Dent’s life great idea for a film
Georgia Golf Hall of Fame Member
Jim Dent was born in Augusta, Ga., on May 9, 1939. He began his golf career as a caddie, participating in his first Masters when he was just 15. In 1970, he played in the Tucson Open, where his outstanding play earned him his PGA TOUR card. His best PGA TOUR finish was a tie for second in the Walt Disney World Open. He joined the PGA Champions Tour in 1989 and won a total of 12 tournaments. His 14 top-10 finishes during the 1992 season set a new Champions Tour record for most money won in a single season without a victory. Dent also set a Champions Tour record of finishing in the exempt top 31 money-winners for 12 consecutive years. Dent won three consecutive Florida PGA Championships and was a member of the 1990 and ‘91 United States DuPont Cup teams.
If you follow football to any extent at all, you’ve probably read some of Harry James “Jim” Dent’s work.
For years, he was a sportswriter; he covered the Dallas Cowboys for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and later the Dallas Times Herald in the ’80s and early ’90s. Then he turned his attention to writing books.
He wrote a book about Johnny Manziel in which he revealed that Stephen Jones, son of Cowboys owner Jerry, nearly had to physically restrain his father to keep him from drafting Johnny Football back in 2014.
He wrote “The Junction Boys,” a New York Times bestselling book about Bear Bryant’s early days coaching at Texas A&M, “The Kids Got It Right: How the Texas All-Stars Kicked Down Racial Walls” about the Texas-Pennsylvania high school football rivalry of the 1960s, “King of the Cowboys: The Life and Times of Jerry Jones” and “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football.”
The film based on his Mighty Mites book is opening in theaters across the country today. But Jim Dent wasn’t available for the premiere.
Instead, he’s in prison. Not because he’s a criminal, but because he is, as they say in Texas, “bad to drink.”
I don’t really know Jim Dent — I believe I met him back in the days when I used to spend time in Dallas, but I feel like I do. I know a lot of people who do know him and call him a friend. I know his reputation as a smart, funny man who can be really good company. And I know his books are, without exception, better than the movies that get made from them.
The word is, Dent might be paroled from prison as early as July. His original parole date was set for Jan. 15, 2020, but that was denied. He almost died after contracting covid-19 in prison last summer. He has been moved to a prison pre-release facility, which is an anticipatory step in the process. But the movie opens today.
Dent has been arrested for DWI 10 times since 1983. This is his third stint in prison.
One of the problems Dent seems to have is a reluctance to face consequences. In 1999, he was arrested in Brazos County, Texas for felony drunken driving, and, in 2002, he was sentenced to 10 years probation for the offense, with the stipulation that he spend 40 days of the probation sentence in jail.
The day after his release, he was pulled over in Oklahoma City for suspected drunken driving. He skipped out on his court appearance. He was arrested in Arkansas a few months later, when Texas authorities issued a warrant for his arrest for violating his parole. He was held in an Arkansas jail under $1 million bond, but when a judge reduced that bond to $5,000, he made it and skipped out again.
He was arrested again in Las Vegas. He accepted an eight-year sentence in a plea bargain.
He was out by 2013 — and he was arrested a few more times. He failed to appear in court, fleeing to Mexico. They caught him when he tried to re-enter the country at the Tijuana/San Diego border. He allegedly tried to bribe a border guard, according to the authorities.
So you can understand the 10-year-sentence. That’s an option for third offense DWI under Texas law. Dent actually got a good deal — his plea arrangement with prosecutors allowed him to serve a 10-year sentence for bail jumping concurrently with his 10-year DWI sentence.
But I wonder about a system that locks up people who have health problems. Jim Dent is 68, and I suppose it is possible that he has actually beaten back his demons now and that he might never take another drink in his life but I don’t think prison did anything to rehabilitate him. I think he’s lucky that he never hurt anyone else.
I don’t know what good it did anyone to put Jim Dent in prison. You can say it kept him off the streets and out from behind the wheel, that we all were a little safer because they warehoused him for a while, but I can imagine other ways we could have kept Dent from driving. I imagine other ways we might have protected the public from a sportswriter who was bad to drink.
“12 Mighty Orphans” is not a great movie, it’s not as good as its source material, but it’s not an offense against art either. It’s not the movie’s fault — a book is a broader canvas that allows for more nuance. You have longer with the characters, who needn’t be one thing or the other. You can have more nuance in a book.
But what might make a better movie is the story of Jim Dent’s life, all the improbable turns and wild nights it encompasses. Whether it’s the story of an underdog’s redemption or a tragedy has yet to be written.
