April 23, 1990 12:00 PM

The guys on Walter Zembriski’s old job had names like Red and Buddy. They wore hard hats and protective gloves. They worked with iron and wood. Now Zembriski’s co-workers have names like Gary and Lee and Arnie. They wear visors and soft leather gloves. They work with irons and woods. Yet they ply their trade not in the cold and wind, but under the healing sun, on the green fairways of the senior pro golf tour.

Zembriski, 54, quit his high-steel construction job in New Jersey in 1972, but his dreams of success on the links didn’t start coming true until four years ago, when he began playing with the guys over 50. Since then he has won more than SI million and is living out every duffer’s fantasy. Walter Zembriski has become golf’s Walter Mitty.

“If somebody had told me while I was working construction that I’d make a million dollars playing golf,” says Zembriski, “I’d have said, ‘Get out of here before I hit you with this piece of iron.’ But I did it.” And he did it partly because of his old job. “I have no nerves,” says Zembriski. “Hit it right or left, no big deal. You miss a step right or left 50 stories up, and you ain’t coming back to work the next day.”

Growing up poor in Mahwah, N.J., the son of a foundry worker and his wife, Zembriski learned to play by sneaking onto a local course. “We used to ford a river to get in,” says his brother Stanley, a retired mechanic. “We’d leave our shoes and socks and play barefooted.” After a three-year Army hitch, Zembriski came home in 1957 and wed his high school sweetheart, Gloria Crevani. Her father owned a concrete company, and Zembriski went to work in construction.

Zembriski saw five co-workers die in falls. One friend was killed on a job in Jersey City two days before Christmas. “He walked out, tripped and fell 40 feet, right on a rod that went straight through him and came out the other side,” says Zembriski. In 1969 Zembriski lost the top of his right thumb in an accident. “As the doctor was sewing it back on,” he says, “I asked him, ‘Is this going to bother my golf?’ ”

Since it didn’t, Zembriski, who continued to play the game whenever he got a chance, decided three years later to take up golf full-time in Florida. That meant divorcing Gloria. “She wouldn’t travel,” he says. “I finally said, ‘That’s it.’ Sometimes I regret it.” His golfing obsession hardly endeared him either to Gloria or to their daughter, Lisa, who was just 9 years old when her father left home. “I’m bitter because golf took him away from me,” says Lisa, now 27 and a bookkeeper. “Like a seaman is to the sea, golf was to him. I hate it. I guess he resented it a little when he wasn’t invited to my wedding, but I really didn’t know the man. I see him when he’s up here, and I am proud of him.”

In 10 years on golf’s minitour, the ex-hard hat won 15 events and even qualified for the U.S. Open in 1978 and 1982. “He’d make $500 or $600 a week. Sometimes he’d make $1,500,” says his manager, John Heine. “By the early ’80s, though, he was down to one pair of red pants with a hole in them, and he lived in the back of his ’64 Buick.”

Turning 50 made all the difference. The day after his birthday, Zembriski played the 1985 U.S. Senior Open in Lake Tahoe. He finished fourth—ahead of Arnold Palmer—to win $9,000. He had to borrow money from Heine to pay his caddie but went on to win $47,000 that year and more than $100,000 in 1986 and 1987. In the last two years he has won three tournaments and amassed $640,392, plus $70,000 a year in sporting equipment endorsements. “God, I love this job,” he says. “The checks keep coming in, and I’m single. I’m better off than Donald Trump.”

Senior star Lee Trevino has an explanation for the turnaround. “I don’t think he was that good when he started,” says Trevino. “He learned how to play, that’s all. He realized he didn’t have to go up on those buildings anymore if he worked real hard, and by working real hard his game came around.”

—Michael Neill, Tom Cunneff in Indian Wells, Calif.

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