One day nearly six years ago, Jack Nicklaus asked Brad Faxon how
he was doing. "O.K.," Faxon said, "but I need to learn how to
play well after playing well." Faxon had won the Buick Open two
weeks earlier and was experiencing a postvictory letdown. "I
thought Jack would tell me something profound," Faxon remembers,
"so I was really waiting for his answer. Instead he says, 'Join
But on Sunday, after winning the Freeport-McDermott Classic in
New Orleans by three strokes--his first win on Tour since the
1992 International--Faxon was less concerned about postvictory
syndrome interfering with his performance in the Masters than he
was about all the putting lessons he'll be asked to give this
week in Augusta. Colin Montgomerie was the first to sign up,
having spent an exasperating two rounds at the recent Players
Championship watching Faxon bail himself out of trouble by
holing putt after putt.
"A lot of people out here are so into ball striking, it's almost
as if they'd rather play a tournament on the driving range than
go to the course and have to make putts," says Faxon, who led
the Tour in putting last year as well as last week at English
Turn Golf & Country Club. "And it's almost as if you're 'lucky'
if you're a good putter. Very few people come up to me on the
range and ask me what I'm working on or thinking about, but I
help almost everyone with putting."
Jesper Parnevik, who last week finished second (along with Bill
Glasson) for the third time this year, is another player envious
of Faxon's stroke. "Players like Ben Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson
are great putters," Parnevik says, "but they don't putt as
consistently well as Brad does."
Even Tiger Woods has approached Faxon looking for help. In
December at the JCPenney Classic, Woods asked Faxon for a
putting lesson. "Yeah, you need a lesson," Faxon told him.
"You're only beating everyone by 20 shots."
Earlier this year Faxon realized that he had gotten away from
what he does best. After finishing eighth on the money list in
1996--and, on the strength of four second-place finishes,
setting the record for most money won without a victory--Faxon
scrutinized the driving stats and decided that because he ranked
170th in distance, 142nd in accuracy and 188th overall, he
needed to shore up that area of his game. While focusing on his
tee shots, he missed three cuts in his first six starts this
year. Then he says he was straightened out by sports
psychologist Bob Rotella, who suggested at the Players
Championship that Faxon go back to his old game. He finished
fourth at the TPC at Sawgrass. "When I start trying to be like
Nick Faldo and hit every shot down the middle and get mad when I
don't," says Faxon, "I'm in trouble and it affects my ability to
score. I do a good job at staying confident when I have to get
up and down, which is when so many other people get mad. That's
my game, and I've got to realize it."
Faxon clearly lacked Faldoesque accuracy on Sunday, but he
reasoned that since he was playing well enough to be in
contention, he could also hold the lead, which by the 11th hole
had grown to four strokes. It was only on the final hole, a
difficult par-4 of 471 yards, that Faxon's mind conjured up some
dark images. "I thought about all the stupid things I could do,"
he said. "I thought about how I could make a 9 on the last hole.
Instead of trying to hit it down the middle, I thought, O.K.,
just start this over land. So I hit it into the bunker. And then
I thought, If I skull it under the lip, I might be here forever.
I'd take a drop and the ball would be plugged and I wouldn't be
able to get it out--an endless story. I think of stupid stuff
like that sometimes, which is only O.K. if I don't do it while
I'm pulling the trigger." Faxon survived, reaching the green in
three and two-putting for a bogey 5, and still shot a
tournament-record score of 16-under-par 272, which came on
weather-interrupted rounds of 68, 69, 66 and 69. The previous
record of 274 was set by Davis Love III and Mike Heinen in 1995,
when Love won in a playoff.
The Freeport-McDermott was the last chance for many of the
players to qualify for the Masters, but Faxon was already in, as
were five other top-10 finishers at English Turn--Parnevik,
Scott McCarron (tie for fourth), Russ Cochran (sixth) and
Yoshinori Kaneko and Tommy Tolles (tie for seventh). All of them
insisted they were ready for the Masters, and several noted the
correlation between success at English Turn and success at
Augusta National, though no one has ever won the two tournaments
back-to-back. Players such as Love, Greg Norman, Jose Maria
Olazabal and Ian Woosnam have had wins or high finishes on both
courses in recent years. Parnevik, who will be playing in his
first Masters this week, said that the best advice he has
received about Augusta came from Steve Elkington and Norman, who
both told him that if he could maintain a sense of humor about
everything weird that will happen to his golf ball, he'll be
fine. Japan's Kaneko, also an Augusta rookie, said that only God
knew whether or not he could do as well in the Masters as he did
at English Turn. He then conceded that divine intervention might
Glasson, who came closest to snagging the last ticket to
Augusta, would probably have had to turn it down. Playing on a
medical exemption following an operation last May to repair a
detached muscle in his right forearm--the 11th surgery of his
14-year career--Glasson says that he can't play two tournaments
in a row and may not be able to do so for another month.
