Publish date:


This sort of thing is embarrassing but not terribly unusual in
the auto industry. It happens every year or so to a few models,
although as far as anyone can remember, this is the first time a
golf tournament has had to be recalled.

There was no choice. The 1997 Buick Open didn't roll off the
assembly line exactly as planned. Nothing serious, mind you;
this is merely a precautionary measure as we head to Winged Foot
for the year's final major championship (but if you hear an air
bag deploying, duck and cover). Here's what didn't meet the specs.

Vijay Singh of Fiji won by four shots. (Check the manual under
Best Players Who Haven't Won a Major.) He won the Memorial two
months ago, but a second Vijay Day was not supposed to happen
here at Warwick Hills Country Club in Grand Blanc, Mich. Not
after Ernie Els, the guy we were about to promote to World's
Best Player, had barely broken a sweat while building a
three-stroke lead after 54 holes. The U.S. Open champion,
looking like this summer's blockbuster hit, seemed ready to nuke
the field and win another Buick (to go with the Century he was
given in June for winning the Buick Classic). "I've only got
room for two cars and a golf cart," Els joked after his
second-round 63, which included an unlikely downhill pitch-in
for eagle on the par-5 548-yard hole.

The chase was supposed to be futile. "You don't want to be
behind Ernie," says two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange,
who was among Els's pursuers. "It's no secret that Ernie's a
wonderful player, probably one of the top two in the world." And
the other? Strange made a face and laughed. "Don't ask stupid

Yet when Els shot 72-74 on the weekend, scores that wouldn't
have made the cut, and Singh shot 67-66, the Buick suddenly
looked like a match race between Chris Farley and Donovan
Bailey, with Singh sprinting to victory at 15 under par. "It was
tough to swallow," said Els, who finished in a tie for second
with five other players. "When you have a three-shot lead, you
feel like you lost it, but Vijay played well. I'm very
disappointed in my finish. It's a cruel game at times."

Factory reps would like to bring in the Buick and take a closer
look at the way Singh wielded his putter last week. He isn't
supposed to be that good on the greens. Out of desperation he
used a long-shafted putter last year, and before the Buick he
ranked 151st in the putting stats. At the Buick, Singh was 17th,
and he rolled in the clinching 20-footer for birdie on the final
hole with the authority of a man who knew he was going to make
it before he drew back the blade. The credit goes to a Zebra
putter he snatched from a club representative the night before
the first round, and to Singh's wife, Ardena. "I'd been playing
good all year but couldn't score," Singh says. "I went to a long
putter last year and it was a roller coaster--I'd putt good one
week and putt bad for five weeks. My wife finally said, 'You
spend too much time on your long game and not enough on your
short game.' So the last three or four weeks I've dedicated
myself to my short game."

The results, in golf terms, were immediate and impressive. If
Singh can keep it up, he will be a factor at Winged Foot. "It
feels so good, you can't believe it," Singh says of his sudden
ability to hole putts.

Our mechanics would like to look under the hood of Sonny
Skinner, a guy who has gone to Q school every year since 1983
but amazed everyone with a 62 in the opening round. That's the
kind of number the fans were expecting from Tiger Woods, who was
making his first start since the British Open. But there was no
tiger in Woods's tank as he opened with a rusty 72. He shot 31
on his first nine the next day but stalled for 68, began the
third round by eagling the 1st hole but sputtered to a 70 and on
Sunday closed with four birdies on the last seven holes to tie
for eighth.

Although he never contended, Woods didn't consider the Buick to
be a wasted week. "I'm very positive heading into the PGA," he
said. "I feel like I'm ready." The $43,500 Woods won pushed his
season total to $1,821,895, eclipsing the Tour record set by Tom
Lehman last year. As for Skinner, he was only partly Sonny over
the remaining 54 holes, which he played in nine over par to come
in 59th.

