Fezler passes away at age 69
December 21, 2018
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
- Forrest Fezler's lone win came in his 92nd PGA TOUR start, the 1974 Southern Open. (PGA TOUR)
There will be those views from afar, held by those armed with statistics and the obligatory memory of an on-course clothing statement during a U.S. Open, that don’t quite do justice to the memory of Forrest Fezler. “Those people just don’t know,” said Roger Maltbie, who is in possession of the view that counts the most, the up-close-and-very-personal one.
“But I do know. I saw him as a kid, and I know he was a hell of a player.”
Maltbie paused, absorbing the news that had just been confirmed to him – that Fezler, his friend for more than 50 years and the former high school teammate he looked up to, had died. Having waged a battle with brain cancer, Fezler was 69 when he died Dec. 21 in Tallahassee, Fla., where he had lived since the late 1970s.
“To be honest,” said Maltbie, “it feels like a huge part of me kind of died, too. I’m at a loss. He meant the world to me in a lot of ways.”
That sentiment was shared by former PGA TOUR player Kenny Knox, who also confirmed Fezler’s death. “He was the greatest guy I’ve ever met,” said Knox, a three-time PGA TOUR winner.
Not lost on Maltbie and Knox was the fact Fezler died of glioblastoma, the same type of cancer to the brain that killed Bruce Lietzke earlier this summer. So, if it feels like a second kick in the gut to those who remember those PGA TOUR days of the 1970s and ‘80s, Maltbie and Knox can commiserate because it’s been a tough run.
What’s important to Maltbie is that the lasting memory of Fezler isn’t of sweltering heat at Oakmont Country Club in 1983, the day his friend from the east side of San Jose, Calif., decided to go into a portable toilet on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open and come out wearing a pair of shorts. “I still hear it two or three times a week,” Fezler told Gary Van Sickle for a golf.com story in 2015. “They say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who wore shorts.”
He did so not because he was a maverick or in search of the spotlight; heck, he was T-50 that year and since it happened on the very last hole, Fezler slipped out of Oakmont CC with very little fanfare. No, there was a point to be made, Fezler insisted, though it would be a few years before the real story came out. By then, Fezler had been supported by fellow competitors John Brodie and John Schroeder, both of whom were witnesses to what was deemed unfair officiating during the 1981 U.S. Open. The story was told of Fezler’s shot out of a ravine at Merion’s 16th hole and how because it was a blind approach and such thick rough, the players searched for nearly five minutes. Watching from the greenside, U.S. Golf Association chief executive P.J. Boatwright never told the group that Fezler’s golf ball was 10 feet from him, at least not until Fezler asked the official if he had seen it.
When Boatwright threatened slow-play penalties to the trio, Fezler stood up to him, as did Brodie and Schroeder. The penalties were withdrawn, but two years later, Fezler didn’t deny that his final U.S. Open was going to include a statement. It came in front of thousands who were lining the 18th hole at Oakmont and got him one last audience with a USGA executive.
“He said, ‘Forrest, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life,’ “ Fezler reminisced to Van Sickle. “Sign your card and get the hell out of here.”
Yes, Maltbie can get a chuckle out of the memory – especially knowing Fezler always did – but he has a wider view of his friend’s life and offers a perspective that is layers-thick in respect. First and foremost, Maltbie suggests the PGA TOUR playing record – just one win in 390 tournaments, the bulk of which were played between 1972 and 1984 – doesn’t do Fezler’s talent justice.
“He was such a good player as a young man, but he got compromised when a surgically-repaired wrist was not done right and never allowed him to do what he needed to do with the golf club,” said Maltbie.
Fezler’s only win came in his 92nd PGA TOUR start, the 1974 Southern Open at the tail end of his third full season. Then 24, Fezler on the strength of 70-68-68 started the final day in fourth place, one behind a trio of leaders, J.C. Snead, Tommy Aaron and Ben Crenshaw. With a sizzling 65 – 271, he won by one over Snead and Bruce Crampton at Green Island CC in Columbus, Ga., but of course, always, there’s a story behind the story.
“The 17th hole at Green Island, a par-3, was impossible if you went over the green,” said Knox, still laughing at the memory of J.C. Snead feathering a baby 5-iron hole high, a ploy that led Fezler to think he needed at least a 5- or 6-iron. Naturally, “Forrest hit it over the green and J.C. and Crampton figured they had him.”
