This year's two-month West Coast swing on the PGA Tour, which
ended on Sunday at the Nissan Open at Riviera Country Club, in
Pacific Palisades, Calif., leaves us with an amalgam of
curiosities and intriguing loose ends.
Topping the money list are the unlikely duo of Peter Jacobsen and
Kenny Perry, who nearly achieved the first back-to-back, back-to
back victories on the West Coast but fell short when Perry faded
to finish in a tie for second at Riviera. Not even on the list is
the world's best player, Nick Price, who has yet to compete in the
U.S. this year, while America's best, Fred Couples, is the leading
money winner on the European tour. Almost invisibly, John Morse
won the Hawaiian Open in January, while nearly as softly but
carrying a very large, titanium-headed stick, Jack Nicklaus
recorded his best finish on the regular Tour in four years with a
tie for sixth at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Along the
way we've been tantalized but not fulfilled by the prospective
comebacks of John Daly, Paul Azinger, Payne Stewart, Curtis
Strange and Lanny Wadkins.
It used to be that the West Coast provided a reassuring feeling
of constancy to the start of a new year. Nicklaus would win at
Pebble Beach, Arnold Palmer would win in Palm Springs and Los
Angeles, and Johnny Miller would sweep Arizona, all amid the languid
television banter of tournament hosts like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope,
Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Glen Campbell. That has all changed
now, and it takes the wit of Bill Murray or the weight of
President Clinton to register more than a blip on the celebrity
radar screen, while the highest Q-ratings among this year's
winners belonged to Phil Mickelson, in Tucson, and Corey Pavin,
who on Sunday became one of just three players -- the others are
Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer -- ever to win consecutive L.A. Opens
On the surface this might seem to support the perception that
today's Tour stays in a holding pattern until it reaches Florida
in March. Price, the leading money winner for the last two seasons
while winning nine tournaments, has completely bypassed West Coast
events in that time. This year the top players on the Tour --
Price, Greg Norman, Couples and Ernie Els -- made only three
appearances out West among them. Last week at Riviera, the same
course at which this year's PGA Championship will be held in
August, only two of last year's Top 10 PGA Tour money winners
showed up. Many players took the week off to gear up for the four
upcoming Florida events.
No wonder the swing out West is dubbed the Rest Coast or the Left
Out Coast. The advent of year-round golf -- with the U.S.
off-season of November and December peppered with lucrative,
limited-field events -- has encouraged established pros, a large
proportion of whom make their homes in Florida, to take a break
during January and February. When they comparison shop in making
up their schedules for the year, those players think that the West
Coast's spotty weather, multiple course venues, 72-hole pro-ams
and cross-country logistics make it the place not to be.
All that said, there were signs this year that the West Coast may
be on the rise. A significant group of stars one rung down -- Ben
Crenshaw, Steve Elkington, Nick Faldo, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Davis
Love III, Craig Stadler, Pavin, Azinger, Mickelson, Daly, Stewart,
Strange and Wadkins -- all played at least four events through Los
Angeles. As a group they made 66 appearances on the West Coast,
compared with a collective 46 appearances last year.
There are some good reasons for better fields, the biggest being
this September's Ryder Cup; the qualifying system for the U.S.
team offers double points for 1995 events. As a result of their
victories both Perry and Jacobsen have jumped from nowhere to
become strong contenders for the team.
``I think everybody is more jacked up to play this year,'' says
U.S. captain Wadkins. ``Guys trying to make the Ryder Cup are
helping all the fields.''
Another factor: Tournament organizers are working to enhance
their events. Course conditions were improved dramatically at Torrey
Pines and Riviera, while purses were up $100,000 to $200,000 for
Tucson, Phoenix, Pebble Beach, San Diego (Torrey Pines) and Los
Angeles. ``Money talks,'' says Jacobsen.
In general, veterans are playing more events than in the past. The
proof is in the timing of the ``reshuffle,'' a process in which
players who gained Tour cards the previous year through the
qualifying school and the numbers six through 10 off last year's
Nike Tour money list are reranked for tournament eligibility
according to their performance to date. The first of the year's
five reshuffles is done after all the Q schoolers have played in
at least three events. Since this periodic reranking started in
1982, the first reshuffle has always taken place during or
immediately after the West Coast swing. But this year, because of
all the veterans filling up the fields, one new member is still
shy of three tournaments, so the reshuffle probably won't happen
until April, when the Tour goes to New Orleans.
