By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY —
Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
Come hell or high water, Frank Urban Zoeller Jr. will always be from New Albany. That’s what the professional golfer called Fuzzy due to his initials told crowds gathered at a hometown celebration honoring his 1979 Masters win at the Augusta National Golf Club.
Five years later, the golf icon took center stage again in New Albany after he cinched the 1984 U.S. Open title, his second majors victory. A parade through town began the festivities. Proclamations were read. Gifts were bestowed. Autographs were signed. And, according to the June 28, 1984 edition of the Louisville Times, a beer may have even been bought. But Southern Indiana had grown to expect no less from one of its favorite native sons.
“In the playoff, I was clicking my heels along about the fourth hole,” Zoeller said to the well-wishers. “Like Dorothy, I wished I could go home.”
Home could have been anywhere for Zoeller. But unlike others who left the area following their success, the man famous for both his witty banter and long drives chose to stay in the hills of Southern Indiana, his sanctuary for 62 years.
Born to golf loving parents Frank and Alma Zoeller on Nov. 11, 1951, the young prankster began hitting the links at the age of 3. Living beside Valley View Golf Course couldn’t have hurt his development either. By 5, he had competed in his first competitive tournament, the Junior Falls Cities.
“I remember that I used to sleep in the car, and my mother would wake me up when it was time to play,” Zoeller said in the May 27, 1978 Courier-Journal.
Two years later, the budding golf pro received his first junior set of clubs. Cut-down ones had been used previously. Running his parents ragged with all his activities, Zoeller was forced to choose between Little League and golf around this time. He decided upon golf.
During his time at New Albany High School, Zoeller lettered in the sport and led the team to undefeated seasons both his junior and senior years. In that last year, the golf team placed fifth at state. While golf remained his passion, basketball also beckoned to the natural athlete. All through high school he participated on the school team. But a back injury caused by another player spearheading into him during a game against Providence would linger on for decades.
Following high school, Zoeller swung clubs for Edison Junior College in Fort Myers, Fla., after which he moved to the University of Houston to play for Dave Williams. For one of the few times in his life, the lighthearted Zoeller found that he just couldn’t get along with his more serious coach.
“He didn’t like it when I told an opponent ‘Good shot,’” Zoeller said to journalist Barry McDermott in the Aug. 6, 1984 Sports Illustrated article. “He said, ‘We don’t do things that way. It relaxes the other players too much.’”
Called down-to-earth and friendly by his friends, Zoeller decided to leave Houston and try his hand on the pro circuit. In 1973, he turned pro. The following year he attended the PGA Qualifying School.
Two years later, Zoeller married Diane Thornton, his friend since first grade at Holy Family. A near constant companion by his side, Diane would not be present for one of the biggest professional moments of Zoeller’s life. Nine months pregnant with their first daughter, she stayed at their Indiana home and watched her husband clinch the 1979 Masters. Defeating Ed Sneed and Tom Watson in a sudden death playoff, Zoeller would be the first golfer since 1935 to win the Masters in his initial time playing at the competition.
“Fuzzy will be the same Fuzzy, no matter what happens,” Diane said to the Louisville Times after the win. “He’s always loose, he always enjoys it. There are few down times for him.”
Zoeller’s record continued to grow on the tour, as did the good natured stories. The father of four would often bring a young spectator out to the green to putt. His quips to the audience became things of legend. He never thrived on winning, Zoeller said to the Chicago Tribune in 1979, but rather on fun and friends.
“The galleries love him, because he loves them,” said writer Bob Verdi in the same article. “And he is immensely popular with fellow golfers because they respect his ability not only to play the game, but to keep it a game. He’s both a clown prince and prince.”
In 1984, the prince would be kinged again at the U.S. Open. For a moment, it looked like the victory was in jeopardy when Greg Norman sank a long putt and tied Zoeller for the tournament lead. Like a jester, Zoeller waved a white flag of surrender across the greens at Norman. The next day, beaten, Norman would return the favor. In 1985, to reward his good sportsmanship, the United States Golf Association honored him with the Bob Jones Award.
In all, Zoeller would amass 10 PGA tour wins including two majors and take home $5,819,293 in prize money. Following the PGA Tour, the New Albany native would earn two Champion tour wins, although that number could still go up.
Besides his favorite hobbies of hunting and fishing, Zoeller has designed several golf courses in his free time including two locally. Charity events still play a role in his life. For 16 years, Zoeller hosted the Wolf Challenge at his Covered Bridge Golf Club that raised more than $2 million for Kentuckiana kids.
Through it all, despite all the limelight and travel, Zoeller remains a local boy.
“This is as fine a hometown as a person could have,” Zoeller said to the crowds following his U.S. Open win. “This makes the U.S. Open title all that much sweeter.”