PGA TOUR Champions winner Rocky Thompson passes away at 81Three-time PGA TOUR Champions winner played in 306 PGA TOUR and 506 PGA TOUR Champions events
March 29, 2021
By Laury Livsey , PGATOUR.COM
- March 29, 2021
Rocky Thompson will be remembered for his charisma, drive to win and dance moves
The crowd in Syracuse, New York, was already cheering. The object of its affection was the PGA TOUR Champions player born as Hugh Thompson but known throughout his professional life as “Rocky.” Thompson had just defeated Jim Dent at the 1991 MONY Syracuse Senior Classic, and as he stood adjacent to the 18th green at Lafayette Country Club, Thompson took the microphone and began working the crowd.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to say this,” he began. “May 23, 1964, I started on the TOUR. I’ve been playing PGA TOUR events for 27 years. My goal when I started was to win a tournament. Just one week, I wanted to be the man. But up to this week, I was zero for 611, as best I can count.”
Thompson, who’d played a combined 611 events on the PGA TOUR and PGA TOUR Champions, was just getting started with his impassioned celebratory speech.
“But now if I never, ever win a PGA TOUR event, right now, this minute, today, this week—” Thompson paused, his short soliloquy becoming louder with each enunciated syllable. He then hit his crescendo when he thrust his hips a little for effect, threw his fist in the air and yelled—screamed even— “I am the man!”
It was Thompson’s first PGA TOUR-affiliated title, and he was going to relish every second he could after receiving his trophy. It wouldn’t, however, be Thompson’s final triumph. For all the futility Thompson experienced as “King Rabbit,” his auxiliary nickname in honor of his status as a PGA TOUR Monday qualifier—a rabbit, a player with no status chasing spots in qualifiers—winning didn’t become a regular thing for Thompson. But he did win again, becoming “the man” two more times, at the Digital Seniors Classic three months after his inaugural win (no dance or screaming that time), and then at the 1994 GTE Suncoast Classic.
Thompson, who died March 13 in Plano, Texas, due to causes incident to Alzheimer’s disease at age 81, played in 306 PGA TOUR events between 1964 and 1992 and saw action in 506 PGA TOUR Champions events after turning 50. From his teenage years on, golf was Thompson’s way of life.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on October 14, 1939, Thompson moved with his family to Wichita Falls, Texas, before he started elementary school. In Wichita Falls, Thompson’s father, Bill, founded the Thompson Oil Company.
When Hugh, who favored movie actor Allan Rocky Lane and assumed his name as his own, entered middle school and began taking golf lessons at Wichita Falls Country Club. Within two years, he was routinely shooting par, and by the time he was in high school, he told Sports Illustrated, “I had the world’s greatest short game and the world’s worst long game.” Hyperbole aside, Thompson’s game was good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Houston, where he played for the legendary Dave Williams and was teammates with such luminaries as Phil Rodgers, Richard Crawford and Kermit Zarley. The Cougars won the national championship three of the four years he was in college (1959, 1960 and 1962).Rocky Thompson at the 2003 Constellation Energy Classic on PGA TOUR Champions. (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)
Thompson turned pro after graduation and began playing the PGA TOUR in 1964, seeing action in six tournaments. In those days, the PGA TOUR only gave automatic exemptions to the top-60 on the money list. In 1983, it changed to the number to 125, becoming what it called “the all-exempt TOUR.” By then, Thompson was in his early 40s and no longer as competitive as he had been earlier in his career. His best PGA TOUR seasons came in 1969 and 1970, where he recorded a runner-up finish in each season. At the 1969 Western Open at Midlothian Golf Club outside Chicago, Thompson finished alone in second, four strokes short of Billy Casper. A year later, at the TOUR stop in Newport News, Virginia, the Kiwanis Peninsula Open, Thompson was runner-up again, this time to Jerry Barrier.
For most of his career, winning was an effort in futility. On the unofficial but TOUR-sponsored series of events in Latin America and the Caribbean in the late-60s and early 1970s, Thompson finished second to Wes Ellis in Marcaibo, Venezuela, at the 1968 Marcaibo Open, and he was again the bridesmaid in Bogota, Colombia, at the 1970 Los Lagartos International. That week he was four strokes shy of winner Bert Greene. Thompson’s top PGA TOUR money-list position came in 1968, when he finished 64th after pocketing $20,685.
In addition to Latin America and the Caribbean, “King Rabbit,” played in Asia and Australasia along with various mini tours in the United States. He once joked, “I’ve played in places where there isn't even a town.”
By the time he was about to turn 50, with no path to PGA TOUR Champions, he signed up for that Tour’s Qualifying Tournament, with eight exemptions available at the end of the four-round event. Thompson shot scores of 67-72-71-71 and won the tournament by 10 strokes. He then had to wait almost a full year before he could make his debut—at the 1989 Transamerica Senior Golf Classic in Napa, California. That week, he tied for 39th but gave an indication of what he might be able to do when six weeks later, in his second start, he tied for sixth at the GTE West Classic in Ojai, California.
Less than two years later, battling two-time defending champion Dent down the stretch in Syracuse, the duo was tied standing on the 18th tee after Dent eagled No. 17. Dent’s approach into the par-4 finishing hole went over the green, and he faced a tricky, downhill birdie putt. On the green in two, Thompson missed his birdie try but tapped in for par and won the tournament when Dent three-putted.
It was at this same point in his career that Thompson helped develop and market a 52-inch driver that later extended to 56 inches, a club he called the Killer Bee that helped him twice finish inside the top five in the Tour’s Driving Distance category. The USGA eventually created a rule limiting a club’s length to 48 inches, Thompson’s fellow pros dubbing it the “Rocky Rule.”
During his PGA TOUR Champions years, Thompson simultaneously served as the mayor of Toco, Texas, a city of less than 150 people in Lamar County, about two miles west of Paris. He was a political appointee in 1983 when his father, Bill, the town’s original mayor, died. Bill named the city after his oil company, shortening it to Toco after building 38 homes in the area and incorporating the city. As a member of the city council, Bill’s son, the professional golfer, became the interim mayor. Once the city removed the interim label, Thompson kept getting re-elected.
“I got all the votes of anyone who voted,” he once said, laughing. “It’s kind of neat being mayor, and it’s a headache sometimes. Like when the sewer and the water lines break at the same time.” He encountered those issues in 1986 during a Texas cold snap. “I’d rather play golf, but mayoring is OK to. I love to go [to Toco], and I look forward to playing golf,” he added.
For a time, Thompson supplied every Toco family with a turkey at Thanksgiving, and when he played in a tournament in Hawaii, he took back boxes of macadamia nut chocolates as gifts for each Toco family.
Thompson played his last official PGA TOUR Champions tournament in 2008, at the Regions Charity Classic. He made just shy of $5 million in career prize money ($4,946,972). His best season was 1991, when he finished 12th on the money list.
Thompson is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, and two daughters, Roxanne and Delana. Services previously took place in Plano.