Florida town beats odds with three in tournament

Tuesday, April 08, 2008
By Scott Michaux
Staff Writer

MILTON, Fla. --- Under the dock outside Ed and Abbie Jean Weekley's home, the appropriately named Blackwater River flows serenely by on its way to East Bay.

Back Photo: 1 of 6 Next

Tom Weekley, Boo Weekley's dad, often fixes siding on his home damaged by golf balls from the Tanglewood course.

(Scott Michaux/Staff)

This stretch of brackish water that separates Boo Weekley's grandparents' property where he grew up from the towns of Bagdad and Milton contains bass and gators and hidden debris churned up by Hurricane Ivan.

The locals say there's something else in the river. Some strange elixir that turned 2007 and 2008 into banner years for some graduates of Milton High School.

"We've got a joke around here that it's the water," said J.J. Dunn, the pro at Milton's Tanglewood Golf and Country Club. "Either you turn out to be a good athlete or you end with some sort of sickness because there is a lot of debate around here about air and water quality."

The Milton pipeline has delivered three golfers from the same high school in the Florida panhandle to Augusta National Golf Club for their Masters debuts this week.

"For the small town we have, the number of guys from that high school who have succeeded is awesome," said Toggy Pace, another Milton grad and a close friend of Weekley's.

Slocum and Weekley were teammates at Milton, class of 1992. Watson came through five years behind them. Despite the common ground, they could not have more different personalities, and they qualified for the Masters in three different ways.

Locals say there's a strange elixir in the Blackwater River that has contributed to the success of the Milton High School graduates.

(Scott Michaux/Staff)

"If we all were the same, we'd be boring," Watson said. "If we had threes Boos or three Heaths or three Bubbas, they'd get tired of us quick."

But for all their differences, the road that brought them to Augusta has people in their hometown wondering what the odds are.

"I'd say winning the lottery would be easier than that," said Murry Rutledge, the athletics director at Milton High.

"It's beyond anybody's imagination that you could have -- out of how many number of golfers there are -- these three from the same high school playing out there," said Hiram Cook, the original pro at Tanglewood. "It's just hard to imagine. It's phenomenal."

"The thing that people bring up is that there will probably never ever in the history of golf be three professional golfers from one high school on the tour," said Cal Bodenstein, a Tanglewood member and charter fishing captain. "From one area is unreal, but from one high school? That's what impresses people."

Slocum thought the story couldn't get any bigger six years ago in New Orleans. He had earned his PGA Tour card in 2001 with a battlefield promotion from the Nationwide Tour while Weekley was a 2002 rookie fresh out of qualifying school. When the PGA Tour came to the closest stop to Milton, Watson played his way into his first tour event through Monday qualifying.

Milton High School also produced Lawrence Tynes, place-kicker for the New York Giants.

(Scott Michaux/Staff)

"I knew it was going to be a good story when all three of us were in New Orleans," said Slocum, who called the local newspaper to suggest the angle, only to get a lukewarm response. "All three of us getting in the Masters from the same high school, that's a bit different. There aren't a lot of colleges that can say that."

"It's nice to see that all three of us made it at the same time so our hometown is behind us," Watson said. "It's going to be fun for them to watch."

MILTON'S CITY SLOGAN is "where good living flows."

"I think the good Lord started there first and then went everywhere else," Weekley said. "He's given us everything. I mean seriously. We've got everything you could think of down there ... except snow, thank goodness."

What the city of 8,000 doesn't have is a single sign touting the exploits of its athletes. The majority of folks in Milton might not know to turn on the television to see three of their own play in golf's most popular tournament.

Nancy Bass, whose fried chicken, vegetables and homemade pies have been feeding the town at the Kwik Burger cafe for decades, knows all three boys personally but had no idea they are playing in the Masters. She's not alone.

Heath Slocum


Said Nancy Welch, a Tanglewood member: "Milton is a town where maybe only 10 percent of the people play golf. So for the other 90 percent not to know they're playing in the Masters does not surprise me."

The only sign of recognition is the literal "Hall of Fame" with memorabilia of Tanglewood's three stars that runs from the pro shop to the locker rooms -- around the corner from the dining room mural of Amen Corner that Weekley couldn't identify.

From the exterior, you'd never know the club has such a legacy.

