Dreamers live in a fantasy world. So what do you call a person who dreams of impossible things and then does them?
Tom "Chico" Chicovsky.
When Chico and his twin brother were nineteen, they and a friend decided to sail across the ocean after their freshman year of college -- even though none of them had ever set foot on a sailboat before. "We just woke up and said, 'We're going to do it,'" Chico explains.
From England, the three teenagers logged 14,000 nautical miles before turning in their Topsiders a year and a half later in Boston. They almost perished a dozen times, living despite themselves. "We were naive enough to survive," says Chico.
Transatlantic nautical yachting wasn't the only unattainable dream he's had. Fifteen years ago, he began having vivid dreams about being a professional golfer. He was 38 years old but still dreamed like an eighteen-year-old: "Me winning tournaments, accepting awards -- basically succeeding," he recalls.
It must be said that his visions bore no resemblance to reality. Chico Chicovsky played golf like John Kerry earned a living. "I had touched clubs," Chico says. "I played a round about every two years. And I never practiced." His handicap ran neck and neck with his age.
"I was," he summarizes, "absolutely horrible."
But, adds Chico, who has more or less fashioned a life out of listening to voices instead of actual people, "I never, ever questioned the dreams." Two weeks ago he boarded a plane to Scandinavia, where today he is revered as a golf god -- a man who holds the key to golf success.
"I basically found my life's calling," he says.
Chico is not the first professional athlete in his family. His father, Chico Sr., earned his living as a professional bowler in Detroit. In those days, bowling was to that city what bourbon is to Kentucky. Chico the Bowler was a certified shaker, hobnobbing with locals like Motown founders the Gordy brothers.
"They'd call and tell us, 'We got this great-sounding girl you should check out down at the studio,'" Chico Jr. recalls. "And it'd be Diana Ross."
Chico learned about competition from his dad. After countless nights spent in smoky bowling alleys, however, the more valuable lesson was that he'd just as soon stay outdoors -- which led to his epic sailing trip.
Once he and the boys determined that they could buy a boat for less in Europe, they secured one-way plane tickets to England. They carried with them 120 pounds of tools, and not much else. "We knew we would need tools," Chico explains. "After all, boats had mechanical equipment. We knew that."
They eventually found their boat, a 53-foot sloop, in Falmouth. They offered $6,000, brought to the table in a paper bag. The owner accepted. They took the boat out for the first time on the English Channel, in a gale. "It was one of the most horrible experiences of my life," says Chico. "Violent, cold. But we gutted it out."
The three friends sailed through the Mediterranean Sea and along the African coast. After learning how to use a sextant, they struck off across the Atlantic. They took along no radio, no life vest, no lifeboat, and only a single book: the Boy Scouts' Sea Scout Manual.
"We figured if Columbus did it, we definitely could," Chico says. Once in the New World, they pointed north, following the coastline of South America. Eighteen months later, they glided into Boston Harbor.
Being oblivious to the impossible, they had accomplished the unthinkable. They survived a hurricane off the coast of Africa, battled mid-Atlantic storms and accidentally straggled into the middle of the Russian Navy. "Everything I learned in my entire life was determined from my life at sea," Chico says. "I learned patience. And I definitely learned to deal with my fears.
"When we got back, we basically said, 'We will never risk our productive years again.'" Since that time, he's been on a boat once.
By the time visions of golf began interrupting his slumber, Chico was accustomed to whiplash lifestyle changes. Following his return from the open seas, he'd finished his degree, hoping to find work as an automotive engineer. But the oil embargo put an end to those plans, and so he found work for Westinghouse as a nuclear engineer.
He lasted less than two years before determining that he and the atom were better off split. He spent a summer in Alaska fighting forest fires, then moved to Colorado and started building homes.
The golfing dreams started in the late 1980s. They lasted two full weeks. Although they made no sense at the time, Chico was not startled. He just changed his plans. "When you want to do something in life, you have to find out where you want to end up," he explains. "Then you make small steps in that direction. It's really not very glamorous."
After a year of focusing hard on his future -- "I thought about golf every waking moment; I approached it the same way I approached sailing across the Atlantic" -- he was ready. He signed up for a professional mini-tour in Florida.
At its lowest levels, becoming a professional golfer is not so hard. "Basically," says Chico, who now resides in Evergreen, "you declare that you are a professional golfer." He played eight tournaments. His purse winnings were zero. Chico didn't care: A slow start was part of the bigger picture.
Yet that was all he would have. While pitching in a softball tournament, he barehanded a line drive that peeled back his thumb, stretching his ligaments like taffy. Gripping a golf club felt like wrapping his hand around hot coals. Chico concluded that his dreams must have been wrong -- or had run their course faster than expected. Besides, his life was full enough. He adopted two girls. He continued to build houses.
Then, one day in 1994, he saw a newspaper article about a peculiar physicist in Chicago, Jack Kuykendall, who had invented a new way to hit a golf ball. Chico called him. Both scientists, the two men hit it off. Chico flew out to meet him.
In Kuykendall's system, called Natural Golf, he advocated palming the club and swinging with less torso rotation. Whatever: Chico discovered he could once again play without pain.
He'd given up on the tour. But he soon became one of the country's first certified Natural Golf instructors. He added his own personal touches to the system. His specialty was head cases, golfers who needed as much counseling as swing-grooving. He applied his seafaring lessons to his clients' mind games.
"When I was sailing the Atlantic, every kind of fear in the human imagination came up." For example, "being in a hurricane on a small boat, you can't hear yourself speak. It's too loud. The world becomes silent in the midst of sound."
Beautiful. His students love it. Wisconsin's Craig RauvolaBouta was a touring pro when he ran into Chico at a conference. "He said he was an instructor, and I said, 'Are you into chi -- inner energy -- and that kind of stuff?' And he said yes.
"I'm not exactly sure how he does it," RauvolaBouta continues. "It's not about the actual swing -- that takes a second and a half. It's all the demons that can get to you between swings."
"What I know is that with golfers at a very high level, each of them is afraid of something," says Chico. "And to get better, they have to get beyond that. And so I ask questions until I hit a nerve, and that fear comes up. It's almost never about golf. It's about family, relationships, money.
"I start asking questions about their pasts. Eventually, they will come up with something that makes them uncomfortable. It could be something about the physical -- 'The leg I hurt playing football on that day I got mad at my father.' And I say, 'Damn! It's a dad issue.'
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"In one class in Norway, I had seventeen students. And at the end of the day, all seventeen were crying in a circle around me. They had all had some level of personal growth beyond golf."
Ed Van Harn is sold. "I've seen a lot of people hit golf balls," the 77-year-old Golden resident says. "Palmer, Snead, Ben Hogan at Oakland Hills in 1953. But this guy hits the ball as pure as any of them."
After two years of Chico's therapeutic golf instruction, Van Harn says, "Suddenly, it just clicked. I don't even have to practice. Now I hit everything straight. It's crazy."
Chico's not surprised. It turns out that the impossible is no big deal. "In the past fifty years, on average, no one has improved in golf -- the scores are the same," he points out. "Why is that?"