommy was invited to Augusta National, I'd go with him and if I was invited he'd go with me,'" Gibson said on the eve of this week's Zurich Classic of New Orleans at TPC Louisiana, a course he helped design with Pete Dye and Steve Elkington. "Every Augusta week it almost makes me cry to think that we both had chances to get there .. and we both missed out.'"
Their dream, hatched on a lazy, 36-hole summer afternoon in the Big Easy during the 1970s, never came to fruition, as neither can count the Masters appearance among their life's accomplishments. Each, however, did make his mark in the golf world, competing on the PGA TOUR, teeing it up in other major championships and winning as professionals.
But no golfer from the metro New Orleans area has followed in their footsteps to the PGA TOUR, a fact that is quite surprising since this area has produced its share of NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball players over the years.
Moore died on May 24, 1998, of a rare blood disease (primary amyliodosis) at the age of 35, leaving behind a wife and young son.
Though no longer competing professionally, Gibson, now 50, retains his active status on the PGA TOUR and Champions Tour and continues to dabble in course re-design in and around metro New Orleans (Joseph Bartholomew Municipal Golf Club, Tchefuncta Country Club, Floridian National Golf Club).
Meanwhile, the New Orleans area will again host a TOUR event, which it has done since 1938 when Harry Cooper beat Harold “Jug” McSpaden by four strokes at City Park. Alas, there will be no hometown heroes for the locals to support. Only memories of the past and visions of what might have been.
Gibson refuses to draw the curtain on his pro career, though that day is approaching. Instead, he fills his days serving as chairman of the Kelly Gibson Foundation, formerly known as "Feed the Relief," an initiative that he and his wife Elizabeth undertook in September 2005 with the idea of providing necessary support for the front line of first responders to Hurricane Katrina.
In 2009, he founded the Kelly Gibson Foundation Junior Golf Tour, a 21-event tour for boys and girls ages 7-22. In Moore's memory, Gibson's foundation also partners with the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans to host an annual national event featuring top-ranked junior players.
Since its inception, the KGF, in partnership with several other organizations, has awarded more than $225,000 in scholarships to more than 100 kids. Gibson estimates his foundation has helped raise nearly $4 million since Hurricane Katrina, a calling born from a horrific disaster that left his hometown underwater, overwhelmed and in need of immediate assistance.
Years earlier, in May of 1998, Gibson found himself in a similar dire setting, sitting at the bedside of Moore, who was fighting an unwinnable battle against the blood disease that had been diagnosed only months before.
"I asked Tommy if there was anything I could do,'" Gibson recalled while trying to fight back tears. "He was worried that his disease was going to bankrupt his family because it was not covered by his insurance policy.
"Tommy really wanted his son, Mason, to go to a Catholic or private school in New Orleans, and I told him I would take care of that."
Three days later, Moore succumbed to the disease. Not long after Moore's death, Gibson and members of the PGA TOUR, as well as many of Moore's friends, helped raise $400,000 as part of an educational fund for the family.
"I can't tell you all of the TOUR players who contributed to the fund; there were so many,'' Gibson said. "Tommy had that much of an influence on people. This is a guy who played on TOUR for only a brief time and in that short time he made his presence felt."
Tommy Moore (left) and Kelly Gibson seen during their playing days. (Courtesy of Moore family)
Moore's ability to influence those around him was first seen as a junior golfer learning his craft in New Orleans. Slightly built at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, he owned an impeccable short game and displayed course management well beyond his years. He rose through the junior ranks and eventually earned the No. 1 world ranking in Golf Digest at the age of 17 in 1980.
He would go on to star at Oklahoma State, earning All-America honors in 1982,'83 and '84 and helping the Cowboys win the NCAA Division I title in 1984. Moore turned pro that year.
And while Moore spent the better part of three full seasons on the PGA TOUR (1990, '91, '94), he struggled to consistently make cuts and earn money. After missing 16 cuts in 20 events and pocketing less than $13,000 in '94, Moore decided to take a hiatus from competitive golf, work on his swing and try his hand in teaching back in New Orleans.
“Tommy felt like his game was no longer adequate,'' said his father, Dr. John Moore. "Tommy always felt like he had holes in his golf swing and it really limited him because of distance and accuracy primarily. He thought he needed to make some basic changes. That was his plan.''
Determined to regain his TOUR card, Moore hooked up with swing coach Rob Noel and went to work as an instructor at English Turn Golf & Country Club, the venue at the time for the annual New Orleans stop on the PGA TOUR.
He officially retired in 1995 with his lone victory coming at the 1993 Nike Boise Open. Any lingering dream Moore had of returning to the TOUR one day ended abruptly early in '98, however, when doctors diagnosed the rare blood disease. The end came several months later.
"Tommy was like the pied piper for junior golfers in New Orleans," said Mike Rodrigue, who played collegiately at Tulane University in the early 1970s and remains a prominent member of the golf and business community in New Orleans.
"Tommy had a great short game, and I can remember him making up these different swing tricks and gimmicks on the practice tee. One time he put a towel under his arm, and the next day everybody on the practice tee was mimicking him. It had nothing to do with the golf swing but if Tommy was doing it, it had to be good.
"It got to be comical."
Trying to keep up with Moore was no laughing matter, especially for Gibson, who counted his De La Salle (N.O.) High School teammate among the four people he idlolized, along with his father, NFL quarterback Archie Manning and NBA legend Pistol Pete Maravich.
From age 12 to 22, Gibson played in Moore's shadow. Then, genetics kicked in and Gibson (who was 5-11, 170) took his game to another level once he turned pro in 1986 upon graduation from Lamar.
