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Column: Long history at Firestone, 1 man who’s seen it all

July 31, 2018
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Paul Lazoran, a two-day-a week starter, mans his post on the first tee on Thursday, July 19, 2018 in Akron, Ohio. Lazoran started at Firestone Country Club at age 9 cleaning clubs. The Bridgestone Invitational this week will be the 89th tournament he has been part of at Firestone. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal via AP)

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — Deemed to be too young and too small for work, Paul Lazoran turned to walk away when the Firestone Country Club pro told him he could sit in a corner of the golf shop and clean clubs for $2 a day.

That was 1951. Lazoran was 9. And he never left.

He was there in 1954 to watch Tommy Bolt win the Rubber City Open, the first tournament at Firestone. He was the caddie for Arnold Palmer, his hero, in the 1964 World Series of Golf, and for Gary Player the following year when Player won the four-man exhibition and paid Lazoran $2,500, enough for a down payment on a house.

He drank beers into the night with Nick Price when the 26-year-old from Zimbabwe won his first title in America.

Tiger Woods?

Lazoran was there for all eight of his victories at Firestone, and one stands out in particular.

“I could hear the ball going over the roof,” Lazoran, now 76, said Tuesday as he geared up for his 89th event at the 90-year-old club in northeast Ohio. “It crossed over the roof down to where we keep all the trash. One of the cooks there thought he found a golf ball.”

That was Josh Stuber, who was delivering a batch of crunchy cream pies when he stumbled across the golf ball. Apparently not noticing “TIGER” in small, block letters, he stuffed it in his pocket and drove off. Because the clubhouse area was not out-of-bounds, Woods received a free drop, made bogey to end the second round and went on to win in a playoff.

Woods returns to Firestone one last time. This is the final edition of the Bridgestone Invitational because the World Golf Championship will have a new sponsor (FedEx) on a different golf course (TPC Southwind) in Memphis, Tennessee, next year.

It will not be the end of golf at Firestone.

Filling the void will be the Senior Players Championship, which gives one of the five majors on the PGA Tour Champions a sense of stability, if not nostalgia.

There is deep history at Firestone, which has hosted the PGA Championship three times — Jack Nicklaus won his 14th major in 1975 at Firestone — the Rubber City Open, the American Golf Classic, the CBS Golf Classic and the World Series of Golf, which preceded the World Golf Championship.

It has plenty of history. Lazoran has lived every bit of it.

He went from cleaning clubs to selling sandwiches at the halfway house to working as a caddie. He was an assistant pro under Bobby Nichols and worked in the locker room for three decades. He retired from full-time work in 2010, but Lazoran still drops in for a few hours each day during the tournament to work in the golf shop.

He feels no sense of despair that Firestone is losing the world’s best players, replaced by the world’s best players 50 and older.

“I’ve been there for 67 years, and the area has always supported golf,” he said.

His favorite memory was working for Player because they won, and for Palmer because he was the King.

“He was my idol,” Lazoran said. “I was a nervous wreck on the first tee. I could feel my hands shaking. I’m caddying for the King. And he looked over at me and said, ‘I’m nervous enough for the two of us. Just relax.’”

Firestone often served as an introduction for international stars to an American audience, whether it was Jose Maria Olazabal in 1990 when he won by 12 shots, or Price winning by four shots over Nicklaus.

“Nick Price, when he won the tournament, he looked over at me and said, ‘I’m from Zimbabwe and I don’t know anybody here. Would you like to have a few beers?’” Lazoran said. “To this day, he still knows my name and he’s a great friend.”

The South Course was expanded for its first major, the 1960 PGA Championship, when Robert Trent Jones added some 50 bunkers, two ponds and 500-plus yards, along with reducing par to 70 for championship golf.

But it’s always hosted the world’s best, even before it became a World Golf Championship where players now compete for $10 million in prize money, with $1.7 million going to the winner. And to think Player earned $50,000 for his 1965 victory.

“Tiger probably has taken $11 or $12 million from Firestone,” Lazoran said with a laugh.

Sharp memory. Woods has earned $11,060,525 in his 16 appearances at Firestone. This will be the last one, and it was a big deal for Woods to get back. He tied for sixth at the British Open, allowing him to move to No. 50 in the world.

Woods hasn’t won this year, though it shouldn’t be a surprise if he does. He had the lead for a short time in the final round at Carnoustie. He missed a playoff by one shot at the Valspar Championship in March.

His last victory was five years ago this week at the Bridgestone Invitational.

Lazoran wouldn’t be surprised to see him win again this week, because he’s seen just about everything else at Firestone.

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