You want to be a somebody on the PGA Tour? Go to the Buick Open
in Grand Blanc, Mich., where everyone's a star--club pros, hog
farmers, you name it. But really, how does a bank teller with a
bum knee, Woody Austin, outshine the Tour's bright lights down
the stretch and then dust another guy you never heard of, Mike
Brisky, in sudden death to win for the first time? There's no
accounting, unless Austin was in the wrong line of work all
those years at the credit union in Tampa.
Players don't exactly go to the Buick for the cuisine, unless
they're into cheese cubes. They don't go there to hobnob with
prestigious corporate sponsors like Flint Boxmakers and Bristol
Steel and Conveyor, or to luxuriate at the Holiday Inn Holidome
off Route 23. They go there to take shameless advantage of
Warwick Hills, a feel-good par-72 where you too can look like a
highly skilled professional. Memo to all tournament directors:
If you want a strong field and a crazy finish, forget the
courtesy cars and free condos with kitchenettes. Get a pushover
like Warwick Hills.
Put Jeff Sluman, Ernie Els, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart near
the top of the leader board in the late innings of a $1.2
million tournament, and you don't expect a guy named Woody to
win. Here's a 31-year-old rookie with Coke bottle glasses and
baggy khakis bunched around his knees and ankles who says
repertoire when he means rapport. No, Woody couldn't talk the
talk, but while all of the name brands bogeyed instead of
birdied, Austin walked the walk by beating Brisky on the second
hole of overtime with a routine par. Brisky had knocked his
eight-iron approach to the par-4 10th into a bunker, where it
buried. Austin two-putted, then two-stepped into the arms of his
caddie, Tim Mork.
What those who follow the Tour closely are coming to realize is
that beneath Austin's frumpy exterior is a fine and crazily
determined player. After spending years in Tampa making change
and rehabilitating the torn ligaments in his left knee, Austin
has emerged to finish in the top 15 nine times in his inaugural
season. Now 19th on the money list with over a half million in
earnings, Austin would have been big news months ago if another
rookie, David Duval, hadn't been hogging the headlines. And
don't let the looks fool you: Austin has burned deeply for this
kind of success. In fact, he has been known to smack himself in
the face, hard, for hitting a bad shot. "I have a weird temper,"
he says. "I don't throw my clubs. I know it's not the club's
fault. It's mine.''
From the beginning, when Austin shot a 63 to hold the
first-round lead, this Buick was a triumph for the struggling
everyman, for the Tom Byrums and Bruce Vaughans and Jim Furyks
who kept popping up like moles all over Warwick Hills. And for
Brisky, a 30-year-old journeyman from Brownsville, Texas, who
has been through Q school twice and is a good buddy of Austin's
going back to their days on the Florida mini-tours. As they
stood on the 18th tee to begin the playoff, they slapped each
other on the back. "I guess we were a couple of unknowns,"
Austin said later. "I've played with Mike so much, I was kind of
That was pretty much how everyone felt during the course of the
week. Rain had softened Warwick Hills' 7,105 user-friendly
yards, and as usual, the game was how low can you go? In fact,
by week's end Warwick Hills ranked as the third-easiest course
on Tour this year among those on which four rounds were played
(behind Tucson National and Torrey Pines). The pros averaged
70.658 strokes, to be exact, which was not a surprise at a place
where the doglegs barely dog, the shallow bunkers look like good
spots to stretch out a towel and catch some rays, and there is
no water to speak of other than one largely ornamental pond on
the 13th hole. Coppices, menacing at first glance, turn out to
be spacious and forgiving, affording clear lines of exit to the
greens. "A lot of the holes give you an out," Sluman said. It
was a beautifully manicured course. It was an inoffensive
course. It was a good course for the Elks Lodge scramble.
It's always a bad sign when players like a golf course too much.
That usually means they are about to devour it. A five-hour rain
delay on Thursday and the invocation of the lift, clean and
place rule made the already untaxing course totally defenseless.
"It feels like you could shoot 59," Stewart said. Uh-oh. He
proceeded to shoot 65-65 for the second-round lead.
Anybody and everybody took advantage. Vaughan, a 38-year-old
from Hutchinson, Kans., who has explored alternative careers as
a fireman and a pig farmer, was one of four players to shoot
opening 65s and tie for second behind Austin. Another was J.L.