And Jim Dent is the only one to write it.
Dent Overcame the Odds En Route to Professional Golf February 26, 2019
In the 1950s, Jim Dent was a rangy black kid knocking golf balls around The Hill, a course in a poor Augusta, Ga., neighborhood with crude holes carved out by hand. One kid had a discarded 5-iron, another had a putter, another a wedge. Dent and his friends would hit a battered ball, then yell, “Gimme the 5-iron,” and hit it again.
For them, golf was just a pastime with seemingly no future. Golf had long struggled with issues of diversity and with The PGA of America’s Caucasian-only clause still in effect, the most that black golfers could hope for was an opportunity to caddie.
Dent knew all about caddieing. He had carried bags at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. He had raked bunkers and tended flagsticks at lush Augusta Country Club, which was just over the fence from The Hill. That fence represented the seemingly insurmountable barrier Dent faced, a wall around the professional tour. But the tour was Dent’s dream, and that made all the difference.
The road from Augusta’s caddie yards to golf riches was littered with hazards. Dent was not alone on that road. Many early players, of all races, emerged from the caddie ranks. With hard work, talent and that dream, Dent traveled the hard road and gained the respect of the world of golf.
Today, Dent seems content as he sprawls in a chair at Tampa’s Rogers Park Golf Course (another layout carved out by black golfers in the 1950s). In his fine wool slacks, his soft leather loafers polished to a high sheen, Dent looks sleek. And even though Golf Channel may send a chauffeured car to bring him to its Orlando studios, the ex-caddie has never forgotten who he is.
When Dent was a child, his father, Tom, drove a pulpwood truck. With Dent’s mother, Carrie, Tom owned wooded farmland not far from Augusta Country Club. The fourth of six children, as a little boy Dent’s job on the farm was to make the fire in the morning.
“I was big enough to do that,” Dent said. “I was still real young when my parents died, but there was my aunt. Her name was Mary Benton, a great lady in my life.”
Dent’s mother died when Jim was six. His father died when Jim was 12. Benton, a housekeeper at one of Augusta’s big houses, raised Jim and three of his siblings with a firm hand. When young Jim said he wanted to caddie to earn money, Aunt Mary said no. “If you learn how to caddie, you’re going to learn how to gamble,” she said.
“Kids think they’re the smartest people in the world,” Dent said. “Second thing I learned how to do when I learned how to caddie was shoot dice and play cards. She was dead right.”
Benton finally allowed Jim to caddie and eventually play golf, perhaps swayed by the presence of a minister, Jimmy Raines. Raines was also a good golfer and he conducted Bible studies in a field that Dent and his friends had turned into a few golf holes. On Saturdays, the boys played three holes before Bible study.
“That’s what really got us into golf and got some of us straight too,” Dent said. “He saved a few of us.”
Dent first caddied at Augusta Country Club, where the worst golfers paid $4 or $5 a round and the best players paid just $2. He sought out the better players, despite more meager paydays.
“I wanted the best golfers because I’d learn a lot from them,” he said. “My aim was to watch them play but I didn’t know what a golf swing was all about.”
Dent later caddied at Augusta National Golf Club during the Masters and studied the best players – Hogan, Nelson, Snead, Demaret and Burke – then applied what he learned to his own swing. He was 17 when he bought his first set of clubs from Henry Avery, a kind shop hand at Augusta Country Club, for a hard-earned $30. “That was a lot of caddieing,” Dent said.
One of Dent’s most memorable loops was with Masters champion Bob Goalby. Goalby would become a friend but at first the relationship was contentious. Goalby, Dent said, was temperamental.
“One day he said to me, ‘You go in.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m going.’ He said, ‘Pick up the bag. That’s what’s wrong with you guys, you’re too temperamental!’ He could change that fast and say things like that. I learned that golf can make you do some crazy things.”
Frank Stranahan, who wouldn’t let Dent touch the club grips, was another client, as was Marty Fergol, another free spirit. “He told me you can’t win with a ball over No. 7. And he said, ‘Don’t smoke, son, because smoke gets in your eyes and you can’t see,’” Dent remembered.
There were serious challenges. As a child, he lost his parents. As a teenager, he carried golf bags to earn a little money. Now the color of his skin kept him from many of Augusta’s golf courses. It was just the way things were.
Dent is philosophical about that discrimination.
“If they tell you, ‘That’s water over there. You can’t go in that water. Gators are in there. Don’t go in there,’ you’d be a fool to go in there,” he said. “But you don’t let things like that bother you if you want to do something. Schools were segregated and you didn’t let that bother you. You’d go crazy! That’s the reason you see so many young boys today, black and white, they get carried up in stuff they can’t do.”
