When Larry Laoretti decided to leave his job as a head pro at a country club in Long Island, N.Y., to try qualifying for the Senior PGA Tour in fall 1989, he heard the doubts of his peers following him.
Some of them didn't even whisper.
"A lot of them were saying, `What, are you nuts?' " Laoretti recalled recently. "They were saying, `You can't even beat anyone around here and you think you're going to beat a bunch of guys who played the regular tour?' "
Laoretti's dream - or even fantasy - turned into one of golf's most heartwarming stories three years later, when he won the 1992 Senior Open at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa.
The mention of his name evoked a different reaction among his former colleagues.
"After I won, every club pro in the country wanted to turn pro," Laoretti said. "They were saying, `If Laoretti can do that, so can I.' I think it's very difficult now for the club pro to do that, because they have to make $600,000 just to keep their card."
Laoretti wasn't the first virtual unknown to win one of golf's senior majors - nor the last.
His four-shot victory over Jim Colbert was preceded by former Long Island rival Jim Albus' winning the 1991 Senior Players Championship and followed by Tom Wargo's winning the 1993 Senior PGA Championship.
"I think what Jimmy and Larry did inspired a lot of guys," said Wargo, who taught himself how to play golf at age 25.
Because it came in the Senior Open and because of Laoretti's personality, his victory was the one that received the most attention. Laoretti hopes to relive some of those memories when he plays in this year's Senior Open.
"It doesn't seem like 10 years ago," said Laoretti, now 62.
Back then, he was one of golf's free spirits, smoking the foot-long Cuban cigars he endorsed, traveling the country with his wife and then-2-year-old son in their recreational vehicle, making the kind of money he never dreamed was possible.
"When I came out on tour, I had $110 in the bank," Laoretti said. "The first tournament I played in, I made something like $1,700 to $2,000. The next week, I shot 67 the last round and made $15,000. The first year, I made $165,000."
Laoretti wound up making more than $2.6 million during his senior tour career. His victory in the Open turned out to be the only win of a career that ended in 1999. He said the key to his Open victory was ability to keep the ball in the fairway.
"I only had one bogey the last 36 holes," he recalled. "I missed only one fairway the whole week, and that was the last hole. I putted it in from the fringe from about 35 feet."
This is how good Laoretti's luck was in those days: After he finished 32nd on the money list in 1990 - one spot out of gaining full exempt status for the 1991 season - the player who came in 31st was disqualified for not having played in the minimum number of events.
"It was Jack Nicklaus," Laoretti said, "and he could play whenever he wanted."
So could Laoretti after winning the Open, which gave him a 10-year exemption for all senior events and a lifetime exemption in the Open. Laoretti cashed in on his sudden celebrity with endorsement contracts, though the company that makes his favored Teamos had started paying him when he first joined the tour.
"I still have it, and it's a pretty nice contract," Laoretti said. "They have to supply me with 4,000 cigars a year, and they pay me to smoke them."
Laoretti, who had finished 15th on the senior tour money list in 1991, eventually began to wear down. A hand injury in 1996 forced him off the tour for the better part of two seasons. His marriage eventually ended, too, with the divorce coming through earlier this year.
"I'm basically done [playing] now," said Laoretti, who lives in Palm City, Fla. "But I'm enjoying my life."
Laoretti said he is looking forward to seeing Wargo and other old friends from the senior tour. He has pushed himself to get in shape, losing 20 pounds by running and working out. He has started a new relationship and will come to Baltimore with two of his three children.
Wargo, who often traveled with Laoretti in his own RV, said he misses having his old buddy around.
"A lot of these guys take it too serious," Wargo said. "I remember when he won. I called to congratulate him, and he was hootin' and hollerin' with everybody in the camp site where they were staying. He wanted everyone to enjoy it with him."