Bill Rogers has climbed to the highest levels of professional golf. In 1981, the Texas High graduate and Texarkana legend, reached the summit.
“It was a pretty magical year,” Rogers said Wednesday from his home in San Antonio. “It’s been 40 years ago, but people still talk to me about it even now.”
Rogers, now 71, won an amazing seven tournaments in 1981, including one of golf four majors, the British Open.
In order, Rogers won the Sea Pines Heritage Classic on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; in March, the British Open at Sandwich on the coast of Kent, England; in July, the World Series of Golf at Akron, Ohio; in August, the Suntory Open near Tokyo, Japan; in September, the Texas Open at San Antonio; in October, and the New South Wales Open at Sydney, Australia, and the Australian Open at Melbourne in November.
Rogers was the PGA Player of the Year for 1981, and finished second on McCormack’s world golf rankings; he also was on the United States’ winning Ryder Cup team in 1981.
It was only the second time that a pro had collected more than half a million dollars in earnings, globally, in a calendar year. Tom Watson had done it a year earlier. The $500,000 sum is probably worth about $2 million in today’s money.
Rogers’ victories were achieved on the landscapes of North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Only Severiano Ballesteros and Gary Player had ever won on four different continents in the course of a single season.
That was just one side of Rogers’ dream-like season.
Things started moving in late 1980 when International Management Group (IMG), which represented Rogers, wanted him to fly to the Phillipines to face Japan’s Isao Aoki in a made-for-TV match.
“I came very close to canceling that made-for-TV match, but I knew it paid good money, so I went and won. That gave my confidence a boost of energy,” Rogers said.
Rogers came home and started out by winning the Bob Hope Desert Classic during the West Coast Swing in Palm Springs, Calif.
“Then something happened and I missed five straight cuts,” Rogers said. “Honestly, my putting was terrible and I started to worry and let panic set in. I was losing my confidence.”
Rogers, a slim 6-foot, 150-pounder, said he got some much-needed advice from his coach, Northridge Country Club longtime pro Jerry Robison, whom Rogers calls “Mr. Robison” out of respect.
Robison helped mold Rogers into a champion like longtime Texarkana Country Club pro Don Murphy did for the late Miller Barber, another golf legend who grew up in Texarkana.
“Mr. Robison helped me with some mechanical issues and he certainly helped reduced my panic level,” Rogers said. “I could write a book about him. He treated me like I was the son he never had, and he helped me a lot during my junior years and he didn’t seem to like juniors very much.
“He stayed with me and my confidence grew every year.”
Rogers’ swing, which features a late release, came to him naturally, but he gives all the credit to Robison for refining it. When things don’t feel right to him, he always went back to his roots and Robison.
“Aw, I haven’t done much for him,” Robison said. “He was always gonna be special. I did put his left hand on there when he was a kid and told him not to move it.”
Robison said he is the only man who knows there’s a weakness in Rogers’ golf game.
“Chipping,” Robison said. “Hell, he hits so many greens, he don’t get a chance to practice it,” he told a reporter.
Rogers was the hot PGA Tour golfer in ’81, beating Hale Irwin, Craig Stadler, Bruce Devlin and Gil Morgan by a shot to win the Heritage at Hilton Head. He then finishing tied for second behind David Graham in the U.S. Open at Merion Course in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. It was the best Rogers had ever done in a major.
So his first major was not that much of a surprise, certainly not on the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent. The Brits knew him because of his victory in 1979 at the Suntory World Match Play at Wentworth, where Rogers was 5-under eliminating Sandy Lyle, 5-under beating Irwin, 10-under taking out Fuzzy Zoeller and 8-under against Aoki in the final.
“I started at the very bottom, was a pure green rookie that went to the mountaintop,” Rogers said of his Open championship in the world’s oldest golf tournament. “It was rarified air, but a heavy price to pay if I was going to stay there. I kind of thought I didn’t’ want to do it long haul.”
After winning the PGA Player of the Year honors, Rogers said his ego began to grow, too.
“I thought a lot of myself — I believed the golf world is mine,” Rogers said. “I started feeling like I owned the place.”
The instant worldwide fame made the 29-year-old an overnight celebrity.
“Suddenly, I had a bunch of friends and everybody wanted a piece of me and my time,” Rogers said. “Everybody wanted to talk to me and to do something for them. It was hectic to say the least.”
The British Open wasn’t that big an event for Rogers’ wife, Beth, who wasn’t even at Royal St. George’s to watch her husband’s heroics.
“I didn’t know the British Open was a big deal,” Beth said years ago. “I do now.”
