Not exactly Forrest Gump, but John "Jumbo" Elliott showed up in a lot of places, both memorable (like here, a playing partner in Tiger Woods' first pro round, 1996 at Greater Milwaukee Open) and some that should remain forgettable.
May 15, 2024

Pull up a chair; John "Jumbo" Elliott has stories to tell -- lots of stories

Come not to judge. Rather, come to savor his stories, some of which are pure comedy, others blanketed in poor judgement, a few will make you wonder, but plenty will enlighten you to the golf talent that was within grasp.

But all of the stories, John “Jumbo” Elliott will tell you, are absolutely true, which is why he wonders if he should write a book. “A book,” laughs longtime New England PGA member Jay Morelli who has been running quality golf schools in Vermont since 1978 and had Elliott on staff for six summers years ago.

“It will be a long book. I know hundreds of stories about John that are funny and I only know half of them.”

Starting points when it comes to Jumbo Elliott are plentiful, but how ‘bout the nickname. He didn’t even get tagged with Jumbo until his rookie year on the PGA Tour, 1992, when friends watching an NFL game at a bar noticed that John “Jumbo” Elliott was a standout offensive tackle for the New York Giants.

“Until then,” said John Elliott the golfer from Bristol, Conn., “I was Johnny MOD to everyone who knew me.”

Chalk that up to a great friend and PGA member from Connecticut, Bobby Kay, who spent thousands of hours with Elliott and assessed him to be the “Master of Disaster.” So Johnny MOD it was and even Elliott will concede his knack for often standing at the intersection of Misfortune and Mishap earned him the nickname.

“Not all of it was good, but I brought a lot of it on myself,” said Elliott. “But I accept the responsibility and I try to see myself as someone who has been fortunate.”

Five years he earned his way onto the PGA Tour (1992, ’93, ’96, ’99, ’05) and another 10 seasons he was a rock-solid member of the Korn Ferry Tour. There were just a sprinkling of top-25 finishes in his 131 PGA Tour career but he won twice in 292 KFT tournaments and easily stood up to the competition out there. Toss in State Open wins in Massachusetts (1991), Vermont (1996), and Rhode Island (2009) and there’s a mountain of evidence that speaks to Elliott’s ability to play competitive golf at a high level.

“He was incredibly gifted,” said Morelli. “I’m not sure there were many more gifted with a golf club than John Elliott.”

The “but” hangs in the air for a few seconds before Morelli adds: “He should be a rich man, but he’s not. Like Sinatra, he did it his way.”

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Laugh, if you like, because even Elliott has to chuckle at some of these stories. His entrance into the world of professional golf, for instance. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was terrible, but I went to play the Spacecoast Tour (in Northern Florida) when I was about 19. I was shooting in the 70s but I told them I was a pro.”

When he returned home, he figured he hadn’t made a nickel so how could he be a pro? He entered Central Connecticut and made the golf team. “Only they found out I signed up as a professional (in Florida) and kicked our team (of the conference).”

A one-semester-and-done collegian, but Elliott had learned this much: “I had to figure it out for myself.” And so he did it the hard way, playing day after day up in Vermont against quality players (Morelli, Kay, Paul Moran, Bob Lendzion) at Mt. Snow.

“I had never heard of him when I took him on,” said Morelli. “But all of a sudden he got good, really good.”

He also left a bit of a legacy up there with incidents that Morelli still laughs at. Against a young, hot-shot, cocky tennis player, Elliott took him on wearing just flip-flops and delivered a whoopin’. But the time he took the resort golf cart on a half-mile ride down a steep hill to the post office in town, well, “that was John being creative in his own way” said Morelli, who had to cut Elliott loose because the GM saw the stunt.

It came at about the time Elliott, then in his late 20s, was developing a nice game for himself. If only he could have stayed out of his own way.

“I just gambled too much and couldn’t be smart with my money. I was such a dummy,” said Elliott, who in 1991 won $8,000 for the Mass. Open win in June but was broke by September.

Q School appeared out of the question, until his golf talents bailed him out again. He won the Red Lion Invitational in Western Mass. in a playoff against Dana Quigley.

