Local schools were closed last Thursday and Friday during the
Tucson Chrysler Classic. So the kids could go to the tournament?
No, because the rodeo was in town. The third round wasn't shown
live locally. So fans would come out to Tucson National instead
of staying home and watching on TV? No, because the
Arizona-Oregon basketball game was on at the same time,
relegating the golf to a tape-delayed, 11:05 p.m. start.
At least the Classic had a good winner in David Duval, who has
won four of the last nine events in which he has played and can
look forward to defending his title in Tucson in 1999, right?
Sorry, the PGA Tour has filled Tucson's spot on next year's
schedule with the new World Match Play Championship featuring
the top 64 players and a $4 million purse. Duval,
understandably, will tee it up in that event at La Costa and not
with the leftovers who will turn the Tucson tournament into
golf's version of the NIT. "Everybody has been digging our grave
and writing our obituary," says Steve Christy, the Classic's
tournament chairman. "It's a disappointment, but not the end of
the world. There are only so many weekends for so many events.
Somebody has to be opposite somebody. It happens to be us."
Welcome to Tucson, home of the underdog. The city is
overshadowed by Phoenix, the sprawling megalopolis with all the
pro teams 100 miles to the northwest, just as the Classic is
dwarfed by the Phoenix Open and its massive crowds and
star-studded fields. Whereas the Open attracts a hip young crowd
of party animals, the Classic pulls in their parents. It's a
nice little tournament that's proud of its heritage. Inaugurated
in 1945 after Leo Diegel, a local pro, had convinced the PGA
that his hometown could support a Tour stop, the event has a
tradition of producing first-time winners who go on to bigger
and better things. In all, eight players can say they won for
the first time in Tucson, and the list includes such bright
lights as J.C. Snead (1971), Bruce Lietzke (1977), Phil
Mickelson (1991) and Lee Janzen (1992). That element was missing
this year. Instead, the natives were dazzled by star power and a
dramatic final act.
Duval had seemingly iced the tournament with a second-round 62
that gave him a seven-stroke lead. On the front nine he twice
holed shots from the fairway for eagles and shot a 28. A 68 last
Saturday put him 20 under par and within striking distance of
the Tour's scoring record of 28 under, which John Huston had set
the previous week in Hawaii. Duval, though, wasn't thinking
about the record. "I can't fathom shooting 28 under par,
really," he said.
Twenty under seemed unfathomable, too, considering how Duval had
prepared for Tucson. After playing in five straight tournaments,
he spent eight days skiing and snowboarding in--like, awesome,
dude--Sun Valley, Idaho. What's a native of Florida doing on a
snowboard, besides falling down? "Kind of weird, huh?" Duval
says. Not as weird as he appeared in all the padding he wore
while taking snowboarding lessons. "I looked like a hockey
goalkeeper," he says.
Riding the lift one day, Duval saw a novice get slammed in the
head by her boyfriend's board after she wiped out in front of
him. "I told my instructor, 'Man, I'm going to go buy a helmet
this afternoon,'" Duval says. "It was the best $100 I ever
spent." That's because on his last day on the mountain, he went
to the top to try snowboarding in powder. "Idiot me," he says.
"I'd snowboarded for a total of 3 1/2 hours and I go to the top
of Dollar Mountain. If I hadn't worn that helmet, I might have
really knocked something loose. I slammed my head pretty good
Stiff and sore, Duval arrived in Tucson on Tuesday and was able
to hit only about 20 practice balls before rain washed out the
day. The whacks upside the head seemed to do wonders for his
short game. Duval needed only 41 putts during the first two
rounds and finished the tournament with 98, five off Kenny
Knox's Tour record.
So there stood Duval on Sunday, with a 62 in his pocket, a
seven-shot lead and the confidence that he could close the deal,
just as he had three straight times at the end of last season.
Oops. A couple of bogeys on the front nine interrupted his
final-round cruise, and then, surprisingly, he hooked his tee
shot out-of-bounds at the par-4 13th hole. "That's probably the
only hook you'll see me hit all year," said Duval, who plays a
fade exclusively. A marshal initially signaled that Duval's ball
was inbounds, but as he and playing partner Justin Leonard
walked off the tee, the marshal indicated that the ball was out.
Forced to reload, Duval made a triple-bogey 7, three-putting
from the back fringe. At the same time, Leonard holed a 10-foot
putt for birdie, and the stunning four-shot swing cut Duval's
lead to one.
That was gone when Duval bogeyed the next hole. Duval and
Leonard stayed even until 16, but there Duval showed his mettle.
He and Leonard were both just off the green to the left. Leonard
ran his ball five feet past the hole. Duval chipped in, and then
Leonard blinked, missing his comebacker. At the 18th he was
reduced to the role of a cheerleader when Duval ran in a
40-footer for another birdie. The man has learned how to finish.
"When I started [the round], I was in unfamiliar territory,"
Duval said. "With four holes to play, I was in very familiar
territory. Had I not won last year, I probably wouldn't have won
today. I wish it hadn't been so exciting, but the result was
what I was looking for."
Jeff Kern, a 40-year-old amateur, could say the same. Filling in
for a no-show at the Monday qualifier, Kern, a Tucson resident,
earned one of the four at-large spots available by shooting a
66. What made his story so compelling was that in 1978, two days
after he had won the Tucson city amateur, Kern lost the ring and
little fingers on his right hand--and nearly his life--when the
chute on a cement truck swung loose and knocked a masonry wall
on top of him. A year later Kern, who had been a college golfer
at Azusa Pacific, was able to compete again. "If you're going to
lose two fingers and still play golf," he says, "those are the
two to lose."
Kern turned pro and tried the mini-tours in the early '80s but
never had much success. He washed out in seven tries at the PGA
Tour Q school and eventually petitioned the USGA to be
reinstated as an amateur, a request that was granted in 1991.
Last week Kern opened with a 68 that put him in a tie for
seventh, just three strokes behind Leonard, the first-round
leader. Kern ran out of birdies on the weekend but gamely tied
for 31st with Mark Calcavecchia and Curtis Strange, among others.
"He's got an incredible short game," says Chris Smith, who was
paired with Kern for the first two rounds. "I think he'd have to
hit it a little farther to play the Tour [Kern ranked 62nd for
the week in driving distance with a 269.1-yard average], but I
guarantee he'd be in the top 10 in putting statistics every
year." Kern was the 31st-best player on the greens at Tucson.
"Golf is more than a hobby for me," says Kern, who carries a
+3.6 handicap at Randolph Park. "It's what I do to feel like I'm
still a somebody."
That's the same feeling Tucson has about its golf tournament.
The Tucson Chrysler Classic will be back next year, albeit in a
different, less prestigious package and without Duval, Leonard,
Mickelson and the rest. That's O.K. Jeff Kern will probably be
there, and you know how this place loves an underdog.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND DRAINO A 40-foot birdie putt on the final hole flushed Leonard (left) as well as any lingering questions about Duval's ability to win. [Justin Leonard and David Duval]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND SURE-HANDED Despite his handicap, Kern is considered the best amateur golfer in Arizona. [Jeff Kern golfing]
"Golf is more than a hobby for me," says Kern. "It's what I do
to feel like I'm still a somebody."