A few years ago some members of the Riverview Golf and Country Club in Redding, Calif. were far from happy that a man named Rod Curl had joined and was playing the course. He was, they grumbled, a construction worker; even worse in that part of northern California, Curl was an Indian.
He was indeed—three-fourths Wintu. But last month when that once-unwelcome Indian returned to Riverview it was for Rod Curl Day, honoring him as one of the game’s solid professionals, and the first of his race to make it in pro golf. Thus far Curl has won $111,000 on this year’s circuit, and after speeches praising the local boy made good, he was presented with plaques, scrolls and, most appropriate, an engraved money clip.
Although Curl, at 31, is in his sixth year on the pro tour, he did not hit it big until last year, when he piled up $55,068 in earnings. His more than doubled income this season is due largely to the first tournament victory of his pro career, a $50,000 win at the Fort Worth Colonial National in May.
Among pro golf fans, sports reporters and even his fellow pros, Curl has had to endure more than a few racial inanities. Because he is only 5’5″, he was quickly named “Little Beaver,” after the sidekick of Western comic strip character Red Ryder. One sportswriter wrote embarrassingly, “Big Chief Little Name shoot many birdies. Kill white man’s golf course.”
Curl has taken this with good humor although without inviting pidgin Indian exchanges in the way that Mexican-American Lee Trevino has cultivated his super-Mex image. “I never say, ‘I’ll do a rain dance,’ ” Curl says. “I’m an Indian boy who grew up in the white man’s ways.”
Curl’s early sports were football and baseball. He was, in fact, a promising pitcher, but at 19 he got into a fight with a fellow high school student and broke a finger. When it healed he found he could not grip a bat or ball properly, and he turned to golf.
Once started, he played with fiendish determination. “After work, it would be raining or he’d be tired, but no matter what, he always stopped off at the golf course,” his mother, Lala, recalls. “Once he dug a trench in our backyard and built a sandtrap.”
Such conditioning has given Curl a long-driving, fine-putting game. “A good big man will always beat a good small man in this game,” he concedes. “But I want to win. I love the pressure. You take all your learning and you put it into making that one shot.”
When things are not going well, in fact, Curl’s antidote is to increase the pressure on himself. One favorite technique is to take a scoring pencil from his pocket, carve a dimple into its end and jam it into the ground as a makeshift tee. It’s far less reliable for holding up the ball for long drives than the conventional flared tee, and that is the point. “When I’m mad or nervous,” he says, “somehow it calms me down.”