With the $4,000 check, Elliott was off to Q School.

“If I don’t win that first-place check I don’t go to Q School and I don’t earn my first PGA Tour card and who knows what happens to me? I might never have been seen again.”

Shown in the fairway at No. 18 at Merion Golf Club, John "Jumbo" Elliott is still in the game as a caddie, both in the Philly area and winters in South Florida.

It's just one the many “what ifs” that Elliott can ponder. He’s 60 now and splits his time with caddie gigs in Florida at Pine Tree CC and Merion outside of Philadelphia. He carries double six days, sometimes seven days a week, and comes across plenty of players who love to hear his stories.

The most famous, of course, is of that Greater Milwaukee Open tee time he had in 1996 – alongside a kid who was playing for the first time as a pro, Tiger Woods. When TV cameras caught him turning to the crowd and saying, “He’s pretty good, isn’t he?” Jumbo Elliott got wonderful air time.

He got no such positive PR for a decision a few years earlier that he still bemoans. Given this new driver back around 1991, the Big Bertha, Elliott and other players were paid by Callaway in stock options. “I got about 2,000 shares and they were selling at about $19 a share.”

He concedes he never studied what he had. “I never owned stocks, so when it got up to about $56 a share I sold.”

Bought a Porsche. It’s the way Johnny MOD rolled in those days. But when the engine on the Porsche blew and he caught wind of the Callaway stock trading near $90, well, it was the way things often went with him. “I’m a gambler; I’ve gambled all my life.”

Morelli loves Jumbo Elliott but wishes some of the hard-luck stories had worked out differently. Like that Pebble Beach Pro-Am in 1996, where Elliott shot 67 at Pebble, 71 at Spyglass, and was just two off the lead. “He was going to play Poppy (Hills) in Round 3 and I knew he could make a move.”

A big chance, only then it wasn’t. The tournament got called after 36 holes, players got only a few thousand, and Morelli was heartbroken. Elliot might have been, too, but guess what he did? “He flew his family out to Hawaii (for the Sony Open),” said Morelli.

It was going to be a chance for the family to celebrate John “Jumbo” Elliott and all that he had accomplished to get to the PGA Tour. But the intersection of Misfortune and Mishap is in Honolulu, too, and Elliott got very sick, shot 83, then withdrew.

“When I was younger I would be such a crybaby, breaking clubs, swearing. Just a crybaby,” said Elliott. “I never had the game but worked hard to figure myself out.”

Challenged by Morelli years ago to write down his stories – “and some of them are not good, car crashes, silly court cases, mistakes I made,” said Elliott – Jumbo has done just that.

It has afforded the time to reflect and against an array of stories that weren’t pleasant, Elliott knows there have been joyful ones. Like rooming with his great friend, the late Jeff Julian, who spent hours working with Elliott to fix his chip yips. They were in Alabama and Elliott went 69-66-69 and figured the final round would be rained out. The lads went out and partied well into the night – not responsible, he knows now – but got fortunate. Round 4 was rained out and Elliott won.

Then, a few weeks later, Julian won the Dominion Championship in Virginia with Elliott third.

“Just a few weeks earlier I had the chip yips and Jeff was talking about quitting the game. Then there we were, each winning in a three-week stretch.”

In 2003, Elliott was nearing the end of his Korn Ferry Tour career, but more importantly, his great friend was nearing the end of his life. Dying of ALS, Julian got one last visit from Elliott and so a few beers were consumed, a movie was watched, and a Jumbo hug was applied as tight as he could manage.

“I was his closet friend,” said Elliott, who will make his annual trip June 16-19 for the Jeff Julian Memorial Vermont Open.

Before that, though, there will be another run at a dream. Elliott will play in a June 3 qualifier for the U.S. Senior Open, which will be held June 27-30 at Newport CC. He’s hoping his painful dupuytren’s contracture condition doesn’t act up (his fingers curl and it’s difficult to grip the club) but if he makes it, Elliott wants to bring his 17-year-old son to caddie for him.

“He’s such a good kid. I’d love to do this with him,” said Elliott and up in Vermont, Jay Morelli shakes his head with pride.

“Crazy as John is, he just might do it.”