Tuesday, April 3

A Magnificent Seven, Part 4: Leonard Thompson at the 1971 Q-School and His Life in Golf

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Leonard Thompson at the 2002 Ford Senior Players Championship.

This is the third in a series on players from the 1971 Q-School. Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3. Nearly a half century later John Coyne tracked down Allen Miller, Lanny Wadkins, Leonard Thompson, Sam Adams, John Mahaffey, Steve Melnyk and Spike Kelley. How had pro golf and life turned out for these seven men?

By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. Used with permission.

ANOTHER WAKE FOREST ALUMNUS AND MEMBER of the golf team to qualify at the 1971 Q-School was Leonard Thompson, who graduated in 1969, turned pro in '71, and played professional golf for 26 years on the PGA, National and Senior Tours.

Thompson had never seen PGA National Golf Club, Palm Beach Gardens, until he came to the final tournament of the qualifying school.

"I did, however, know most of the guys at the Q-School," Thompson said. "We had all been playing against each other from junior golf and into college. I knew how hard it would be to qualify when I got to National. But what I was happy about was that the tournament was six rounds, not just four. The longer we played, the better it would be for seasoned players.

"And when the wind started blowing, if you're a better player, you're going to be happy about that because it makes the course much more difficult."

What Leonard remembered most about the Q-School tournament was the final round. The players had learned after the fourth round that Joe Dey, Jr., the Commissioner of the PGA Tournament Players Division, had decided that only the low 23 and ties would qualify out of the 75 players in the tournament. Based on his early rounds, Leonard was safely inside that number. In fact, on the fifth day, he shot his low score for the tournament, a 71.

Then on the final day he was paired with his good friend, Bruce Fleisher.

"We were both in the middle of the fairway on eighteen," Thompson recalled. "I knew I would qualify if I could make better than 7. I looked over at Bruce, and I said, 'You're going to have to wait until I hit this ball.' I was so nervous. Bruce could see how nervous I was and nodded okay. I knew that if I could get the ball over the lake I could qualify. I had to hit the ball right away and I did. My ball landed on the edge of the green and I made par and made the cut by three shots."

After Q-School Leonard's first professional tournament was the Azalea Open at Cape Fear Country Club in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was the tournament he had gone to as a child growing up in Laurinburg, North Carolina. He shot an opening round 66 and made $700. The next week he traveled to Hilton Head and qualified with a 72, never having seen the course. He made the cut and because he did he got to play the following week at the first Disney World International.

At that time players had to make at least $5,000 to keep their cards. Leonard had made $700 at Wilmington, $1000 at Hilton Head, and by finishing seventh at Disney another $4500. It was enough to qualify for two years on the PGA Tour.

The following week, traveling to Bahamas, he made the cut and that got him into the first tournament of 1972, the LA Open.

"And that's when I got a dose of reality," Leonard admitted.

"I missed the cut at LA, the Crosby and Tucson. For a month I was all over the place and I realized that this pro tour wasn't going to be a walk in the park."

Nevertheless, he would play on the tour until 1997, a total of 26 years. He would also play on the Senior Tour until he was 63. In fact, he played for 42 years as a professional. And in doing so, he would earn eight million dollars.

Over those years, he won three times on the PGA Tour and three times on the Senior Tour. And he won the Buick Open in 1989 when he was 42-years-old by birdieing three holes in a row on the back side and beating out Hal Sutton and Payne Stewart.

Thompson was one of the young players out of the Q-School who had sponsors in order to be able to play the tour. The four sponsors owned Possum Trot where he had worked.

After he won Jackie Gleason's Inverrary Classic, they all flew down to Lauderhill and when he finished talking to the press, they met him outside the tent and handed him an envelope, telling him to open it.

"Inside," said Leonard, "was my contract torn into pieces. They told me that they had only given me money to help me get started on the tour. First prize at the Inverrary was worth $52,000. It was like winning a quarter of a million dollar to me at the time."

Leonard, like many of the young guns in the early 1970s, also received help from others besides sponsors.

"Arnie used to tell me, 'Leonard, you need to smile more.' And I'd say to him, 'Some people don't smile.' I never was mad at anybody but I really had to think about what I was doing.

"And Dave Marr and Chris Schenkel, two great guys up in the broadcast booth, were constantly on me to wear my visor higher so they could see my face on television. I told them, if I did, I won’t be able to see."

Today Leonard does not see much difference between the generations of players. Yes, the equipment is better and the training is better. But as Leonard said, "Jack would have been Jack in whatever age he played in. Lanny would have been Lanny then and now. Watson would have been Watson."

And Leonard Thompson would have been the same Leonard Thompson that everyone liked on the PGA Tour.

John Coyne is a bestselling author whose most recent golf novel is The Caddie Who Won the Masters. Learn more at John Coyne Books.

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