Six months after walking crablike into a doctor's office, five months after spinal urban renewal, two months after hitting his first pain-free golf shot in a long time—a topped 5-iron—and two weeks after improbably predicting that victory was imminent. Fuzzy Zoeller won again. That's a comeback. Zoeller, golf's sportjester, fulfilled his brash prophecy Sunday in Orlando, Fla. at the Bay Hill Classic. That's Arnold Palmer's tournament played on Arnold Palmer's course—the Bay Hill Club—in front of Arnie's Army, which had redeployed itself as Fuzzy's Fans, a wildly supportive bunch that Zoeller has more or less inherited from his childhood idol.
The completeness of Zoeller's recovery from major back surgery was reflected in his closing 67, a masterful, four-birdie, no-bogey round that included only one five, a par on the 12th hole. The victory was worth $90,000, but the psychological reward was incalculable, for finally Zoeller had conquered the back pain he has suffered since incurring an injury in a high school basketball game in 1968. It had to be a boost, too, to know that he turned away one of the toughest fields of the year—including leading 1985 moneywinners Mark O'Meara and Lanny Wadkins—and held off the challenge of Tom Watson, who is just now getting cranked up after a so-so winter.
At Bay Hill, Watson also shot a final-round 67, but a three-putt bogey at the 9th hole slowed his charge, and as Zoeller coolly parred in, Watson never could get closer than two strokes. Zoeller's rounds of 70-72-66-67 gave him an impressive nine-under-par 275 on a tough layout.
Watson finished second at seven under and took home $54,000, while Mark Lye, also with a fourth-round 67, was third, one stroke back. Afterward, impressed with the way Zoeller had kept him at bay, Watson asked him, "Who's your doctor?"
That's a good question. Zoeller's case history greatly enhances the standing of orthopedic surgeons, who are sometimes regarded warily by sufferers of Everyman's ailment—the bum back. Last fall there was a rumor that Zoeller would never play again. Watson heard it in Japan. Zoeller himself wouldn't have been able to flatly deny it. Only his close friends and family were aware that Zoeller had been in extreme pain even while winning the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Certainly, his jolly demeanor during his playoff with Greg Norman hadn't given him away. But the episodes of severe pain were becoming more frequent and less bearable. Last August Zoeller was forced to withdraw from the PGA Championship in Birmingham after spasms left him crawling on the floor of his motel room. He spent a week in a Birmingham hospital.
A few weeks later, Zoeller walked sideways into the Manhattan office of Dr. Ralph Marcove, an orthopedic surgeon. "That's it, I've had it," Zoeller said. On Sept. 25 Marcove performed an operation which lasted three hours and 45 minutes—about the time it takes to play 18 holes—at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Marcove chopped out a bony mass in Zoeller's lower back, removed a disc and relocated another one.
Zoeller spent four weeks in bed in New York and at home in New Albany, Ind. He kept up with sports with the help of his new satellite television dish and formed a golf course-design company with fellow pro Hubert Green, a hedge against the possibility that he might never play again and would need a new career. The days crept by. "I felt like a vegetable," Zoeller says now. Zoeller answered his mail—he got some 5,000 letters from well-wishers—and calls from other tour members kept the phone lines humming.
On Jan. 2 he took his wife Dianne's five-iron outside and swung. The first ball was a dead solid top—a hacker's shot. The second was a slice. "But the next three I hit right on the button," Zoeller recalls. The rest of the winter, he whistled a lot.
Last month he went down to Fiddlesticks Country Club in Fort Myers, Fla., ready to work his game back into shape. The first day he hit 50 wedge shots and felt so good that he went out in a cart and played 18 holes. When he finished, he practiced for another couple of hours. "I knew then it would be O.K.," he says. "My swing felt just like it always did."
Zoeller's return to competition occurred three weeks ago at the Doral Open in Miami. Lee Trevino, who underwent back surgery in 1976 but returned to the game too soon and later needed a nerve burned out of his back, wondered if Zoeller might be pushing it. "I think he should take a full year off," Trevino said. Zoeller just shrugged and answered, "I wouldn't be here if my doctor had not given me a clean bill of health." Zoeller was tired at the end of several rounds in Miami but finished 46th. He also predicted, "I'm feeling so good that I think I can win." The next week he played in the Honda tournament at Eagle Trace and wound up 20th.
At Bay Hill, Zoeller opened with a respectable 70, four shots back of leader Morris Hatalsky. He slipped to a 72 on Friday, but caught fire on Saturday, running off birdies on five of the last six holes.
Zoeller was tied for the 54-hole lead with Curtis Strange, who would shoot a last-round 72. Zoeller slept little Saturday night. Though his game was sound, he was worried about the mental mistakes that had caused him to go into the water three times in 54 holes. But on Sunday he was as careful as a bank teller, although not nearly as solemn, and played almost errorless golf.
On the 18th tee, as Zoeller prepared to hit, one of his fans, a fellow in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with a can of beer in his hand, blurted out, "How's your back, Fuzz?" Zoeller never looked up. His drive was long and straight, carrying far down the right side of the fairway. It was a pretty good answer.
Zoeller was on top of the leader board, and the world, as he strode to the final green.
With his 46th-place finish at Doral, Zoeller served notice that he was tired of sitting out.