"That's not something our boys needed from us, and that's not to say we shouldn't have done it on our own," said Welch. "But they've known each and every day that this town is proud of them."

The players agree and prefer to be treated as regular guys.

"We don't need the signs," Slocum said. "The small amount of the golf community, they're proud of us. They know what we're all about, and we know what they're all about."

Bubba Watson


What they know about is a community story that runs deep. There seems to be no end to the Milton minutiae in its golf pipeline.

All three of their sisters -- Courtney Slocum, Ali Weekley and Melinda Watson -- played together on the Milton girls golf team. Courtney and Boo once had a serious enough relationship that they wrote their names into a concrete paving stone outside of Weekley's grandparents' house.

Even two of their caddies have a link to the story. Joe Pyland, who caddies for Weekley, is a Milton grad who many credit for elevating Weekley's game when he picked up his bag three years ago.

Slocum's caddie, D.J. Nelson, has the distinction of being on the team that captured the winner-take-all four-man scramble in Atmore, Ala., by one stroke over the team of Weekley, Slocum, Watson and Rutledge -- the only known time all three pros played together.

BOO WEEKLEY WAS a novel attraction at last year's British Open. Making his first trip overseas to play links golf, he dazzled the Scottish galleries with both his golf skills and his naivete regarding the history of the game.

A reporter asked Weekley whether he planned to make the short trip from Carnoustie to St. Andrews to visit the celebrated home of golf.

Boo Weekley


"I didn't know it was the home of golf," Weekley said. "I thought the home of golf was where I was from -- Tanglewood."

Tanglewood was a ragged nine-hole course called Rolling Hills before Cook developed another nine holes and a neighborhood that encroaches tightly on most holes.

"We all said if you can play there, you can play anywhere," Watson said of the narrow and loosely manicured tract.

The fairways at Tanglewood are narrow, with patchy grass, trees, homes and out-of-bounds on both sides of many of them.

"If you'll stand on the tees, then you'll figure out why those boys stand on the tee box on these magnificent wide golf courses and the narrators think they're tight," Bodenstein said. "That's why they call Heath 'Laser.' They know not to hit it crooked. I think Bubba's gone wild now he realizes he can stand on the tee box and he has 14 acres. I mean, he swings at it."

The Weekleys, at the insistence of Boo's mother, Patsy, built their home on the right corner of the dogleg right sixth hole. It's 365 yards from the tips on the scorecard, but considerably shorter if you take it over the trees and the roof of the Weekleys' yellow colonial.

Tom Weekley, Boo's father, says it's the only house in the neighborhood with bulletproof glass. He's replaced the vinyl siding four and five times in different places and has given up mending the protective screen. The yard is littered with golf balls, and the side is peppered with cracks and indentations from the hacker assault.

"I've sent a few off the house," Weekley said. "It's like it got the chicken pox. The good ol' chicken pox house."

"I don't think I've ever hit it," Watson said. "Patsy gets mad when I say it, but, yes, I go over her house."

"I know I put a hole in his satellite dish," the normally accurate Slocum admitted.

These are tales the club regulars relish in the retelling. And the closeness the membership feels for their three prominent sons is genuine.

"They're good kids," Bodenstein said. "They'll run across the parking lot to holler at you when they see you now. They don't shun you like, 'I'm somebody now.' They have the ability to look back and say, 'These people helped me.' "

"It helps that Tanglewood is what we call a hometown course," Welch said. "I don't mean anything negative by this, but we're not a huge country club where it takes thousands and thousands of dollars to belong. Those have their place. Anyone can belong here."

MILTON'S GOLF renaissance might have been inspired from without. Nearby Pensacola's Joe Durant graduated from Q-school in 1992, the same year Slocum and Weekley graduated from Milton and about the time Watson started to become a dominant junior force.

"Durant was the first one who probably sparked all of us watching him make it," Watson said. "To watch him do it and then Heath made it, it was nice to see and know that we can make it. Making it is a whole different story."

They had other role models.

"Guys in my age group were trying the mini-tour, and they were at least getting into the golf business," said Dunn, who was a high school generation ahead of Slocum and Weekley. "I think that started turning kids on to the fact that gosh, maybe this is a sport with some future in it."

Their aspirations developed in sort of a domino effect: Heath sparked Boo, and they both encouraged Bubba.