His closing stretch of 1981 was impressive. Rogers won five of the last seven stroke-play tournaments he entered, and he was second and fourth in the other two, which were in Japan and New Zealand. And between the two events he won in Australia, Rogers got on a plane and flew home to Texarkana for several days. That’s 25 hours one way.
The coveted Claret jug goes to British Open winner. The replica jug that Rogers owns is 41 years old and sits beside his PGA Player of the Year Award, the result four PGA victories in 1981 that included the World Series of Golf.
Appearance fees were becoming popular back then. Rogers said he would fly to Japan, Australia, Europe — anywhere a sponsor was willing to pay for a British Open champion.
“That was how to make money then, you had to travel,” Rogers said. “I didn’t disappoint them. I liked that money. I was in pursuit of the almighty dollar and IMG could open the doors. I had the decision and I said, ‘Let’s go.”https://news.google.com/__i/rss/rd/articles/”
In 1982, Rogers won the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, and led the U.S. Open during the final day before falling short. After one further PGA Tour win in 1983, Rogers’ tour career faded to the point where he experienced burnout. He told a reporter “It got to a point in the mid-1980s that the golf course was the last place I’d rather be.”
Just seven years after his record-breaking performance in 1981, Rogers walked away from the world of professional golf, leaving it all behind.
“I don’t know if you call it burnout or whatever, but I knew I had to get away from it,” Rogers said. “Golf had been a very important part of my life — I’m so blessed to have the career that I had — but it was time to make some important changes in my life.”
Family was the biggest reason for changing course, he said. “My wife, Beth, and I had two children, a daughter, Blair, and son, Ben, and we wanted to give them our time and support to become responsible adults.”
In 1985 Bill moved to San Antonio and by the end of the 1990 Tour year, he became head pro at San Antonio Country Club. After a stint in the ownership at Briggs Ranch Golf Club, Bill occasionally played on the Champions Tour and has coached the University of Texas at San Antonio golf team.
Rogers was a board member of Golf San Antonio and the director of golf at San Antonio Country Club from 1990-2000. He also brought the American Junior Golf Association to San Antonio. Rogers was inducted into Houston Cougars Hall of Fame in 1987 and San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
“I’ve tried everything there is to try in golf post playing professionally,” Rogers said. “I’m grateful to be here. It’s a sweet spot for me. Like I tell Curtis Strange, I teach them to hate bogey, not what it should look like at the top of the backswing.”
Even though the British Open championship is right up there, Rogers has two other accomplishments in golf, he said.
“The first happened in 1974 when he made it through the rugged PGA Tour’s qualifying school.
“The qualifying school was torture,” Rogers said. “I didn’t sleep the two whole weeks we played. I mean, if I don’t make the school, my life is over. All I know how to do is play golf. Tell you what, I can’t honestly look back and say that winning a tournament — even the British Open — made me any happier than getting through the school. That’s pressure, son. If you don’t make the school, you’re talkin’ about a grocery clerk.”
The other event happened in 1999 in the Ryder Cup competition. The United States trailed Europe, 10-6, going into the final day of singles matches. The U.S. rallied to win 14.5 to 13.5, the largest comeback in Ryder Cup history up to that point.
Rogers and his best friend, fellow golfer Bruce Lietzke, were assistant captains to Ben Crenshaw on the Ryder Cup team. Rogers and Lietzke were roommates when they played for the University of Houston golf team.
“My greatest day on a golf course was one when I didn’t even play,” Lietzke said. “It was the Sunday of the Ryder Cup (1999) when we came back to win. That was something I will always cherish — being there with Ben and my best friend, Bill Rogers.”
Lietzke died of a brain tumor on July 28, 2018 on his 625-acre ranch in Athens, Texas, which is about 35 miles southwest of Tyler, Texas.
Rogers still gets calls from sports writers around the globe whenever the British Open returns to Sandwich. And telling the story never gets old.
“As I get older, the better I was,” Rogers said with a laugh. “I guess that goes with getting older.”
Golfer Bill Rogers, defending champion from Texarkana, Tex., blasts the ball out of a sand trap on the 8th hole during the first round of the Suntory Open Golf tournament at Narashino, near Tokyo, Sept. 9, 1982. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Caddie Chris Frame laughs as golfer Bill Rogers of the U.S. throws his ball into the crowd after winning the Open Golf Tournament in Sandwich, England, July 18, 1981. (AP Photo)
Golfer Bill Rogers holds up five fingers to indicate his lead of five over the rest of the field in the Open Golf Championship in Sandwich, England, July 18, 1981. (AP Photo/Bob Dear)
Golfer Bill Rogers is all smiles after finishing the day all alone in the lead in the Bob Hope Desert Classic golf tournament at the Bermuda Dunes Country Club in Palm Springs, Calif., Feb. 9, 1978. (AP Photo)