Last week's Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic was golf's
version of Waterworld--all matted hair, slimy vegetation and
dank clothes. Those who thrived in the aquatic conditions of the
final round were either enormously resourceful like Brad Faxon,
who can get more out of a heeled drive followed by a toed
five-iron than anyone in the game, or enormously acquisitive
like Frank Nobilo, a descendant of pirates, who on Sunday
plundered the Forest Oaks Country Club with a closing nine of 31
that was so forceful it nearly produced a rooster tail.
Like its sodden movie model, the tournament was no artistic
success, but at least it had a surprise ending. After tying at
14-under-par 274, the two protagonists provided a role-reversing
cliff-hanger of a playoff. Nobilo, a 36-year-old New Zealander
known more for his solid swing than his short game, got up and
down for par from 70 yards on the first hole of sudden death.
Meanwhile Faxon, a wizard around the greens, took three from the
fringe, giving Nobilo his first victory on the PGA Tour.
"I'm very disappointed," said Faxon, peeling off his rain
clothes and, after removing his waterlogged shoes, some
understandably redolent socks. "I'd like to play it again."
Sinking into a chair, he quickly reconsidered. "But I don't
think I'd like to go out there now."
For Nobilo, who is playing a full schedule in the U.S. for the
first time, the victory confirmed the flashes of world-class
ability he had shown in eight international wins dating back to
1985 as well as a 1996 season in which he played strongly in the
majors, finishing fourth in the Masters, 13th in the U.S. Open,
26th in the British and tied for eighth in the PGA. The win also
capped a comeback from a debilitating and confounding injury to
his shoulders and arms that had him wondering if he would ever
play well again. "This is going to be the one I'll always
remember," he said, warming his hands on the swashbuckling beard
that he keeps neatly trimmed. "Because of what I overcame, this
goes to the top of the tree."
In terms of playing conditions Greensboro was at the bottom of
the barrel, nearly sinking to the level of 1987, when it earned
the distinction of being the last Tour event to be interrupted
by snow. Last Wednesday's pro-am was canceled because of rain,
and lift, clean and place was allowed in every round except the
third, so tournament officials were glad simply to finish on
Sunday. The rain thickened the rough into a slippery thatch of
major-championship severity. Somehow the greens held up
magnificently, with most of the credit going to Fuzzy Zoeller,
who helped redesign them in 1994. Zoeller, of course, was not
around to hear the compliments, having withdrawn on Wednesday
after being rocked by the reaction to his comments about Tiger
Woods at the Masters.
The tournament picked up in the second round when Tom Kite,
riding the momentum of his second-place finish at Augusta,
gained a share of the lead. A victory would have given the
47-year-old Kite, who last won in 1993, a real shot at becoming
the first U.S. playing captain in the Ryder Cup since Arnold
Palmer in 1963.
Kite shot a 67 last Saturday to remain in a tie for the lead,
with Faxon at 14 under, but on the first hole of the final round
he hooked his drive into the rough, took 4 to reach the green
and made a double-bogey 6. "It set the tone," said Kite, who
finished with a disappointing 76 and in a tie for seventh. "That
first hole was a sharp poke in the eye."
When Kite faltered, Faxon appeared to be in control of the
tournament. Coming into Greensboro, he was arguably the hottest
player on the Tour, with a fourth at The Players Championship, a
win in New Orleans and a second at Hilton Head. Faxon contends
his improvement is mostly due to a simple but profound mind
trick that's an extension of the way he attempts to hole, not
lag, the long putts he often faces due to erratic iron play: He
tries to win. "Last year I thought about making cuts a lot,"
says Faxon, who finished the '96 season with more than $1
million in earnings but without a victory. "This year I've
thought about winning."
To Faxon, who lacks consistent length and accuracy off the tee,
golf isn't about style points. After playing with Tom Watson and
Greg Norman for two rounds at the Players, Faxon accepted the
fact that his full shots weren't as solid or controlled as
theirs and concentrated on scoring. "Greg and Tom were hitting
it pure, and I knew they were watching me and saying, 'This guy
can't keep it on the world. How in the heck is he beating me?'
But I've found that hitting the ball better doesn't necessarily
mean scoring lower."
Faxon did have one day of ball-striking excellence at Forest
Oaks. After the second round, television commentator and golf
instructor Peter Kostis replayed Faxon's swing on a monitor,
pointing out to the golfer that he wasn't making a sufficient
shoulder turn. Last Saturday, Faxon made the adjustment Kostis
had suggested and scorched the course with a 65. "All I had to
do was aim and shoot," Faxon said. "There was not a lot of
thought involved." But even with his A game, Faxon hit only 12
of 18 greens in regulation and nine of 14 fairways, the same
statistics he had on Sunday, when he shot 72.