Many veterans are playing a heavier early-season schedule simply
because it is getting more difficult to be among each year's top
125 money winners, the measure by which a nonwinner on the Tour
can remain exempt for the next year. In 1994 the cutoff in
official earnings was $138,000, the highest ever and up nearly
$20,000 from 1993.
``I try not to think about it that way, but it's definitely very
competitive,'' says Howard Twitty, who finished 130th on the money
list last season and is in the final year of a two-year exemption
from his 1993 Hawaiian Open victory. ``If you start the year out
strong, it can save you a lot of anxiety.'' Twitty has already
played in six events but has made less than $15,000.
Amid all the scrambling for early position there were plenty of
noteworthy developments on the West Coast. The popularity of
cross-handed putting has so changed attitudes about the best way
to get the ball into the hole that Mike Hulbert's new one-handed
method has drawn thoughtful assessments rather than derision.
Nicklaus's finish at Pebble Beach promises the kind of year that
might set the stage for a career exit appropriate to the greatest
golfer of all time. With his victory at Tucson, Mickelson became
the youngest player since Nicklaus to win five times. Jacobsen's
victory at Pebble Beach was accomplished by hitting an incredible
69 out of 72 greens in regulation, the most ever in a four-round
tournament since the Tour began keeping that statistic in 1980.
The 40-year-old followed that with a solid victory the next week
at Torrey Pines.
The most surprising figure has been Perry, a 34-year-old pro who
after his victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic two weeks ago
could hardly believe he has three career victories on the PGA
Tour. In fact, Perry could have had that many this year alone, as
he has thrice led going into the final round this season -- by
three at Pebble Beach, by one at the Hope and by one at L.A. Perry
has always been thought of by his peers as someone who could play,
but the biggest reason why this amiable Kentuckian is suddenly
playing the best golf of his nine-year career may lie in the
mantra from Field of Dreams: ``Build it, and they will come.''
Perry's dream was to build a public course in the small town of
Franklin, where he grew up and still resides, and where Country
Creek Golf Club will open this spring. Perry eventually hopes to
devote his days to heading the operation of Country Creek,
teaching youngsters golf and coaching the local high school golf
team. The catch is that to make the dream come true Perry and his
brother-in-law had to borrow $1.5 million.
``When you borrow a million and a half dollars from the bank,
that will get you real focused in a hurry,'' he says. ``All my checks
go straight to the bank.''
So far this year his deposits have come from $430,927 in
winnings. Perry is playing so well that he might want to alter
his plan to retire in three or four years. ``I've done more than
I ever thought I would,'' he says. ``That will mean something
someday when I'm working with the kids.''
It's unlikely that he will teach them to swing in his own image.
Perry's backswing comes in about four pieces. But after it's
assembled at the top, his swing stays solid.
``It's ugly going back, but from the top down I'm as good as
anyone,'' says Perry, long regarded as one of the best drivers on
If Perry's play has been a surprise, so too has Faldo's, though
not such a pleasant one. In four events Faldo has won the modest
sum of $48,703 to rank 64th on the money list, all the while
demonstrating his trademark consistency by only once shooting over
par in his 14 rounds. But the 6 3" Faldo has also proved to be a
surprisingly short hitter, averaging only 252.5 yards in driving
He didn't play in the Bob Hope or in Los Angeles, where dry
conditions might have helped his average go up, but it's still
clear that compared to the players he is trying to surpass -- most
notably Price, Norman, Couples and Els -- the Englishman lacks
pop. Playing week in, week out in America, where both the weather
and the length of the golf courses encourage taking a healthy
whack, should help Faldo gain some distance off the tee, but so
far it hasn't.
``Nick hits a pretty ball off the tee, but it doesn't have a lot
of pop,'' says Hulbert. ``He swings a driver like a five-iron, and
as big as he is, it would be neat to see him go ahead and rip
it.'' Adds Faldo's coach, David Leadbetter, ``I think Nick
probably has more slow-twitch muscle fibers, like a long distance
runner, as opposed to someone like Greg Norman, whose move is more
So far in America, Faldo has been far from a ball-striking genius,
ranking only 31st in greens hit in regulation. His stats indicate
that when he wins, it is from the elimination of mistakes. That's
a style that has won him five majors and may win him more in the
future. But it's also a style that is difficult to win with in
regular events, when it usually takes double-digit under-par
figures to win. Faldo's early-season stats indicate that the fact
that he has won only once in more than 100 appearances on the
regular PGA Tour, at Hilton Head in 1984, is not just a quirk of
Faldo's diametric opposite in style, Fred Couples, has been, as
usual, an enigma. After finishing dead last in the official
season-ending Tour Championship in October, Couples embarked on a
series of six unofficial events, winning five. Then, after
finishing a ho-hum tie for fifth at the Mercedes Championships in
January, Couples went to Dubai and Manila for big appearance-fee,
European tour events. Naturally, he won both of them.
