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PGA serves up Cheeseburger and champ

Michael Traum

True friendship is a hard thing to find. So when you see Billy Joe Tolliver with his hands around the neck of his caddy, Jeff “Cheeseburger” Fortunato, during the Isuzu Celebrity Golf Championship this weekend at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course – and undoubtedly you will – be sure to take a closer look.

More than likely, “Joe” and the “Cheese” will both be wearing cheek-to-cheek smiles. That’s the way they play, the way they are.

“I met Cheese when he was 15 years old at an NFL Cadillac Tournament. I was driving there with Chip Lohmiller and there’s this kid standing on the side of the road with a sign that said, ‘Will work for food.’ I needed a caddy so I pulled over. I looked at him and he had a little size. I said, ‘Hey kid, looking at your size, I can’t afford to feed you, but I’ll pay you $100 a day,” joked last year’s champion after a Wednesday afternoon practice round. “From then on, the friendship struck up and he goes to all the tournaments with me. Sometimes we get into fights when he gets loud with people and I have to slam him. But he’s been my buddy ever since.”

Fortunato, sitting across the table, out of arm’s reach from Tolliver, laughs and shakes his head “yes” or “no” as his buddy tells the tale. It seems that the further either one can stretch the facts while still sounding real, the more the other applauds the effort.

“You wanna know the way it really happened?” asks Cheese. “I’m at Glen Ridge Country Club (New Jersey) and they’re having this Coca-Cola pro-am. I’m just hanging out in the pro shop when Billy Joe and Chip Lohmiller come walking in. They want me to play a couple of holes with them,” continues the Cheese, as Tolliver slides back in his seat, hoisting a huge grin. “The whole time we’re out there, me and Joe are just messing around, chewing tobacco, spitting everywhere and wrestling around. We hit it off right away. After we’re done playing, he says he’s playing in the NFL Cadillac Tournament the next week and wants me to caddy for him.”

Sitting up, Tolliver quickly returns a jab, but this time with a lighter edge.

“One day Cheese said he’s going to acting school now. I said, ‘That’s kind of funny because you’ve been acting like a caddy all these years.’ He said, ‘That’s a big coincidence because you’ve been acting like a player for all these years.’

“That’s all we do is constantly rag on each other. But he’s my buddy. I’d do anything for him.”

With a CGA title to defend this year, Tolliver, an Atlanta Falcons backup quarterback, said his caddy came to play last year, a state of mind Tolliver hopes will be there again this weekend.

But the joking doesn’t cease.

“As a caddy, he’s not very good unless you’re in the hunt. If you’re struggling, make a couple of bogeys early, Cheese will throw the towel in quick. He’ll lag back, knowing he’s not going to get any TV time. But if you’re in the hunt and he’s going to double-time it to get some TV time. He’s like Fluff out there. Fluff, Squeaky, Angelo, all those guys rolled into one when we’re on the leader board. When we can get on TV, he’s the best caddy in the world.”

Last year the pair celebrated Tolliver’s four-stroke, $75,000 win with a pair of fat cigars, which Tolliver said Cheese wanted to bust out during Sunday’s front nine. Once again, the presence of the stogies on the final day will dictate how the champ figures to finish.

“We’ve been doing a lot of football and it shows in my game right now. But nothing’s changed from last year. We’ll probably just carry a three wood this year, no driver. I believe in tournament golf you’ve got to play the par-5s even or better,” he said. “I’ve looked back over the years I’ve played and there’s certain pins, par-3s especially, that have cost me in good rounds when I’ve been shooting at pins I shouldn’t have been. A cut is my normal shot. If I can hit that all day I feel good. Usually anything left, I’ll try to hit it in the middle and two-putt.

“We’ll just try to play a good first round and don’t play ourselves out of it. On Sunday, if we’ve got cigars in the bag, just go ahead and write the story. It means I’m feeling good.”


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