Lewis, a club pro from Austin. That was just for openers. Furyk,
the 25-year-old with the funky swing, set a course record of 62
in the second round with 10 birdies and no bogeys.
After two rounds, 13 of Warwick Hills' holes averaged under par,
including seven on the back nine. There were 1,150 birdies the
first two days, and the cut fell at four under, just one off the
Players like Nick Faldo, who thrive on getting around difficult
courses with a minimum of mistakes, got lost in all the red
numbers. Faldo has never been a scorcher. He used the Buick to
prep for this week's PGA Championship and was clearly irritated
by this shoot-out. "On a course like this, the way it's playing,
you feel like you have to hit it stiff every single time," Faldo
said, rolling his eyes.
The fun ended over the weekend when the sun hardened the greens
and the pin placements got tricky. Sluman's 67 on Saturday put
him at 16-under 200, one better than Byrum, a refugee from the
Nike Tour who has needed sponsor exemptions to gain entry to
seven of the eight events he has played this year. Six others
were within six strokes of Sluman, including Brisky and Couples,
trailing by two, and Els, Stewart and Austin, three strokes back.
So how was it that Brisky, with his 68, and Austin, with his 67,
for their 72-hole totals of 18-under 270 held up better on
Sunday than the limelighters?
Couples, the defending champion, at least had an excuse. The
only way he can cope with a chronically bad back is to give it a
rest. He has been unable to play or practice with any
regularity, benched himself from mid-April to mid-June and had
missed three cuts in his last four events. Coming into the
Buick, his mood was foul and his swing uncertain. "I hate coming
out here just to play, testing this back," he said. "It's a
waste of time." Couples also had some advice for Ryder Cup
captain Lanny Wadkins, who is itching to make Couples one of his
two captain's picks. "I would be a very risky pick right now,"
Couples was so testy that he cussed out a photographer on
Saturday and then blew past waiting cameras after his final
round of 70. Once again putting with a conventional grip,
Couples had the distinction of going 70 straight holes without a
bogey. But then one came at the worst possible time, on the
par-3 17th, where he and playing partner Brisky stood on the tee
at 17 under needing a birdie to catch Austin. Instead, Couples
watched Brisky put a gorgeous three-iron shot inches from the
hole while he pushed his ball well right of the green, then
dumped his pitch into a bunker.
Sluman, who remains winless since claiming the 1988 PGA, also
came to a bad end. The Buick marked the seventh time he has
been a runner-up since '88, and he had only himself to blame. He
held a two-stroke lead at 19 under going to the 548-yard, par-5
13th, an easy birdie hole. But there he flew a wedge shot
through the green and into a pond. On the 14th, a 322-yard
par-4, he knocked it over the green again and then left his chip
on the collar for another bogey. Those mistakes basically handed
the lead for good to Austin, who gladly accepted.
A player of note at Miami in the 1980s, Austin blew out his knee
in 1987 when he fell after his spikes caught in tall grass as he
was hitting a shot. A specialist advised him that the knee was
seriously underdeveloped and unless he did something about it,
the injury would be a repetitive one. Austin spent two years in
rehab, in the meantime taking a job as a teller at the GTE
Federal Credit Union in Tampa, his hometown.
Austin was still on the payroll there as of last year, making
$7.27 an hour. The bank was kind enough to give him time off to
play mini-tour events and even floated him a loan to play the
Dakota tour. His final day on the job came when he worked a
shift the day before last Thanksgiving. A week later he earned
his Tour card. "Some people laughed at me, but the fact is, the
people at the bank allowed me to come and go and work on a
dream," he said Sunday evening. "I have a great repertoire, or
what ever you call it, with them. They gave me my life back."
The Buick has a way of doing that too. The tournament has
produced first-time winners such as Robert Wrenn, Jack Newton,
John Fought and Peter Jacobsen.
Now Austin can also look back at it as the place he became a
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN MASCK A rookie at age 31, Austin can now bank on at least two years of job security. [Woody Austin]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND As Sluman (below) suffered another setback, Couples got back in business. [Fred Couples]
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN MASCK [see caption above--Jeff Sluman]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JIM GUND (2) Brisky (above), who ranked 190th on the Tour money list, and Austin got a look at some real money. [Mike Brisky; Woody Austin holding check]