In the scramble to find places to play, Dent had some success. The four armed forces golf courses in Augusta allowed blacks and on Mondays, caddies could play where they worked. Access was hard.
“You really didn’t think about that,” Dent said. “You don’t let nothing keep you back. At Augusta Country Club, if you went out and helped them take crabgrass out of the greens, you could play Friday morning. It wasn’t nothing to go out there and spend an hour or more. All you gotta do is cut the crabgrass up. So we did that. And there was a field down there where we played golf. They’ve made it a range at the Augusta Country Club but that’s where we used to play golf. We had about six holes down there. See, a lot of things happened back in the Jim Crow days but there was some places you could go play.”
In 1959, Dent won a football scholarship and played end at predominantly-black Paine College, a Methodist school in Augusta not far from The Hill. The lure of golf was too great, however, and Dent quit school after a year to work on his game. He knocked around Atlantic City, N.J., for about seven years, working as a busboy and waiter at the Smithfield Inn. He and James Black, another fine black player who helped Dent with his game, traveled to some events conducted by the United Golfers Association, the association for black golfers.
Dent followed his dream to California and met Mose Stevens, a wealthy black businessman who gave Dent his next big boost. Stevens was more than impressed with Dent’s ability to hit the ball long. Each morning, Stevens bought a big tub of balls at a local driving range and left Dent to practice.
A chance encounter brought Dent to 1933 U.S. Open champion Johnny Goodman, who was also the 1937 U.S. Amateur champion. Goodman was intrigued by Dent’s talent, so Stevens ponied up $125 for Dent to take six lessons from the old champion.
“I’m going to take what you got and work with what you got,” Goodman said then.
“How great can a conversation be if you’ve got any kind of common sense,” Dent said. “He’s going to take what you got and work with you. And so, he worked with me and he showed me.”
Along the way, Goodman shared stories of his life: How he had ridden the rails from Omaha, Neb., to Pebble Beach, where he beat Bob Jones in the 1929 U.S. Amateur.
“Now, how great a speech is that for a man to tell you and you want to do something that he already did?” said Dent. “He was a great guy. He showed me how to chip and how to run the ball up. Johnny was a great ambassador of golf.”
In the late 1960s, Dent made his first try at the PGA Tour qualifying school, shooting 74-75, then sliding to an 85.
“Made nine straight bogeys,” he said. “And it was a blessing. It let me know I just wasn’t ready.”
He went back to California to work on his game. The following year, he fired 282 for 72 holes at Tucson (Arizona) Country Club and qualified for the PGA Tour.
“It was the show!” said Dent. “I learned when you get out there with those guys, you got to produce. You just don’t want to be happy out there. I got better each year and the third year I finished in the top 60 and top 60 was the glory days. You were exempt to everything. It was great.”
Along the way, Dent remembers, he had a lot of help: Homero Blancas and Paul Runyan worked with him on his short game. Joe Roach, a well-known caddie, sometimes carried his bag. More importantly, as a black player in the 1970s, he was not alone. Charlie and Curtis Sifford, Lee Elder, Chuck Thorpe and George Johnson formed the nucleus of a group of about a dozen black players on the tour. Dent said he faced very little discrimination.
“You know, I never had any problems because Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown and Lee Elder, those guys just kind of paved the way,” he said.
In the course of his PGA Tour career, Dent won four unofficial tournaments and a bit more than a half-million dollars, then headed for the riches of what is now the Champions Tour. He won more than $9 million in senior golf. Dent has great memories of those days, not so much of the 12 victories he earned, but of how spectators embraced the senior golfers. Birmingham, Ala., was a great stop. The 1999 U.S. Senior Open in Des Moines, Iowa, where thousands of spectators gave the players huge ovations, is another favorite memory.
While he will never have to caddie again, Jim Dent has never forgotten where he came from. Along the way, he bought a fine house for his aunt, Mary Benton. When he gave her the keys, he told her the house was in her name. Benton said Dent should keep it in his name. “No,” he told the great lady, “you need something in your name.”
Dent seems at peace. At 72, he plays in scattered senior tournaments, including the Legends of Golf. Because he’s a colorful interview he can occasionally be seen on television. He’s a generous man who makes charity appearances and has been known to aid old friends who are down on their luck.
He has two children from his first marriage. Dent and his wife, Willye, to whom he’s been married for 21 years, have adopted five children. His family life is gratifying but golf is never far from Jim Dent’s mind.