"Tommy was the rabbit everyone chased," said Jimmy Headrick, a three-time U.S. Kids top 50 junior golf instructor and director of development at Oak Harbor Golf Club in Slidell, La.
"To this very day, every lesson I give, Tommy Moore's bag is behind me," said James Leitz, a world-class clubfitter and teacher and head golf pro at Tchefuncta. "I think back to his funeral and the eulogies given and it still brings chills to my spine. If Tommy Moore were alive today, he would be one of the top 100 teachers in America. He still beats that drum loudly for golf in our area.
"And Kelly still is the voice of golf in New Orleans. His junior golf tour is one of the best in the country."
Gibson, who made 169 cuts in 329 TOUR events from 1989 through 2007 (including 48 of 71 in 1996-97), acknowledged that Moore's death took a toll on his game.
Gibson finished 69th on the PGA TOUR money list in 1996, including a career-best T3 at the Las Vegas Invitational, where he closed with three consecutive 65s but finished a shot behind a 20-year-old Tiger Woods, who beat Davis Love III in a playoff. It was the first of Woods' 79 victories.
But while Woods' career was on the rise, Gibson's took a downward turn.
"I've never really talked about this but when Tommy died, my golf game was never the same,” said Gibson, one of the game's longest hitters during his prime. "I lost my card after the 1998 season. I was too insecure to trust anybody with my swing. When I got in trouble on TOUR, I'd always call Tommy and he was always capable of getting me out of it. He was more than a best friend. He was a coach, a mentor, a one-of-a-kind individual with special talents.”
Dr. John Moore -- Tommy's father -- is widely regarded as the "godfather of junior golf" in New Orleans. Dr. Moore often talks with Gibson and has remained a major influence in Gibson's life long after his son's death, providing business advice and guidance.
"You have to remember these two spent so much time together," Dr. Moore said. "They talked every day. Every day. They competed against each other. They didn't kid about each other's strengths and weaknesses; in fact, they laughed about it. They were safe in making comments about each other, knowing it was constructive criticism."
In the years after Moore’s death, from 1999 through '07, Gibson made just 33 of 87 cuts at TOUR events.
"I always thought, 'Why Tommy? Why now?'’" Gibson asked.
Those were questions he knew would never be answered.
Former PGA TOUR Player Kelly Gibson gives back to New Orleans
Once Gibson faded from competitive golf on the PGA TOUR, the city of New Orleans was left with a void in the golf world that has yet to be filled.
So why hasn't New Orleans produced more TOUR players? Oddly, three of New Orleans' most decorated golfers are graduates of De La Salle High School, an uptown school along the St. Charles streetcar line -- Tommy Brennan (1978), Moore (1980) and Gibson (1982). Moore and Gibson grew up in Algiers on the West Bank of the Mississippi River.
Brennan was a shining star in his own right. He went to Alabama on a golf scholarship, won the Louisiana Mid-Amateur five times and finished runner-up in the 1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Hazeltine National Golf Club, all the while blazing a trail for his friends and TOUR aspirants Moore and Gibson.
There are no simple answers to a difficult question, just general theories as to why no one has followed Moore and Gibson to the TOUR. Other areas of Louisiana have sent Hal Sutton, David Toms, Brian Bateman, Mike Heinen, Gary Koch, Perry Moss, Andrew Loupe and Heath Slocum to the PGA TOUR, most notably from Baton Rouge and Shreveport.
But there is hope for the Crescent City.
A handful of top-shelf instructors armed with the latest technology work in and around New Orleans, including Noel, Brian Manzella, Headrick and Leitz, among others. Gibson's junior golf tour is exploding. Headrick is spearheading the U.S. Kids Tour in southeast Louisiana. The First Tee of New Orleans is building momentum at TPC Louisiana.
The New Orleans golf scene will get an added boost when a new $25 million championship golf facility opens at City Park in the fall of 2016, a short street-car ride from the CBD.
But in the end it's going to take youngsters who dream big and are willing to work hard to realize those dreams. Even then there are no guarantees.
"People have no concept on how much we sacrificed and how hard we worked to get where we did," Gibson said. "It was 24-7, consuming all day, every day.
"Being a good junior player only gets you to college. Being a good collegiate player only lets you turn pro. Once you turn pro, if you're not working hard every single day, you have no chance. I don't care how talented you are."
"How often does a Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy or Jordan Speith come along?" Headrick said. "They are rare, the exceptions to the rule. Heck, as good as Kelly and Tommy were, they never won on the PGA TOUR. They won on the lower echelon tours. It's hard out there.
"We have put many kids in college on scholarships. We have quality teachers here. We can get them to college. Then it becomes do they have the heart to want to go farther? We can't spoon feed them all the way to the TOUR."
Rodrigue said "success breeds success. Whenever you have successful role models like Tommy Moore and Kelly Gibson, it makes everyone around them want to get better. Until you get those stars that kids can follow, it's tough."
For Gibson, it wasn't a matter of if he would reach the PGA TOUR, but when.
"I had no choice," he said. "I had Tommy Moore as my role model. He was the No. 1-ranked junior golfer in the world at 17 -- IN THE WORLD. Everybody in New Orleans chased him, including me. I tell the people in my foundation and junior golf program all the time that while some are looking for the next Bobby Fischer (a child prodigy and former world chess champion), we're looking for the next Tommy Moore.
"If you get a once-in-a-lifetime individual, he brings with him everyone else and makes them better. The key is finding that special someone. We're still looking. I don't know if we'll ever find him but we won't stop trying. We owe that much to Tommy."