The Force is almost always around at the end of golf
tournaments, settling in like an invisible energy field and
invading the hearts and minds of the leaders precisely at crunch
time. The problem is, it would take Obi-Wan Kenobi to know in
advance which way the Force is going to go. When it's with the
players, birdies fly and sudden-death playoffs always seem to
end with 30-foot putts. But when it's against them, the smell of
failure pervades, the holes seem to shrink, and late four-putts
and triple bogeys ensue. It can get very ugly.
The dark side had its way big time last Sunday at the Motorola
Western Open, descending on the rugged Cog Hill Number 4 course
in Lemont, Ill., just as the leaders turned for home. Very
quickly the killer public course became a burial ground for the
fastest guns in the tournament. Things got so ugly, in fact,
that the eventual winner, Billy Mayfair, decided the wisest
thing he could do was avert his eyes.
Unlike the boatload of other players who had a chance to win the
oldest nonmajor on the PGA Tour, Mayfair alone refused to study
the scoreboard as it was recording the goriest finish of the
year. The 28-year-old Phoenix native was most tempted as he was
walking down the 72nd hole in a five-way tie for the lead, but
he instead shifted his attention to the flagstick and stiffed a
seven-iron from 178 yards. Again the scoreboard beckoned him to
take a look, but Mayfair stared only at the hole, knocking home
the five-footer that gave him a closing 67, a total of
nine-under-par 279 and a one-stroke victory over Jeff Maggert,
Justin Leonard, Scott Simpson and Jay Haas.
"I don't like to look at the scoreboard," said Mayfair, whose
second career victory--the other was the '93 Greater Milwaukee
Open-earned him $360,000. "I just figure that if I take care of
my own business, I'm going to do the best I can."
Indeed, Mayfair was so successful in his approach that he may
have single-handedly redeemed Ernie Els and Jesper Parnevik,
both of whom were chastised last year for their costly ignorance
of where they stood on the 72nd hole of the U.S. and British
"I'm glad I wasn't watching the board," said Mayfair, when told
after the round of all the land mines others had stepped on. "It
wasn't pretty, huh?"
No, it wasn't. Steve Lowery, John Huston, Brett Ogle and Bob
Estes, who all held the lead for a time on Sunday, didn't
exactly turn into pillars of salt after looking at the
scoreboard, but they did start hitting shots as if they had
several tablespoons of the stuff stuck in their throats.
Lowery started the allergic reaction to the top spot when, upon
taking the lead by a stroke at nine under par with nine holes to
go, he promptly played the next five holes in three over par. He
finished tied for sixth, two shots behind Mayfair.
Huston, putting together a hot round that saw him birdie eight
of the first 15 holes, got to 10 under par and a stroke ahead
with three to play. Three pars would have locked up a victory,
but instead Huston four-putted the 16th hole from 25 feet for a
double bogey. It was probably the worst putting disaster by a
contender on the final day of a tournament since Huston putted
off the green and into a water hazard while leading the Mercedes
Championship in January. Reeling, Huston also bogeyed 18 to
finish tied with Lowery.
Ogle was next to succumb to the Force. After making birdies on
the 11th and 12th to also get to 10 under, Ogle gave in to
temptation and stole a peek at the scoreboard. "I don't like to
watch the leader board, but I can't help it," the 30-year-old
Australian said after ending the third round tied for the lead
with Lowery. "My eyes look forward, but then they sort of
glance. I'm a glancing person."
Sure enough, Ogle started administering glancing blows to his
ball. He misfired on a seven-foot par putt on the 13th and again
on a four-footer on the 14th. Frazzled, he pushed his drive into
the woods on the par-5 15th, took two shots to get back into the
fairway and eventually three-putted for a triple-bogey 8. He
finished tied for 13th, four strokes behind Mayfair.
That left an opening for Estes, who, coming off the 15th green,
was alone at nine under par. But Estes, a studious player who
last year won his first Tour event, got fouled up as he
scrutinized not one, but two leader boards.
The electronic scoreboards have small cubes of yellow light that
form numbers against a black background. It appeared to Estes
that there was a 9 next to both his and Maggert's names, when
Maggert was in fact eight under. Believing he was tied for the
lead, Estes changed his strategy accordingly.
Trying to make a birdie rather than a safe par, Estes turned
aggressive after a good drive on the par-4 16th and hooked his
seven-iron approach down an embankment left of the green and
into a hazard. After taking a drop and missing a six-foot putt,
Estes had a double bogey. He eventually fell into a sixth-place
tie with Huston, Lowery and Bob Tway.
"I guarantee you I never would have hit it left if I'd known
that I had a one-shot lead," said a visibly upset Estes after
the round. "I've usually been good at finishing off tournaments
when I have the lead, and that made it look like I hit just a
wild hook and couldn't handle the heat."
Finally, the player who handled the heat--or avoided the
Force--the best was Mayfair, who made only one bogey in his last
40 holes. He had come to the Western intent on following the
cryptic advice of his sports psychologist, Bob Rotella: "Don't
think about winning, but be prepared to win." Mayfair was so
faithful to the mantra that even when he got over his final putt
on 18, which would give him the lead alone for the first time,
he thought it was for a tie.