“What I learned about playing golf has probably kept me all through life,” he said. “You had to be honest. You had to work at it. You just couldn’t pick it up today and not come back ‘till next week. And if you broke a rule, you had to turn yourself in.”
Dent’s passion for the game has taken him from a boyhood in Augusta’s caddie yards to the pinnacle of a great peak, made up of players who helped pave the way for others. If Dent’s life today seems very good, it’s because he earned it in the most extraordinary way.
Sharing his father’s dream
Jim Dent on his son golf-playing Joseph: ‘He’s going to be a great asset to this game.
- Joseph Dent, son of legend Jim Dent, is pursuing his professional golf dream. (Courtesy of Dent Family)
It is the son’s dream that is here and now, to be cheered and respected for being played out with a youthful exuberance in an era where the entrepreneurial spirit is widely celebrated.
But what of the son’s father, a mountain of a man who lived this same dream decades ago, at a time when it wasn’t so fanciful and admirable, when it was brushed with enmity in an era where ignorance often trumped human dignity?
So, what does Jim Dent think of Joseph’s pursuit of this professional golf dream?
At the other end of the phone conversation, Jim Dent’s words are slowly delivered and softly spoken. Not because he’s 81 years old, but because that’s Jim Dent’s nature – cautious and gentle. It belies the America in which he grew up but helps explain why Dent was such an intriguing study for virtually all the nearly 1,000 tournaments he played across his PGA TOUR and PGA TOUR Champions career.
It is true what Michael Bamberger wrote beautifully in a Sports Illustrated feature in 2014, offering testimony on behalf of a golfer he had studied and known for more than 25 years. “What I’ll say here is what anybody who has ever stood on a TOUR driving range will tell you,” he wrote of those days when balata golf balls thundered off Dent’s persimmon driver. “Golf will never see the likes of Jim Dent again.”
Yet, here he is, watching his 20-year-old son carry on the dream, a young black man trying to succeed in a pro golf world dominated by white athletes. Could golf see the likes of Joseph Dent?
Jim Dent digests the question, pauses briefly, then says: “Joseph has made me proud already. But he’s going to be a great asset to this game. I just hope I’m around long enough to walk the fairways with him and see him succeed.”
Joseph Dent is not your typical fledgling professional golfer. And not just because he’s black. Nor just because he’s the adopted son of a 12-time winner on the PGA TOUR Champions, a man who navigated through a segregated America to find his way in pro golf.
No, Joseph Dent is unique in that he doesn’t boast a polished AJGA resume, doesn’t go on forever about his tournament experience and exotic travels and practice-range travails. Fact is, he played on the golf team at Strawberry Crest High School in the Tampa, Florida, area for just two seasons – as a freshman and a senior – partly because his passion for the game wasn’t quite there, and partly because he agreed with his parents that he needed to mature and focus on his academics.
“I first played golf when I was 8 or 9, but my dad put us in all the sports. So, I went through phases. Baseball is what I played at first, but in middle school I fell in love with golf,” Joseph said.
That passion has blossomed since leaving high school, to the point where Joseph Dent is all aboard the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour (APGA), which this week is in St. Augustine, Florida, at the World Golf Village’s Slammer & Squire course. Representing the Tampa Bay Chapter of the First Tee, the younger Dent already has demonstrated that the road he is on just might have potential.
He opened with a 72 at the APGA tournament at TPC Sugarloaf outside of Atlanta a few weeks ago “and it was the first time I felt like I was in contention (as a pro).” The sense of excitement was intoxicating and even after he closed with a 76 and fell into a share of 13th place, Dent came away with a smile on his face.
“It gave me a real good idea of what I have to work on to get better,” he said.
That Joseph Dent has an avenue on which to travel his pro golf dream is a positive step from his father’s youth. Whereas Jim Dent honed his game at Mays Landing in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and made the National Negro Open (he won in 1969) a “must-play” to be squeezed in around a never-ending series of Monday qualifiers and those mandatory money games, his son feels fortunate to have a circuit that gives him a true sense of what may be ahead.
The APGA was established in 2008 with a simple mission – “to bring greater diversity to the game of golf by developing African Americans and other minorities for careers in golf.”
But while the PGA of America did blatantly discriminate when Jim Dent was a kid – the “Caucasian-only” clause was not lifted until November of 1961, 14 years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball – the APGA does not. Its tour, which has five tournaments on the remainder of the 2020 schedule, is opened to all golfers, regardless of skin color.