Glasson's second-place finish in only his second start of the
year would have seemed more impressive had it not been played in
the shadow of a far more celebrated comeback. Because
thunderstorms delayed play last Saturday, Olazabal had to go 27
holes on Sunday, the most holes he has played in one day since
severe foot pain forced him to give up competitive golf 19
months ago. Olazabal finished six strokes behind Faxon, though
he was within a stroke of the lead at one point on Sunday morning.
The Freeport-McDermott was Olazabal's first tournament in the
U.S. since the NEC World Series of Golf in August 1995 and the
fourth start of a comeback that began in February at the
European tour's Dubai Desert Classic. Olazabal is a combined 51
under par in his 16 rounds and has three top-10 finishes,
including a win at the Turespana Masters three weeks ago. The
extra holes on Sunday were something of a final exam for
Augusta. "The feet are fine," he said. "The game is what has to
be sharper. I'm happy with the score I made, but not with the
way I struck the ball." Olazabal minimized his chances in the
Masters. "I'm going to Augusta to enjoy the week as much as
possible," he said. "In other years I've gone there to win, but
this time it's going to be different. The hills are very steep,
and it's going to be difficult for me to walk."
Olazabal's story has been told often. After his illness was
allegedly misdiagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis in September
1995, a condition which has appeared in his family's medical
history, Olazabal retreated to his home in Fuenterrabia, Spain,
and became a virtual recluse. There were tales of a
wheelchair-bound Olazabal growing hugely fat, contracting AIDS
and spending $3 million searching for a cure. There were also
wildly optimistic statements by his manager, Sergio Gomez, who
said that Olazabal was improving every day. In fact, to spare
his feet, Olazabal often crawled on his hands and knees from his
bed to his bathroom. He says now that the pain he felt in his
feet was like walking barefoot on broken glass, or as if he had
no flesh between his bones and the ground. Olazabal went seven
months without hitting a ball and believed he would never play
golf again. "It was bad, yes," he says.
Then last September he was persuaded by Adidas to fly to Munich
to be fitted for special shoes. There he visited Dr. Wilhelm
Muller Wohlfahrt, who specializes in treating athletes.
Wohlfahrt told Olazabal that he did not have arthritis, that his
problem was a herniated disk in his lower back and that he would
someday be cured and pain-free.
Olazabal has been surprised by how quickly he has returned to
form. "In the past it has sometimes taken me longer to stop
struggling and feel comfortable on the golf course when I've
taken a three- or four-week holiday," he says.
Most of the players who saw him at English Turn feel Olazabal
should be listed among the favorites this week. Although he
seems to have picked up his game right where he left off--his
complaints about how poorly he's driving the ball are nothing
new--Olazabal's demeanor and attitude have changed. He is
noticeably more serene, both on and off the course. "Tournaments
are still just as important to him," says Gomez, "but they are
no longer the only thing in his life."
Olazabal admits that the one positive thing to come from his
ordeal is that it has given him a better perspective. "If I have
a bad round or hit a few bad shots, I don't get so angry with
myself anymore," he says. "I'm more patient, but I haven't lost
my competitiveness. To win you have to have that desire, and
since I've won a tournament, I don't think I've lost that. My
priorities are still the same--I just have a different approach.
At Augusta this year I will very much enjoy looking at the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND In New Orleans, Faxon erased his mistakes with a wave of his magic putter. [Brad Faxon putting]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Four starts into his comeback Olazabal appears to have picked up where he left off 19 months ago. [Jose Maria Olazabal golfing]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Payne Stewart (right) missed his last try for Augusta, while Glasson would've had to send his regrets. [Payne Stewart golfing; Bill Glasson golfing]