"I asked my caddie, 'Do we need to make that putt?' and he said,
'Yeah, it would be nice if you made it,'" said Mayfair. "I just
wanted to stay in the present and make a good stroke, so I
really didn't need to know any more."
Mayfair wasn't the only player who came to the Western with
little thought of winning. Fred Couples and Paul Azinger, both
on the mend and struggling to rediscover their golf games in
time for the year's last two major championships, came to
Chicago for the purpose of taking some steps, and possibly some
strides, in the right direction.
In terms of golf, Couples has probably been the more frustrated
of the two. In each of the last two seasons he has begun the
year either winning or threatening to win a few tournaments,
only to be largely stifled by back problems. Couples has grown
impatient at losing a valuable portion of his prime and silently
worries that he may never be the same golfer again.
"Last year I kind of laughed about it, feeling I got three
months off," said Couples, referring to the break he took after
originally injuring his lower back on the practice tee at Doral
in March. "Now, it's not so funny. I'm getting to the point that
it's wearing on me."
The pain, caused by a herniated disk in Couples's lower back,
flared up at Hilton Head the week after he tied for 10th at the
Masters. It led to his missing his first cut in 27 PGA Tour
events and brought on an eight-week break from the Tour. Couples
spent the time at his home in Dallas resting and rehabilitating
but not practicing, and when he returned he missed consecutive
cuts at Kemper and the U.S. Open.
Couples's current dilemma is that his back won't allow him
either to play the number of times he needs to get sharp or to
practice enough on weeks off to keep from getting rusty. That
limbo was why Couples was only a little encouraged after a
first-round 70 at Cog Hill that was only two strokes out of the
lead. "Honestly, today was a lucky round," he said. "I'm not
going to fool anybody. I could have shot a 78."
Aware that his tone invited a doomsday interpretation, Couples
expanded on his predicament. "I'm not saying I'll never play
good again," he said. "That's the least of my worries. I just
don't expect it to be anytime soon. I'm just not the player that
I was. Right now, a win for me would be a top 10."
Azinger is in a similarly pessimistic mood. As mysterious as
back injuries can be, he is moving in even lesser-known
territory, trying to gauge the immediate and long-term effects
of the six months of chemotherapy he received to battle the
lymphoma that was found in his right shoulder in 1993.
Since returning to the Tour last August, he has had endurance
problems and difficulty concentrating. His doctors don't
consider these to be serious problems, however, and Azinger
hopes to get back to where he left off in 1993, when he had
three victories, including the PGA Championship, and seven other
Azinger's play has been uneven since he returned to the Tour
full time. He began 1995 with an encouraging fourth place at
Hawaii but then fell into a pattern of mediocre play. In his
next 14 tournaments he missed five cuts and failed to place in
the top 10 in any of them. "When I first came back, I was
playing on instinct, and things felt pretty good," said Azinger.
"But then, the more I practiced, the worse I got."
After a respectable tie for 17th at the Masters, Azinger felt
exhausted at Hilton Head. Like Couples, it was his last
tournament for several weeks. To combat his lack of endurance, a
side effect of chemotherapy, Azinger was advised to drink more
fluids and get more rest. Two weeks before the Western, Azinger
finished in a tie for 15th at Hartford and felt a breakthrough.
"Physically, there was a nice leap, but mentally, there was a
tremendous leap," he said. "Prior to that, I had to really work
to think, to remember my swing thoughts and stuff. But something
clicked, and I could remember my key swing feeling."
Azinger took more strides at the Western. After opening with a
74 on a blustery day, a second-round 67 put him back into
contention. "I'm getting better and better," Azinger declared.
"I feel I'm all the way back."
The next day, however, Azinger felt listless and struggled to a
73. It was a reminder that his road back will have to be paved
with patience. "Right now, the game is not easy for me," he
admitted. "But if it doesn't happen right away, that's okay.
Even if I was perfectly healthy, I still took a year away from
the game, and it can take awhile to come back."
Fittingly, Couples and Azinger were paired together on Sunday,
each shooting a par 72 to finish at two-under-par 286, which
tied them with nine others for 29th place. After a week off,
they will head to St. Andrews, where each would love to make a
reentry to the top level of the game.
One player who will not be making the trip to the Old Course is
Mayfair, who has never played in the oldest championship and,
despite his win at Cog Hill, is not exempt. "For now, I just
want to concentrate on the PGA Tour," said Mayfair. "I just
figured with everyone going overseas, it was a good week for me
to take off."
May the Force be with you, Billy.
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Billy Mayfair (left) won the Western Open by avoiding the eerie pitfalls that befell his competitors
TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Sunday's finish had Lowery grimacing and Ogle missing with his long putter on short putts. [Steve Lowery; Brett Ogle watching putt]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS:PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Azinger (top) and Couples struggled once again in their efforts to find their past form. [Paul Azinger; Fred Couples]