The Buick's most serious defect was that it failed to clear up
an increasingly muddled Ryder Cup picture. Davis Love III was
supposed to clinch a spot on the team, and Fred Couples and
Corey Pavin were expected to establish themselves as clear-cut
wild-card choices. Love missed the cut, as did Pavin, who has
slumped for the entire year. Couples was inconsistent and, at
times, apathetic. The veterans who made good impressions
were--yikes!--Strange, who played in the final pairing on Sunday
with Els and birdied four holes while tying for second, and
warhorses Payne Stewart and Lanny Wadkins, who tied for 11th.

Couples is the only American to play in the last four Ryder
Cups, and he will probably make it five even though he hasn't
had much of a year. So much has been going on in Couples's life
that he has been distracted to the point of disinterest. This
spring he broke up with his fiancee, Tawnya Dodds. Chemotherapy
has failed to halt the leukemia that has afflicted his father,
Tom, and Couples's new girlfriend, Thais Baker, has breast cancer.

Couples admitted that he was not prepared to play at Warwick
Hills, and at times it looked as if he was just going through
the motions. For instance, facing a difficult flop shot over a
bunker at the 5th green in the second round, Couples casually
walked up and hit the shot, barely giving Fuzzy Zoeller time to
mark his ball on the green. Couples knew he wasn't sharp enough
to hit it close, so he didn't even try, settling for a two-putt
bogey from 30 feet.

There were flashes of the Fred we remember, the 1992 Masters
champion and the star of Ryder and Presidents Cups past. He
opened with a 69 last week despite four three-putts and followed
with a glide-through 72 and then another 69. On Sunday he
pitched in for eagle at the short, par-4 14th but shot 74. The
trouble is, because of a chronically sore back, and all the
distractions, he stopped working on his game. "I haven't
practiced since Augusta," Couples said.

So is Freddy ready for another Ryder Cup? "I would love to
play," he says, "but am I playing good enough? Right now, no.
Right now I can play nine holes great and the next nine like a
two-handicap. I'm so inconsistent."

Over the last few months the other Ryder Cup hopefuls have added
tournaments to their schedules, stayed longer at the range and
tried anything to scramble into the top 10 on the points list
and qualify for the team. Couples, though, hasn't felt the same
sense of urgency. Important real-world stuff, like hanging out
with his father at the Seattle condo he bought for him, has
erased his desire to play golf. Only the Ryder Cup, he says,
could renew his interest.

If Tom Kite makes Couples one of his captain's picks, as Wadkins
did in '95, Couples would have five weeks to work hard with Paul
Marchand, his teacher, and get his game in shape for Valderrama.
"If Tom Kite said, 'I'm definitely picking you. Are you going be
ready?' I would look at him and say, 'Yeah, you bet,'" Couples
says. "I know my dad would say, 'Jesus Christ, get out of here.
Go practice for 10 days. You can always come back.' A Kemper
Open or Buick Open isn't that big of a deal compared to the
Ryder Cup. If you can't get your game ready for that, you're in

And if Couples isn't selected? "Then the year's basically done,"
he says. "That's pretty peaceful, you know? I would almost feel
like going over there to watch."

Picking Couples and another veteran, say Tom Watson, seems like
a sensible move for Kite, whose team--due to be finalized after
the PGA--is now composed of five Ryder Cup rookies and three
others who have played in just one match. "We need an older guy
with some presence and experience who can influence our guys and
maybe intimidate the other guys," says Love, who is 10th on the
points list and has paired with Couples in several World Cup and
Ryder Cup matches. "Freddy is a great candidate. He usually
plays well whenever he puts his mind to it. We'd be kind of lost
without him."

There is one last reason that the Buick Open needs a recall.
Huge galleries followed Woods all week, as usual. As his caddie,
Mike (Fluff) Cowan, walked up to one green, a spectator called
out, "Nice job, Fuzzy."

Someone needs to check with the parts department about ordering
some replacement fans.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Singh found a putting stroke to go with his stellar shotmaking and cruised away from the Buick field. [Vijay Singh playing golf]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG The unflappable Els let one get away. [Ernie Els putting]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG If Couples was trying to make a case for a spot on the Ryder Cup team, he wasn't very convincing. [Fred Couples playing golf]