After a birdie on the third hole of the final round, Faxon built
what became a three-stroke lead on the front nine. But Nobilo,
who made five birdies from the 8th to the 13th holes, was coming
on. A moment after Faxon, who had driven into the punishing
rough, missed a 10-foot par putt on the 14th, Nobilo made a
15-footer for birdie on the par-3 17th to pull into a tie. Faxon
countered with a birdie on the 15th, but after pushing a
five-iron into the greenside rough at the 17th, he hit a thin
sand wedge 30 feet past the pin and bogeyed. To get into the
playoff, Faxon had to call on all his scrambling ability on the
72nd hole, hitting a 211-yard drive and a four-wood to the
fringe short of the green and two-putting from 70 feet.
But in sudden death, on that same 435-yard par-4 18th, Faxon
made another rare short-game error. Nobilo drove into the rough
and had to lay up, but he wedged beautifully to within eight
feet. Faxon also drove into the rough, and from 228 yards he
bounced a four-wood onto the front fringe about 50 feet from the
hole. This time, however, Faxon would have had to putt through
the thick collar, so he elected to place his ball in the light
rough and chip with his sand wedge. From a perfect lie he hit
the ball too hard. It failed to check and ran 12 feet past the
hole. After Faxon's putt rolled over the right lip, Nobilo
drilled in the winner. "I gave it away on 17--that's where I
blew it," said Faxon, who is 1-5 in playoffs yet remains
positive. "I always think second is better than everything but
first. It's not the worst thing in the world."
Coming into Greensboro, Nobilo would have been elated with a
runner-up finish, because his victory came from nowhere.
Although he had followed a promising 1995 season with the fine
year in '96, he was playing in pain. His troubles started as the
result of an overly aggressive workout session last June in
London after he had shot a frustrating 82 in a gale at the
Oxfordshire Club during the Benson and Hedges International.
Nobilo overdid it while bench-pressing 125 pounds, straining his
shoulders, elbows and wrists. At first his condition was
diagnosed as arthritis, but no treatment seemed to work. "I had
every test known to man," Nobilo said. Because he had finished
81st on the PGA Tour money list, Nobilo decided to move from his
London base, take up residence in Orlando and test his game this
year in the U.S. But the soreness in his arms caused him to pull
out of both the Honda and Bay Hill, and before Greensboro he had
made only two cuts in five starts. "Suddenly, everything was
difficult about coming to America," said Nobilo. "It was like
everything was saying, 'You shouldn't have done it.' But I stuck
When he was able to play, Nobilo was encouraged by the swing
changes he had made earlier in the year with instructor Robert
Baker, who had the six-foot, 190-pound Nobilo strengthen his
lefthanded grip to make his hands less active through the
hitting area. Then a week before the Masters, doctors prescribed
three drugs often used to treat arthritis, and Nobilo was
suddenly pain free. Although he played poorly at Augusta and
missed the cut at Hilton Head, Nobilo heeded friend Ernie Els's
advice to play in Greensboro. "Ernie thought my game would be
well suited to Forest Oaks," said Nobilo, who had never seen the
course before last week.
Nobilo made two equipment changes in Greensboro: He switched
putters to a model similar to the one used by Tiger Woods, and
he went back to the ball he had used his entire career, until
last year. "My shots started looking familiar to me again," he
Although he opened with three straight 69s, Nobilo started the
final round five strokes behind Faxon and Kite. He couldn't have
staged a charge in a more appropriate tournament. In 1990, '91
and '95, the winners at Greensboro--Steve Elkington, Mark Brooks
and Jim Gallagher Jr., respectively--all came from seven strokes
back in the final round.
Nobilo hit 11 fairways and 14 greens in his last round, in which
his two best shots were struck with a two-iron--a 221-yard rifle
shot to four feet on the par-3 8th that led to a birdie, and a
210-yard cut through the rain to within 20 feet the first time
he played the 18th. Both shots reinforced Nobilo's belief that
he has the game to win the U.S. Open, the championship in which
he finished tied for ninth in 1994 and 10th in '95.
It's highly unlikely that the Congressional in June will
resemble Forest Oaks in April, but if Nobilo's game is in the
same shape, there's a good chance the tournaments will have the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Nobilo, who shot a 31 on the final nine, made his pitch to win on the first hole of the playoff. [Frank Nobilo golfing in rain]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND After earning $1 million without a victory, Faxon concluded that winning never goes out of style. [Brad Faxon golfing in rain]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Edging up to 24th on the Ryder Cup list, Kite is closing in on his goal of playing on the team he captains. [Tom Kite golfing]