Rocky Thompson: Pro Golfer Who Waited Decades for First Tour Win

Rocky Thompson was a PGA Tour player in the 1960s and 1970s who was particularly skilled at playing his way into events through qualifiers. In fact, that's the only way he got into tournaments: He was never exempt. And Thompson never won ... until joining the Champions Tour, where he not only won multiple tournaments but also set some senior tour records.

Full name: Hugh Delane Thompson

Date of birth: October 14, 1939

Place of birth: Shreveport, Louisiana

Date and place of death: March 13, 2021, in Plano, Texas

Nickname: Rocky, of course, but also King Rabbit

His Biggest Wins

Thompson had three wins on the Champions Tour:
  • 1991 MONY Syracuse Senior Classic
  • 1991 Digital Seniors Classic
  • 1994 GTE Suncoast Classic
Thompson also won the 1978 Greater Bangor Open, a then-significant regional pro tournament but not part of any pro tour.

In the Majors

Thompson's best finish in a major was a tie for 18th place in the 1973 U.S. Open. He also had starts in the PGA Championship and British Open, but never The Masters, and had no other finishes in the Top 50. Thompson played in 10 majors total, first (as an amateur) in the 1958 U.S. Open, last in the 1984 U.S. Open.

More About Rocky Thompson

Rocky Thompson's story is one of perseverance: He was a golfer who just kept trying, and, finally, after decades and hundreds of tournaments, won on tour.

Born in Louisiana, Thompson grew up in Texas and lived there the rest of his life. He started golfing when he was 12 years old, and within a couple years was shooting par.

He earned a college scholarship to the University of Houston, the NCAA golf powerhouse of the era. Houston won the NCAA team championship in three (1959, 1960, 1962) of Thompson's four years there. His teammates included future PGA Tour pros Phil Rodgers, Kermit Zarley and Richard Crawford.

Thompson graduated in 1962. He turned pro in 1964 and began playing in PGA Tour qualifiers (what we now call "Monday qualifiers"), playing his way into six tournaments that first year.

And that is how it went for Thompson for the next couple decades: He never had exempt status, he always had to go through qualifying to make it into a PGA Tour field. During most of Thompson's PGA Tour career, only the Top 60 on the money list were exempt from weekly qualifying. Those golfers outside the Top 60, who traveled week to week to play qualifiers, were nicknamed "rabbits." And Thompson was so successful at playing his way into the PGA Tour tournaments through the qualifiers that he was given the nickname "King Rabbit."

Thompson never won on the PGA Tour, and never finished in the Top 60 on the money list. Yet he regularly played in more than 20 tournaments a year in the 1960s, with a high of 27 in 1967 and 1968. Beginning in the 1970s his starts see-sawed many years from single-digits into the 20s. He had zero starts in 1977 and 1981, and by the mid-1980s was playing only a handful of tournaments per year. His last PGA Tour appearance was in 1992.

Thompson did have a couple runner-up finishes, at the 1969 Western Open and the 1970 Kiwanis Peninsula Open Invitational. His best season was 1968 — he had a couple Top 5 finishes and came closest that year to cracking the Top 60 on the money list, finishing 64th.

In the end, Thompson made more PGA Tour starts than any other golfer who never had exempt status. How many? He made 306 PGA Tour starts, making the cut in 158 of them. He had ten Top 10 finishes, which included finishing second twice and third three times.

Thompson got another chance to chase a tour win when he turned 50. He won the 1989 Senior Tour Qualifying Tournament as the only golfer who finished under par, with a margin of victory of a then-record 10 strokes.

In his first full year on the Champions Tour, Thompson finished 18th on the money list. He was 12th in 1991, 15th in 1992 and 14th in 1993. Thompson was a workhorse on the senior circuit, playing more than 30 times a year regularly — including every year from 1990-96 — with a high of 37 starts in 1993. He made 29 starts in 1997, but played in at least 29 Champions Tour tournaments every year from 1990 through 2002.

Thompson multiple times during his prime years on the Champions Tour ranked in the Top 10 of the tour's driving distance and birdies stats. He led the tour in birdies in 1991, 1992 and 1993.

And Thompson finally did get that first tour win. At the 1991 MONY Syracuse Senior Classic, Thompson opened with a course-record 62. He wound up winning wire-to-wire, by one stroke over defending champion Jim Dent.

What happened after that win is what comes to mind for many fans who remember Thompson. He had finally won on a big-league pro tour after decades of trying. And he savored the moment of the trophy presentation, leading up to an exclamation that was as much a release as it was an exultation:

"I've been waiting a long time to say this. May 23, 1964, I started on the Tour. I've been playing PGA Tour events for 27 years. My goal when I started was to win a tournament. Just one week, I wanted to be the man. ... But now ... right now, this minute ... I AM THE MAN!"
Thompson said during his victory speech that he had played 611 tournaments combined between the PGA Tour and Champions Tour before getting that first win. That number, 611, is often quoted in articles about Thompson. But as we've already seen, Thompson played in 306 PGA Tour tournaments. He was only in his second full season on the Champions Tour. So — officially, according to PGA Tour records — he was a couple hundred starts short of 611 when that first win finally happened. But it's possible that in his own record-keeping, Thompson had been keeping track of all the times he entered a Monday qualifier and did not make it into the tournament proper, and that is how he arrived at the figure of 611 starts. Regardless, Thompson played a lot of tour golf before his first win finally happened at the 1991 MONY Syracuse Senior Classic.

Later that year, at the 1991 Digital Seniors Classic, Thompson won again. He sank a birdie putt on the final hole to beat runner-up Bruce Crampton by one stroke.

Thompson did not win the 1992 Kaanapali Classic, but in the third round he did, for the first of several times, set or tie a Champions Tour record. Thompson made three eagles in that third round, tying the Champions Tour's single-round record (he was the fourth golfer in senior tour history to record three eagles in a single round). And Thompson had four eagles total in that tournament, which set a new tour record: First golfer in Champions Tour history to make four eagles in a single tournament.

Thompson's third and final win on the Champions Tour was in the 1994 GTE Suncoast Classic. He recorded a 10-under score of 61 in the final round to win by one over Raymond Floyd. He was first-ever Champions Tour golfer to close with a 61 to win, still the tour record today for low finish by a winner. At the time, that 61 also tied the tour's overall 18-hole scoring record (since lowered).

Thompson began the final round in that tournament seven strokes behind third-round leader Mike Hill. That 7-shot comeback to win set a Champions Tour record (since broken) for largest, final-round, come-from-behind victory.

It wasn't until 2006, when Thompson was 67 years old, that his Champions Tour starts dropped below 20 for the year. Thompson played in only two tournaments each in 2007 and 2008, then retired.

For his champions tour career, Thompson made 506 starts with 77 Top 10 finishes, three wins, six seconds and seven thirds.

During his PGA Tour career Thompson had been a short hitter. But as a senior golfer, he became a long hitter. It happened, in large part, because of long-shafted driver Thompson helped develop known as the Killer Bee. The Killer Bee driver, which he started using on tour in the early 1990s, had a 52-inch shaft, and Thompson sometimes used a shaft as long as 56-inches. The driver was marketed to recreational golfers, too, sold directed to consumers, and, when it first debuted, was "legal" under the equipment rules in place at the time. However, the USGA and R&A later, largely in response to Thompson's driver and copycats of it, set a limit on shaft length of 48 inches. Thompson's fellow Champions Tour and PGA Tour pros started calling that rule "Rocky's Rule."

Also during much of his time on the Champions Tour, Thompson served as mayor of the tiny town of Toco, Texas, population usually around 100. He was 81 years old when he died in 2021.

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