The ninth of 12 children who grew up in a home off the second fairway of Roxboro Golf Club, where his father worked on the course, Jim Thorpe learned the game by going out after dark and hitting shots, with the only illumination provided by the back porch light.
A running back in high school, he earned a football scholarship to Morgan State, but abandoned that sport after two years to devoted more time to golf. Thorpe’s brother Chuck played the PGA Tour in the early 1970s and Jim followed suit in the 1975. He lost his playing privileges and returned to the tour’s qualifying tournament in 1978, when he shared medalist honors with John Fought.
After rejoining the circuit, he won three times—at the 1985 Greater Milwaukee Open, where he won by three strokes over Jack Nicklaus, and the Seiko-Tucson Match Play 1985 and 1986. He also won the Canadian PGA championship in 1982. Thorpe also held the distinction of being low pro in the 1985 Western Open, losing in sudden-death to Scott Verplank, who became the first amateur to win a tour event since Gene Littler in 1954.
During his career on the Tour, Thorpe amassed nearly $2 million in earnings, with his best season coming in 1986 when he pocketed $326,087 to finish 15th on the money list