As Couples was finishing 19th at Los Angeles, he tried to explain
why he seems to get in zones when he is away from his home tour.
``The PGA Tour just builds on you,'' he said. ``A lot of times if
you don't succeed, you just pick on yourself. But in the second
season you just show up and play. If you don't play well, you sit
in the sun for a week.''
Still, Couples looks ready to play the way he did in late 1991 and
early 1992, when he won the Masters. He is healthy, having
overcome back problems that sidelined him last year, and happy,
having put his divorce behind him and settled in Dallas with his
significant other, Tawnya Dodd. In addition, he loves St. Andrews,
the site of the British Open, and Riviera, where the PGA will be
Couples, predictably, is downplaying such projections. ``When I
lived in Palm Springs,'' he said, ``George Brett would come over
with a piece of paper each winter. It would say `two majors, three
Tour wins and the money title.' I'd just sit there and laugh.''
Doing very little laughing is John Daly. In fact, Daly's
relatively solemn if not unfriendly demeanor since starting the
year after a four-month leave of absence from the Tour prompted
one longtime Tour official to comment, ``You know, I never see
Coming into Los Angeles, Daly had little to be happy about in his
game, having finished last in Hawaii and having missed the cut in
Tucson and Phoenix as well as in one tournament in Australia. He
returned to the Tour in January after not having touched a club
for two months, and the effects of his long layoff have been
lingering. Before the Nissan he was 158th on the Tour in scoring,
with an average of 73.46, and was ranked 156th in greens in
regulation. He was his customary first in driving distance but
customarily well down in driving accuracy, hitting 50% of the
fairways to rank 163rd.
But at Riviera, Daly opened the tournament by driving the
311-yard, par-4 10th hole and sinking a 12-footer for an eagle on
his way to a 67. From there, though, he played unevenly, shooting
a two-under 282 to finish 41st.
At 28, Daly is a recovering alcoholic who two months ago got
married for the third time, to Paulette Dean, who is expecting
their baby in May. Although his game is still the most explosive
ever seen, Daly's enthusiasm for the game seems to have waned, and
he doesn't appear to know how to get it back.
Daly contends that he is more focused than ever, but his words
are noncommittal. ``I'm hanging in there,'' he said. ``But right now
I've got no expectations. Just to come out and play and get
through a full year. The things I want driving me crazy are the
chances to win, not, `What am I doing out here?' ''
By all appearances, Azinger, Strange, Stewart and Wadkins know
exactly why they have played a full West Coast swing -- to
recapture former stature.
Of the four veterans, Stewart has played the best, with a tie for
fourth in Phoenix and a fifth at Pebble Beach, while Azinger, who
is playing his first full season since missing most of '94 due to
lymphoma, began the year with a tie for fourth in Hawaii. Strange
came the closest to winning, finishing tied for third at the Bob
Hope after dunking his four-wood approach to the par-5 90th hole.
Wadkins has been slow to emerge from a 1994 in which he finished
185th on the money list and made only nine cuts in 25 appearances,
but he played well in Los Angeles, getting in the hunt with a 66
on Saturday and closing with a 69 for 274, six strokes behind
Pavin. Wadkins's tie for seventh was his best finish since a tie
for third at the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic back in 1993.
``We are not chopped liver,'' said Wadkins, speaking for the
foursome. ``We do not like to play poorly, and we want to make it
back. A lot of it is pride. I was embarrassed by the way I was
playing before. This is a lot better.''
Wadkins's is just one of the loose ends that are sure to be
further addressed as the Tour changes time zones. If it and a few
others get tended to, then the West Coast served as a worthy
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKPavin joined Hogan and Palmer as the only winners of consecutive L.A. Opens played at Riviera. [Corey Pavin]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK With so many top players missing, Mickelson was one of the Rest Coast's highest profile winners.[Phil Mickelson]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Perry, whose paydays are bankrolling his golf course, is surprising even himself. [Kenny Perry]
COLOR PHOTO:JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Faldo is still searching for the extra distance he needs (above), while Couples, with or without a club, has a bead on his game again.[Nick Faldo]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK [see caption above--Fred Couples lining up shot without a club]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK After opening fast at Riviera with a 67, newlywed Daly slowed to finish 41st. [John Daly]