There was no mistaking the buzz in that smoky clubhouse a few
weeks back. Nick Price was lingering over a bottled water, and
all around him talk of golf's major championships was in the
air. The U.S. Open had come and gone, the British was up next,
and just after that would be the PGA Championship. But in the
midst of all the forecasting and pontificating, one name was
strangely absent--Price's. From the sound of things, Price's
presence would be little more than ceremonial, like Arnold
Palmer's annual appearance at the Masters. It was astonishing,
considering that Price, 39, has won three majors in the '90s,
more than any other player save Nick Faldo, and two seasons ago
was so overpowering that people were comparing him with Ben
Hogan. When the oversight was brought to Price's attention, he
broke into an impish grin. "That's nice," he said. "Doesn't
bother me at all. On the contrary, I like the sound of that."
Price paused to take a swig, which seemed only to heat him up.
"I'm looking forward to showing them how wrong they are for
writing me off."
Price did just that at last week's PGA Championship, shooting
68-71-69-72 to tie for eighth at eight under par, three shots
back of Mark Brooks. It was Price's best showing in a major
since he won the '94 PGA, but it was more than that. It was the
surest sign yet that the traumas of the last two years--the bad
business decision, the bad putting and the bad health--are
finally in his rearview mirror. Price has stopped his free fall
and is starting another ascent to the game's highest level.
"I'll be back--I have no reservations about that," Price said
Sunday evening in the Valhalla locker room, between drags on a
cigarette. "I'm this close. We have a saying back home: I'm just
one hair away from running off some wins. When that happens, the
people with the short memories may be surprised, but I won't."
For the better part of four days at Valhalla, Price was long and
strong off the tee, precise with penetrating iron shots and
clutch with the putter. In short, he looked like the Price of
old. From the 1992 PGA to the end of '94, Price won 17
tournaments worldwide (11 on the PGA Tour), including the 1994
British Open. One wouldn't expect someone with that kind of
resume to settle for a moral victory, but Price developed a long
view during his two seasons of adversity. "You have to be
patient," he says. "You can't force wins, they just happen. But
I'll tell you, I'm pumped up. I still love the challenge. Being
on the leader board didn't make me nervous, it made me excited."
Those closest to Price were equally encouraged. "This was a big
stepping-stone," says his caddie, Jeff (Squeeky) Medlen. "He's
worked so hard, and it's been such a battle for him to get it
back. I think this week has shown that he has."
"This is the best I've seen him play in a long, long time," says
David Leadbetter, Price's swing coach. "He is looking very much
like his old self."
Price still has the vortex-inducing backswing of years past, and
the same aerodynamic haircut. He hasn't lost his clipped accent
from growing up in Zimbabwe or the endearingly boyish vulgarity
he saves for private conversations, and he remains one of the
most popular players in the locker room. But things have
changed. Not only is Price overlooked in the premajor
predictions, but he also no longer even gets put in the A-list
Thursday-Friday pairings, which on Tour are as much a barometer
of a player's status as the seating chart at Drai's is for
Hollywood types. At the PGA, Corey Pavin played with Greg Norman
and Davis Love III, Ernie Els was sent out with Tom Watson and
Tom Kite, and Fred Couples was in a threesome with Colin
Montgomerie and Fuzzy Zoeller. Price was stuck with Mike Reid,
an alternate who didn't even make the field until Wednesday, and
Bob Tway. Price has won as many majors as Pavin, Els and Couples
combined, but that's what happens when you're about to celebrate
the two-year anniversary of your last win.
Price's slump started late in 1994 as a hangover from his
intoxicating success that summer and carried over into the 1995
season. Burned out by the demands and intrusions of being the
No. 1 player in the world, Price went in search of a
multimillion-dollar endorsement contract. Ultimately he signed
an ill-fated deal, reportedly for 10 years at $25 million, to
design a signature line of irons for Atrigon Golf. The clubs
were never made, and only recently has Price extricated himself
from the arrangement. At the same time, Price moved his family
into a manse on Hobe Sound, Fla. "There was a period there of
four or five months when I stopped paying attention to my golf
game," he says. "I basically didn't practice, and it showed." By
the time Price got interested again, he had lost his edge and
was on the way to his first winless season since 1990.
Putting problems began to crop up, and still do. Price rolled
the ball well last week at Valhalla, but he never really got
hot, and there was no magic like the 50-footer he made on the
71st hole to win the British Open in '94. Even when he was
torching the golf world, Price was never a great putter. "The
only time I get nervous is on the greens," he says. Adds
Leadbetter, "Let's just say that practicing putting is not the
love of his life." At the start of this season Price had worked
through the problems, and in a span of nine tournaments from
March to mid-May had four top-five finishes. Then he was
torpedoed by a deviated septum that affected his sinuses, upset
his equilibrium and led to chronic fatigue. "The doctor looked
up my nose and said, 'It's not good,'" Price says. "Here,
listen." He puts his nose near the ear of a reporter, and his
breathing produces a noise somewhere between light snore and
mufflerless VW Bug. Medication has gotten him back to nearly
full strength (he will probably have surgery in December), but
Price spent six weeks on the sidelines and withdrew from the
U.S. Open. The PGA was his fifth start since the middle of May,
and only recently has he had the strength to practice. This
rustiness caught up with him at Valhalla, where little mistakes
cost him a shot at the championship.
The hardships of a sinus problem are nothing compared with the
wrenching news Price got last month. Medlen, his sidekick since
1991, has been found to have leukemia. It has been a solemn
time, but player and caddie have soldiered on, finding respite
between the ropes and in the overwhelming support from fans and
the golf community. "It's not a distraction, it's a comfort
having him at my side," Price says. "We've been together so long
that it's hard for us to be apart."
Medlen, 42, remained at home in Canal Winchester, Ohio, with his
wife, Dianne, instead of traveling to the British Open. Doctors
did not want Medlen to go overseas in case he developed a
reaction to his medication. (Without him, his boss finished
44th.) Medlen intends to have a bone marrow transplant soon. He
is taking pills to keep his white blood cell count in the normal
range, though his weight has dropped from 178 pounds to 149. His
mother, Jackie, is an 85% match for the transplant, which is
acceptable, but his doctors are waiting in hopes of finding a
closer fit. "It's like a risk-reward shot in golf," Medlen says.
"Chances are, good things might work out, but there is also the
chance they won't."
Medlen's health has been a daily reality check for Price, and
after the PGA his biggest disappointment was not having mounted
a final charge to fire up his caddie. "It was fun out there
anyway," Medlen said afterward. "It felt like old times." That
drew a smile from Price, but a knowing one, because in old times
he would have been lugging home the Wanamaker trophy. Not that
that's the only thing that matters.
"Some guys make winning out to be everything," Price says.
"That's a terrible philosophy. Winning golf tournaments is not
what life is all about."
Here Price pauses to clarify something. He still wants to win.
Quite a lot, in fact. "But if you won all the time, winning
would mean very little," he says. "What's the good without the
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [Nick Price]
COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Price had won two PGAs with Medlen and hoped a third might give his caddie a lift. [Nick Price and Jeff (Squeeky) Medlen]