Lake Orion, Mich. – Gerry James was sitting on his sofa in his rented condo with little to his name other than a pair of California state bodybuilding titles and enough money to buy formula and diapers for his 3-week-old son, Justin.
“My wife came [into the room] with a baby that I could literally hold in my hand,” said James, whose steel frame measured 6-foot-4-inches tall and 263 pounds with 3 percent body fat.
Call the moment an epiphany or an awakening or a rebirth, but in those morning hours of a late spring day in 1990, James came to a decision. He could either continue the bodybuilding path with all of its single-minded selfishness and steroids or begin a new life as a father with a renewed faith.
“Everything that I had done up to that point was for my own ego, to win this championship,” said James, whose career had taken numerous twists and turns to get to that seminal moment. “I wanted to watch that kid grow up, and doing as many steroids as I was doing to win the Mr. California Body Building Championship, I had a good chance that I wouldn't see him grow up if I kept on that track. So I just quit.”
He was born again.
At this week’s U.S. Senior Open at Indianwood Golf & Country Club, James, 52, is a story of faith, losing his way and how a baby crystalized his purpose in life.
A Battle Of Good Vs. Evil
James was born about three hours due west of here in Grand Haven, Mich., the first of five children and the only boy.
“Nine years old, I got on a little bus that led me to vacation Bible school,” James said. “From that day on I was a child of the Lord.”
His youth, though, was not easy and not without wayward moments.
Along the way, James moved in with his grandparents for a spell after the family’s house burned down. His father was an alcoholic. He played most sports, but developed low self esteem in his late teens.
Faith gave way to questions. He wanted off the farm, away from the rural lifestyle.
The motivation came from a bodybuilding magazine cover featuring Robby Robinson, who won Mr. American, Mr. World and Mr. Universe titles.
“I said, ‘Man, I want to look like that guy,’” he said. “I said ‘That dude, he looks like somebody.’”
James sold his possessions, packed a suitcase and proceeded to Los Angeles with $400.
With a visual image of what he wanted to be – basically Arnold Schwarzenegger – James went to work perfecting that image at Gold's Gym until he looked the part.
“A man is what he wants to be, whether good or bad,” James said.
The 1980s were filled with unusual work experiences for James. He attended a USFL tryout and was signed by the Oklahoma Outlaws, only to be cut a year later when the franchise merged with Arizona.
From there he went into the choreographed world of professional wrestling. For a time, he played a hero, known as Gerry America, clad in a red, white and blue cape, Spandex uniform and calf-high boots, wrestling against opponents such as Andre the Giant. Later, James joined the WWF as a villain, the orange-masked Agent Orange, until that ran its course.
“It wasn't really anything that I wanted to do long‑term,” he said. “It's a very harsh business.”
So James went back to bodybuilding, a slightly more dignified profession.
At some point, James rationalized his move to steroids as a way to compete at the highest levels.
“I thought I could be the biggest muscle guy in the world just training, because I thought that's how they did it,” he said. “After I got around those guys and just working as hard as they worked, after four years I think I was 235 pounds naturally. And I was probably benching 330.”
Juiced, James grew exponentially. He bulked up to about 300 pounds and could bench nearly 500 pounds. The means justified the end when he won the 1990 Mr. California Bodybuilding Championship’s heavyweight and overall divisions.
“I'm a very, very strong Christian man, and there's a verse in the Bible that says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’” James said.
There remained a void, however.
Golf As The Holy Grail
When James decided to walk away from bodybuilding, a poignant question remained unanswered.
“I said, ‘Well, what now, Lord?’” he said. “I really went back to church and got serious about my faith, and started going to the driving range and just fiddling around.
“I believe the Lord just replaced my competitive juices with golf.”
As a kid, James played golf in the summer with his friend, Jay, who is caddying for him this week. Jay would “throttle me pretty good in golf. I didn't like that much, so I kind of quit the game,” he said.
Upon James’ return to the game later in life, his physique aided his ability to drive a ball to extreme lengths. In 2003, he was runner-up in the World Long Drive Championship’s Open division, then won the championship’s over-45 division in 2005 and 2006. His longest officially measure drive was 473 yards, 2 feet, 6 inches at Park Hill Golf Club in Denver, Colo. Today, James estimates his average driving distance is in the 320-yard range.
“But I didn't have any technique to know exactly where it was going time in and time out,” said James, who works as a PGA golf instructor at Center Force Golf Systems in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., where he lives today.
“So that bugged me. I started to refine that, and thus I'm led to here.”
Here is this week’s U.S. Senior Open against a field peppered with veterans of the game and major champions – players who for years honed their craft while James was pursuing other interests. James qualified for the championship by shooting 70 at the Belden, Miss., sectional qualifier.
“I don't have any expectations of grandeur coming into here,” said James, who now has a second son, Taylor. “I realize I'm competing against the very best in the world, and so I will do what I can. I've competed against the best in the world before in different arenas, and so this is just another step.”
Fred Funk, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open champion who James befriended at TPC at Sawgrass, does not believe James’ chase is mere folly.
“It's tough and it’s never easy,” said Funk, citing Mike Goodes and Jay Sigel as two players who were successful career amateurs until they turned 50 and have done well on the senior circuit. “There aren't many guys that come out that haven't played competitively their whole career who try and beat guys who have been competitive their whole career. It's not easy to do.
“He's got a lot of talent. Obviously incredibly strong and big and hits the ball a mile, but he hits it incredibly straight for a guy who hits it that long. Really works hard at his game.”
On Tuesday, James played a practice round with Ronnie Black, a 54-year-old veteran, who won twice during a 16-year career on the PGA Tour and is in his fifth year on the Champions Tour.
“He looks like a guy who is learning the game a little late, so I was trying to help him out with some of the nuances around the green and things like that,” Black said. “The two most important parts of the game are driving and putting, and he putts it very well and hits it fairly straight for a guy who hits its as far as he does.
“But he has a lot of desire, has a great heart, a good guy.”
Funk said that James has an intangible quality, alluding to James’ Christian faith.
“That's probably his strength right now, that he has that at his back,” Funk said.
James, who conducts ministries in maximum-security prisons, admits he had it all along.
“You do what you do and the Holy Spirit is talking to you and you’re going ‘No, no, no,’” he said, alluding to that day in 1990. “That kid woke me up and that did the trick.”
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.