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From Shadows To Glory

Unheralded Steve Elkington beat some big names to win The Players Championship

For a few moments on sunday it looked as if The Players Championship, the PGA Tour's showcase event, might be won by an amiable hulk with dark clown hair spilling out from under his cap. With a birdie on the 70th hole, 6'7" Phil Blackmar had shouldered his way to the top of a leader board that had included such marquee names as Azinger, Strange, Watson and Zoeller.

Blackmar, who looks like a bodyguard for a rock 'n' roll star, trundled to the 17th tee of the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla., sharing a one-stroke lead with Steve Elkington, a nominal Australian who, though almost as improbable as Blackmar, at least has some gallery appeal, as much for his conservative grooming as for his rank among the top 20 money-winners in 1990.

Big Phil, who couldn't handle his allotted 15 minutes of fame, hit his tee shot into the water to the right of the island green and made double bogey. But Elkington, shaking off a three-putt bogey on the same hole, birdied the 18th, one of the toughest finishing holes in golf, for his second Tour victory.

"One thing I've learned about being in contention is that you don't have to go berserk out there to win," the composed Aussie said afterward. "You just have to be there. At the end, inevitably, something happens. We all run out of holes."

Can you "be there" and not be visible? For 3½ rounds, Elkington and Blackmar were never out of contention, but they were never in mind, either. They waited in the shadows while the name players loaded up on TV time and gallery support. Shouts of "Go get 'em, Tom!" and "You're the man, Fuzzy!" rang from the spectator mounds. If anybody yelled at Blackmar and Elkington, it was probably PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman screaming, "Choke!"

And who would have blamed him? The leader for most of the tournament was Paul Azinger, the Tour's most personable and exciting young player. Chasing Zinger were two shopworn but adored stars, Tom Watson and Fuzzy Zoeller—one afflicted with the yips, one blessed with the yaps.

Watson, with five British Open titles among his eight major championships, hasn't won a tournament since 1987, and he freely admits he gets what he calls "the flinches" on short putts. His only recourse, therefore, is to make his long putts. He did that last Saturday, converting nine straight one-putt greens on the way to a 65, the day's best round. On Sunday, though, he missed a short par putt on the 1st hole, and from there it was "Stop me, before I flinch again." Watson shot 77.

The garrulous, 39-year-old Zoeller had gone even longer without a win—five years. Bothered by a bad back, the former Masters and U.S. Open champion plays a limited schedule, but he has found a niche as designated quipster at the Tour's nine-hole shootouts on Tuesdays.

Playing with Azinger in the last pairing, Zoeller drove the ball beautifully in stiff winds and played almost error-free golf. The putts weren't falling for him, but he still had a chance to tie Elkington, at 12 under, with a birdie on 18. "It was very makable," Zoeller said of his 12-foot birdie attempt, which slid by the hole. "I remember when I did make those."

No one wanted to say it in front of Elkington, but a victory by Watson or Zoeller would have given The Players Championship a needed lift. If the stately Masters is the Mr. & Mrs. Bridge of tournaments, the Players is more like Regis and Kathie Lee without their morning coffee. Held for a decade now at the TPC course, the event has been a trial for Beman, who wants it recognized as the fifth major. Instead, the Players has turned into an annual roast of Beman, with the golfers fussing and the commissioner archly defending everything from the pin positions to the Tour's policies.

Last year's two biggest flaps were about shabby course conditions and an unofficial boycott by foreign golfers, and Beman has dealt with both. Stung by former champion John Mahaffey's complaint that the TPC course had become the "Marriott Muni," Beman closed the course for one day a week in the last six months and for the entire week before the tournament. That gave the good earth a rest from resort play. Result: silky greens, lush fairways and accolades.

On the foreign front, the PGA Tour's Tournament Policy Board voted not to count the Players against the five sponsor exemptions allowed nonmember pros. That rule change, coupled with a schedule change that put the 1991 Players within two weeks of the Masters, landed Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, et al., which restored the field's prestige. Nineteen of the top 20 players in the Sony world rankings teed off last Thursday, the sole exception being an injured Payne Stewart.

The opening round, played in warm sunshine and baby-breath wind, showed how tame the course could be. Architect Pete Dye's once feared layout rolled over and waited for someone to rub its tummy, and most everyone did. Seventy-nine players broke par, with 36 breaking 70. That's more than broke 70 in all four rounds a year ago. Bob Tway's 65, a stroke off the course record, rated only a few nods and a "Nice round, Bob." By Sunday, no one remembered he was playing.

Fortunately, the weather changed on Friday, giving the spectators what they came to see: golfers in distress. "Disaster everywhere," said Elkington, who shot 70 in the morning before the wind began gusting to 42 miles per hour. "It's almost nightmarish." He was overstating the case, but not by much.

Fourth-year pro Billy Andrade, in the trees twice on the back nine, showed how a set of Titleist irons can turn bark into mulch. Tway, playing from a weedy bank on the far side of a parallel water hazard, demonstrated the two-splash skip shot. And John Cook, who just wanted out of the wind, found shelter in a pot bunker so deep he had to address the ball with his left leg straight and his right foot next to his ear. "They don't teach you those shots," said Zoeller, who had a few shots like that himself. "It's not in Golf Digest."

But Azinger, who punches the ball under wind as well as anyone, birdied his last four holes on Friday to take a one-shot lead. Even with the wind, 28 players broke par in the second round—including Curtis Strange, whose 68 moved him to within four shots of the leader—and there was no repeat of 1984's first round, when 64 balls drowned on 17. This time, the soft greens accepted knockdown shots. The one thing the gale didn't do was help the Europeans, who are allegedly superior wind players. Langer was steady and eventually finished in a tie for sixth—the only player from the Continent in the top 10.

Elkington's outback roots provided some solace to the internationals, but as Azinger said, "He's not really a foreigner. He went to school in Houston"—the University of Houston, that is, where Elkington was a two-time All-America and a member of the 1984 and '85 NCAA championship teams. He still looks to Houston for help; his next-door neighbor there and regular breakfast companion is retired Tour great Jack Burke Jr. It was a putting tip from Burke that got Elkington going last week, and Elkington said he was thinking about Burke as he lined up his 15-foot birdie try on the last hole.

"He's such a hard guy," Elkington said, "that I thought, 'Come on, I have to make this. Otherwise I'm not gonna be able to take the heat at breakfast next week.' "

On the other hand, Azinger's putts weren't falling—a missed 12-footer for birdie at 17 was particularly damaging—and just as he had in the Honda Classic four weeks earlier, he lost a tournament on the final day. Azinger's 74 left him in a three-way tie for third with Blackmar and Cook, whose 65 was Sunday's best round. Strange was unable to make a move, and he wound up four shots behind Elkington.

Ironically, the $288,000 prize and the 10-year Tour exemption that go with winning The Players Championship will free Elkington to play more tournaments in Australia. With only two career wins, compared with Greg Norman's 58 worldwide, he has a way to go before he's as well known back home as Norman is.

"He's a big shark, and I'm a little fish," a smiling Elkington said Sunday, clutching his crystal Players trophy. "But I'm a bigger fish than I was yesterday."



Elkington exulted as his birdie putt fell at 18 on Sunday, but the zip went out of Zoeller (right) when he missed his 12-footer to tie.



Blackmar loomed large during the final round but came up short.



Though he scrambled and saved par at 11 on Sunday, Azinger soon dropped out of the lead.