Joseph Dent vows a commitment to this tour, to himself, and, yes, to his father’s legacy, which fills him with pride.
“He has encouraged me to always follow my dream, to do what I love,” Joseph said. “His advice has been simple – you have to put in the work. It’s his fundamental belief.”
Joseph Dent is putting in the work to achieve his dreams. (Courtesy of the Dent family)
That the golf dreams of Jim Dent and son Joseph intersect at “The Patch” is arguably the most flavorful part of the story. “The Patch” is what they call Augusta Municipal Golf Course in Augusta, Georgia, which is approached via an entrance that only recently was re-named Jim Dent Way.
It is a fitting tribute to a native son who called Augusta home for most of his life and has contributed mightily to benefiting people of color – in that town and throughout the country. While Jim Dent never won on the PGA TOUR like other trail-blazers Pete Brown and Charlie Sifford did, he established a presence for parts of five decades and inspired generations.
“As a man of color, I thank Mr. Dent for what he did,” Ira Miller, general manager of Augusta Municipal GC told the Augusta Chronicle. “He paved the way so I could be in this position. Blacks are now in the game; not as many as I would like to see on the PGA, but it will someday. He paved the way for us all.”
Remarkably, while growing up in Augusta, Dent couldn’t play “The Patch,” as it was segregated. Dent played his golf on caddie days at Augusta National and next door at Augusta Country Club (when he successfully snuck on, that is). But “The Patch” became a haven for minority golfers in 1964 and remains even more so today.
Though Jim Dent by 1964 was on his endless car travels from coast to coast to chase the golf dream, his ties to his hometown are forever. One of his four children by a previous marriage, James Dent, is the head professional at Augusta Municipal and now Joseph Dent searches for the secret to this game as a caddie at Augusta National and on the range at Augusta Municipal.
You can almost see the curl of a beautiful smile on Jim Dent’s face.
“I tell Joseph that it’s a lot of work and even though he isn’t getting paid to practice, every golf ball he’s hitting today is like putting money in the bank,” the father said.
He has told his son other things, too. Like what Julius Boros once told him about soft hands or the simple advice Sam Snead had about guarding against “missing a short iron,” or the tips Gene Littler delivered one sultry morning at Inverrary Country Club.
Beautiful memories start to percolate, and Jim Dent laughs softly. “I got to hang around with a lot of great friends and learn from them. If you can’t learn from the best, you can’t learn.”
As he has grown and matured, Joseph Dent has embraced his father’s teachings and been nurtured by his parents’ love and wisdom.
“I’ve known Joseph (and brother Joshua) since Jim and his wife (Willye) adopted them 20 years ago. They are first-class kids and you know mom and dad raised them well,” said Gary Koch, who can be identified several ways. A former collegiate standout at the University of Florida (national champs in 1973) who won six times on the PGA TOUR, he’s been a longtime member of NBC’s heralded golf team.
But it’s his role as Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Tampa Bay Chapter of The First Tee that brings enormous satisfaction. He can speak to the strong support groups, the summer camps, the fact that 80,000 children were introduced to the game of golf at some level last year, many of them being children or color or from low-income families.
Beyond that, Koch has had his own foundation that has been awarding two $10,000 college scholarships to chapter graduates the past six years. “These are not based on how good you are at golf, but how well you’re doing in school,” said Koch. “We want them to make sure they stay in the game.”
Koch subscribes to the First Tee mantra, about teaching core values, about providing opportunities and improving access so that children of color and low-incoming families can be a part of golf’s future. In so many ways, Koch identifies with a philosophy that has been at the Dent family’s goodness.
“I’m just paying it forward,” Jim Dent once said when he refused to accept lavish praise for providing the funds to buy Brown a home in Augusta or for adopting three children with Willye when he had reached an age when retirement was on the horizon.
(The couple adopted a newborn girl, Victoria, 24 years ago, then adopted twins Joseph and Joshua four years later. Joshua, who attends Livingstone College in North Carolina, also loves to play golf.)
“My aunt took me in,” Dent explained to Bamberger in that SI story. “All we’re doing is the same – paying it forward.”
Having benefited from his father’s gentle soul and hard-earned wisdom, Joseph plays golf with a passion. But so, too, does he play with a profound appreciation for opportunities that his father helped forge.
“I have read so many stories about him and while I can only imagine what it was like for him, I know he had to roll with the punches,” Joseph said.
“That’s why I admire him and why he inspires me. He had a belief in himself. He let his clubs do the talking.”
Joseph will do similarly. His father’s dream, after all, is his dream now.