"To be a pro golfer has been Bubba's ambition since he was 10 years old," Cook said. "There's no question it helped Bubba to have friends out there he knew and know they were successful."

Another common influence was Jack Slocum, Heath's father and the former Tanglewood pro who caddied for all three players in their initial trips through PGA Tour Qualifying School.

"He's been a good, positive influence," Slocum said. "He's helped make me the golfer I am."

"Jack is kind of like my golfing dad, in a way, you know?" Weekley said. "If I have any problems or need anything as golf goes, I know he can come to my rescue."

Watson is the only one who didn't get his card under Slocum's guidance.

"Bubba would have made it, too, if he had listened to Jack," Weekley said. "But Bubba does his own thing. That's what makes him Bubba. That's why we love him."

Now that they've all made it, the trick will be sustaining a career.

"I can see Heath out here playing until he's 65," Weekley said. "I can see Bubba playing until his back goes out or however long he wants to play. I want to be out here for so long, then I'm ready to go. This traveling, it ain't set up for me."

THOSE WHO KNOW THEM marvel at how three such unique men all found a common success on tour.

"We're all different," Weekley said. "Me and Heath got a lot of things in common. We fish and we hunt together. ... Bubba's younger and he grew up a little different than the rest of us. He plays video games, but he's out there playing golf with us, too."

Weekley and Slocum were best friends through high school, fishing, hunting and playing golf. Weekley was sitting in a tree stand hunting when he got the call to represent the U.S. in the World Cup team matches in China last fall. He got to pick his own partner.

"There ain't but one person that I'd even think about going with me, and that's my best friend," he said of Slocum.

Weekley and Watson were each voted the clowns of their respective classes. While their senior yearbook touts Weekley for the best laugh, Slocum got best smile. Watson had the sharpest sideburns.

"They are unique in their own ways," Rutledge said. "Heath is very quiet and professional in his manner and gets along with anybody. Boo is a personality everybody falls in love with. Fun-loving and cuts up. Bubba is one that you have to get to know. Bubba is very, very funny and witty. But it takes a little more to get to know his personality."

Their games are as diverse.

"We all admire each other's games because we all do it differently and we all get to it a different way and we all got to where we are now a different way," Watson said.

The smaller Slocum has to rely on his accuracy and course savvy to keep up with the power game golf has evolved into. Weekley sports a pure swing as laid-back as he is. Then there's Watson, a left-hander who eschews practice and embraces the long ball like nobody else on tour, averaging more than 311 yards per drive.

"We have a member who says if you could take Bubba's length, Boo's ball-striking and Heath's attitude, you'd have Tiger Woods," said Charles Daniels, the assistant pro at Tanglewood.

Clearly there is no one way to play golf in Milton.

"Heath, you knew he was going to be a golfer," Dunn said. "There is an aspect that Heath has that you can't teach, and that's just knowing the game. It's understanding his strengths and how he could make a living at golf.

"When Boo took to golf, he always had that ability to strike that ball purely. It was something ingrained in him through baseball and just God-given talent. That hand-eye coordination. But he didn't know how to play the game until much later.

"Bubba has just got God-given talent. There is no teaching it; there is no substitute for it. I guess it's almost freakish what he does to create the club-head speed that he does. Bubba knows nothing about the golf swing. Boo and Heath were always students of the golf swing. Bubba knows not one thing about why he does what he does. Doesn't care."

Slocum's studious ways carried him further faster. He was the three-time All-American in college and the second player to earn a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour with three wins in one season on what was then the Nike Tour. He won twice on the PGA Tour in 2004 and 2005, but neither of them got him an invitation to the Masters.

"It felt like Heath was going to make it a lot sooner than now," Watson said.

But Slocum was the last of the three to qualify. He didn't secure an invitation until grabbing the 30th and last spot in the season-ending Tour Championship.

Weekley, the last one anyone thought would become a tour pro, punched his ticket to Augusta National first. A week after Masters Chairman Billy Payne reinstated the automatic invitation to most PGA Tour winners, Weekley chipped in on each of the last two holes to edge Ernie Els by a stroke at Harbour Town Golf Links.

Watson made it by tying for fifth in last year's U.S. Open at Oakmont.

Jack Slocum has been lobbying to get all three Milton men paired together for the first two rounds of the Masters.

"Wouldn't that be something?" Bodenstein said. "Will it ever happen again? No. Not from one high school."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.