This past Sunday, prior to the final round of the GTE Northwest Classic in Kenmore, Wash., Agim Bardha, playing among the contenders in the third to the last threesome, sidled up to his playing partner and confided, "I haven't had this many butterflies in my stomach since I escaped from Albania."
Arnold Palmer gave him a big smile.To be sure, it's a long, involved, trouble shot, making it from the Communist-guarded iron curtain of Albania to the American Senior PGA Tour - one that Bob Rosburg would no doubt describe as "an impossible shot." But here is Agim Bardha, all 5-foot-5, 140 pounds of him, posing as living proof that you can pull it off. You can get here from there. He's at Jeremy Ranch this week, playing in the Showdown Classic, lockering in the middle of the B's - next to Butch Baird and Miller Barber - and, as he puts it, "hoping I never wake up."
He's already made $27,293 in official earnings this season, which is a lot of haircuts - we'll get to that in a minute - and the $9,625 he made last week in the Northwest Classic easily amounts to his largest check as a pro. He shot 71 in the final round - compared with Arnie's 70 - and finished tied for seventh place just four shots behind the winner, Bruce Crampton.
To say Agim and Arnie took divergent routes to get to the same place is a huge understatement. Consider that when Arnie was turning pro back in 1954, ready to embark on one of the greatest golf careers in history, Agim was living in a camp for Albanian refugees in Greece, ready to embark on a new life of freedom.
Agim loved his homeland, but the new landlords, from Mother Russia, who took over Albania in 1947, ruined the atmosphere. Along with his mother and three brothers, Agim escaped in 1953, when he was 14. The family climbed over the mountains into Greece, dodging Communist border patrols along the way. Was it dangerous? Agim is asked. "Dangerous!" he answers, "You think escaping from Russia is dangerous? This is worse."
But they made it. And after 14 months in Greece they made their way to Germany, where they lived for two years until getting passage to the United States, where Agim settled into Detroit City and got a job making cars.
He helped make the 1957 line of Lincoln- Mercuries before he was laid off.
He wanted more security so he enrolled in a beauty college in downtown Detroit and subsequently graduated and opened a hair-styling shop.
He cut hair for 25 years. Until he turned 50 . . . and left to play golf.
He had first taken up the game when he was 27 - after a back operation forced him to quit playing soccer - and he quickly became an avid, self-taught weekend golfer, hopelessly addicted. And hopelessly frustrated. In the hair-cutting business, time is money, so there wasn't a lot of chance to feed his habit.
He still found time to win his share of amateur events in Michigan. He qualified for the national Mid-Amateur tournament - for golfers 25 and over - four times, and made the, uh, cut every time. But golf was always a hobby, something he slipped in between haircurts.
Or at least it was until last season, when Agim won both the Michigan Mid-Amateur championship and the Michigan Senior Open - and a lot of people encouraged him to try the Senior Tour.
When one of them was Chuck Koches, a fellow member of the Red Run Country Club in Birmingham, Mich., - the same Chuck Koches who played on two Walker Cup teams and in 17 Masters - Agim was persuaded to give it a try.
He went to the PGA's qualifying school in Florida last fall, qualified for the 1988 Senior Tour by finishing in a tie for 9th, and collected his first professional check - for $1,000.
He framed a copy of the check, hung it on the wall of his shop . . . and locked the door.
In the months since, he has been traveling the Senior circuit, playing alongside the Palmers and Caspers and Players and Cramptons - the stars he used to watch on TV while he was cutting hair.
"I'm having the time of my life," he says. "I don't have enough words to describe how wonderful everyone (on the Senior Tour) has been to me. They're all helping me, giving me advice, calming me down so I don't blow."
In return, Agim's cutting their hair. Anyone who still has any, he'll style it - in the locker room, at the hotel, anywhere.
Just yesterday, Butch Baird came into the locker room and asked, "Don't you think I need a trim?".
"You are looking a little shaggy," said Agim.
"This guy's great . . . we needed a barber out here," said Baird, and he didn't mean Miller or Jerry. He meant Agim Bardha, the Albanian refugee, who got to the Tour the hard way, and isn't about to forget his roots.