Only Fezler miraculously pitched it onto a green that sloped dramatically back-to-front and the ball struck the flagstick and dropped. The improbable birdie provided his only PGA TOUR win and “Fezler divorces bridesmaid tag,” is one headline that appeared in a newspaper the next day. To reporters, Fezler didn’t deny that he was having doubts about his PGA TOUR career. “I was getting an image. People were saying I was a bridesmaid, or that I choked. I began to think that I would never win. (But) the first one is so hard to win.”
Surprising many, there never would be a second victory and Maltbie is among those who has a difficult time rationalizing that. But he insists that the wrist injury seriously curtailed Fezler’s career. That it was Maltbie (five wins and $2.2m in prize money during a career that stretched over 520 tournaments) who had the better PGA TOUR career of these two San Jose kids leaves him shaking his head.
“He was a junior (at James Lick High School) when I was a freshman and he beat my butt every day,” Maltbie said. “He stuffed Johnny Miller in the California State Amateur one year. If I had one piece of luck as a kid, it’s that I was blessed to challenge myself to try and play as good as him every day.”
Knox doesn’t discount the wrist injury, but he played a ton of golf with Fezler and insists “his putting held him back; he was a George Knudson-type of guy, a great striker, and even in his 60s he hit was hitting further and straighter and better than ever . . . but his putting failed him.”
Born Sept. 23, 1949, in Hayward, Calif., Fezler, like Maltbie, was raised in San Jose and after high school attended San Jose City College before turning pro in 1970. (One sidelight that used to make him laugh: He was backup quarterback to heralded Jim Plunkett, but in high school, not college. When reporters mistakenly spread the story that Fezler played at Stanford behind Plunkett, he got a kick out of that. Wikipedia still reports that Fezler “later attended Stanford University.)
Fezler began his PGA TOUR career in 1972 and for each of his first seven years ranked within the top 90 on the money list. His best season was 1973 when he finished 13th thanks to three second-place finishes that contributed to the perception that he was a “bridesmaid.”
Arguably the most memorable of eight career runner-ups was “The Massacre at Winged Foot,” the infamous U.S. Open of 1974 when Fezler stood on the 72nd tee just one off the lead. “But I didn’t know it, or I might have been nervous,” he once conceded. Hale Irwin, playing behind Fezler, bogeyed the 15th and 16th to add drama, but when Fezler bogeyed the final hole to shoot 70 for 9-over 289, Irwin finished par-par to win by two.
When the U.S. Open returned to a tamer Winged Foot in 1984, Fezler was already into his walk-away from the PGA TOUR. He told a reporter years later that 34 was too early to quit, but he came to hate the traveling, the strain it put on his first marriage, the pressure to compete against younger players who didn’t even know him or his pedigree. There were two factors in play: One, the torn tendons in his left wrist were just too big a hurdle, and two, the burning desire to get his hands dirty was a challenge he wanted a piece of. Always, Fezler had harbored a passion for golf-course design and when he befriended acclaimed designer Mike Strantz, a remarkable partnership was born.
Fezler once told Terry Frei of The Denver Post: “(Mike Strantz) said the best way to learn how to be a designer is to put a shovel in your hand. I started that way and I can’t get a shovel out of my hands.”
Maltbie remembered working a TV shoot for NBC at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club outside of Myrtle Beach, S.C., many years ago. “I was fascinated by the place and took a golf cart out to get a better look,” said Maltbie. “I saw some guy in a big hole, tossing dirt out with a shovel and when I drove by, I heard, ‘Hey, Roger.’
“I looked down, saw this guy covered in dirt and it was Forrest. I stopped, we talked, and that was him – he loved to get his hands dirty, he loved that work.”
On an impressive list of heralded Strantz work, Monterey Peninsula Country Club’s Shore Course stands out, and Fezler stayed in touch with club officials, even after his friend’s death in 2005, just to make sure the layout remains true to the designer’s vision.
On the home page of his company website – fezlergolfservices.com – Forrest Fezler offered a remembrance of Strantz. “A true artist he was. Like most architects, he walked the land to get a feel of the charm of the property. But Mike had a talent like no other.”
Maltbie and Knox would both agree with the assessment, only to add that their friend Forrest Fezler was similarly gifted. “I can tell you that the last time I saw him, they were moving a bed into his living room so Forrest could sit up and watch golf on TV,” said Knox. “Forrest just loved the game.”