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Original Issue

Swing Vote

A poll of golf's top money winners says that Fred Couples should win Player of the Year honors

As dusk settled over pinehurst one night last week, Davis Love III stood alone on the driving range, smacking fairway woods toward the distant gloaming. A ranger wandered up and asked Love if he would mind switching to wedges so that the ball shagger could start his cleanup. Love nodded. Then the ranger asked, "How you hitting 'em?"

"How should I know?" Love said. "I can't even see 'em."

It was Tuesday, two days before the start of the Tour Championship on the Pinehurst (N.C.) No. 2 course. So what brought a PGA millionaire out at this nocturnal hour? Love was on the campaign trail.

Later this month the 196-member PGA electorate will pick its Tour Player of the Year, and the Tour Championship was serving as the final debate. Love saw each practice stroke as a swing vote, so he remained into the night even though he lacked the vision thing. Also at Pinehurst were the rest of the Tour's top 30 money winners, including the three other players who had already earned $1 million in 1992: John Cook, Masters champion Fred Couples and PGA winner Nick Price. "It feels like a political year around here," said Billy Ray Brown, 29th on the money list. "Everybody has election fever."

But in this final debate the four main candidates fizzled. Couples was so distracted at Pinehurst that he alternated between a conventional and a cross-handed putting grip all week. He started poorly, as did Cook and Price. Love actually had a share of the first-round lead, but he faded the next day, with a 76. Only Couples, who rallied with a 66 on both Saturday and Sunday, finished in the top 10. The tournament was won by Paul Azinger, who took home $360,000.

Because none of the front-runners seized the voters' attention at Pinehurst, we present the results of yet one more poll taken in this election season. The four candidates who received votes:

•Fred Couples ($1,344,188 earned in 1992). Couples was first on the money list and in scoring average. He tied for the most tournament wins, with three. But he won all his tournaments, and more than a million bucks, before Easter. "Freddie was on an eight-month tear going back to last year, and then he just ran out of gas," said Azinger on the eve of the Tour Championship. "But a lot of baseball games are won in the first inning."

Slick Freddie waffled on the issue of winning the Tour Player of the Year award for the second straight year. "Whoever wins it won't be a bad choice," he said before the tournament. Couples's own vote? Decidedly undecided.

•Davis Love III ($1,191,630). He had about as much chance to win as the Libertarian candidate, even though he finished second on the money list. Love also won his three events early in the season, and, like Couples, he saw his approval rating drop dramatically during the year. He was particularly malodorous in the majors, in which his best finish was a tie for 25th at Augusta. "The way I've played lately," says Love, "I'm lucky to be on the ballot." Love's vote? Couples.

•John Cook ($1,165,606). He, too, won three times in '92, and he wound up third on the money list. Twice Cook was Nicked in the final holes at a major: by Faldo at the British Open and by Price at the PGA. "If you look at the year from top to bottom," says Tour player Jim Gallagher Jr., "John's been the most consistent." Cook apparently doesn't agree. His vote? Couples.

•Nick Price ($1,135,773). Who am I? Why am I here? Price was rescued from obscurity with his win at the PGA in August, and he flourished through the fall, joining the Millionaire's Club with his second victory, two weeks ago at the Texas Open. Price's vote? Couples.

So three of the four top candidates chose Couples. That result roughly reflected the outcome of our poll, which was conducted Oct. 27-29, of 30 registered voters who happen to be the top 30 money winners on the Tour. The margin of error was plus or minus a lot of percentage points. The final tally: Couples 53%, Cook 24%, Price 7%, Love 3%, undecided 10%. The remaining 3% is Greg Norman, who refused to participate.

Our feeling? Had Cook dropped his three-footer on the 17th hole at Muir-field, he would have deserved to be Player of the Year. However, this election is really about trust, isn't it? The question is, Who would you trust most to sink a 10-footer to win a major?

The answer: Slick Freddie, no matter how he putts it.



After a slow start Couples shot a couple of 66s to finish fifth at Pinehurst.