Next week's PGA Championship will be the Tour's version of last
call. Leave Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash.,
empty-handed, and you'll have to wait eight months, until the
1999 Masters, for another chance to make a major impact. Last
week at the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the TPC at Southwind, in
Memphis, three PGA champs who haven't been top of mind in the
majors for years--Nick Price, Jeff Sluman and Paul
Azinger--showed they're capable of winning at Sahalee.
Price won at Southwind with a sense of style and purpose. He was
miffed last month at Royal Birkdale when oddsmakers made him a
40-to-1 choice to win the British Open. "It was insulting," Price
says. "I don't know what they were thinking, but they didn't
figure I had much of a chance--and I won four times around the
world last year."
Price, 41, feels as if he is one club from winning in bunches,
the way he did in the early '90s. "If I could putt like I did
from 1992 to '94, I would've won a couple this year already," he
says. "I've been playing for seventh, eighth and ninth. My
putter has been in the bag for show. I've putted mediocre 70
percent of my career. When I putt well, I have a chance to win."
In Memphis, Price missed a six-footer for birdie on the 72nd
hole that would have given him the title, then rolled in a
25-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to beat Sluman,
who had pushed his tee shot into the water and was scrambling to
salvage a par. If Price had putted really well on Southwind's
rain-softened greens, he would've left blue-suede-shoe prints
all over the field. The victory, Price's second in Memphis and
the 40th of his career worldwide, was a reminder of just how
good a player he was, and can be. "I never worried about being
Number 1 in the world," Price says. "I just wanted to win
tournaments. Tiger [Woods] and the others can have all the
publicity. All I want is credit when it's due, and I still feel
like I'm playing pretty well."
Tee to green, Price might be playing better than when he was
taking no prisoners and winning 14 Tour events in four years,
including two PGAs (1992 and '94) and a British Open ('94). Last
week the evidence was the way he dominated Southwind's 16th
hole, a 528-yard par-5. Price made three eagles--including a
crucial one on Sunday--and a birdie there. "Before we teed off
in the playoff, I asked him how he had played the 16th this
week," Sluman said. "He started laughing."
Price's putter, though, has been no laughing matter. On Sunday,
on the typically slow Southwind greens, he missed six good birdie
chances on the back nine alone, yet still shot 32. He had 66 for
the day and was 16-under-par 268 for the tournament. "Coming down
the stretch, I hit good putts that just weren't going in," he
said. In the end Price ranked 11th in fairways hit and tied for
eighth in greens in regulation. He was 25th on the greens, but
for the season ranks just 67th.
He is trying to improve that number. Miserable putting at the
U.S. Open, in which he still finished fourth, gave Price the kick
in the backside he needed to work harder on his short game,
something he had done during his peak years. "Invariably, I spend
two or three hours on the practice tee, then I hit putts for 20
minutes and run home," says Price, an admitted range-aholic.
Sluman, who won the PGA in 1988, is an underrated talent. That
has something to do with his size (he's 5'7" and 140 pounds) and
his short list of wins. (Last year's Tucson Chrysler Classic is
his only other victory.) Sluman was 0 for 3 in playoffs before
Sunday's, and as he watched his drive at the second extra hole
drift into a pond, his reaction was, "0 for 4."
Still, he played well enough on the weekend to win. "Anytime
you're one off the lead and shoot [a final-round] 65, that
usually does it," said the 40-year-old Sluman, who had moved into
contention with a 66 on Saturday. "Nick played a wonderful round,
which I don't think surprises anybody. A reporter asked me if I
was disappointed that I hadn't won more in my career. In
situations like this, what can you do?"
The real sleeper for Sahalee could be the 38-year-old Azinger,
an 11-time winner on the Tour. He beat Greg Norman in a playoff
at Inverness to win the '93 PGA only a few months before he
learned he had a lymphoma in his right shoulder. Since then he
hasn't finished in the top three. There have been positive
signs, though. Azinger was fifth at Augusta National, a course
that normally eats his lunch, and a closing 65 lifted him to
14th at the U.S. Open. Last week he played solidly for three
rounds and was one shot behind Price and Bob Estes going into
Sunday. A double bogey at the 6th, where he drove out-of-bounds,
dropped Azinger out of the hunt, and he eventually faded to a
tie for seventh. "[CBS announcer] Peter Kostis asked me the
classic question on Saturday," said Azinger. "He asked, 'What's
missing now? What do you need to do?' I said, 'I don't think
anything is missing. I have to pull it off, just do it.'"
A return to his old putting stance has helped. Azinger has jumped
to 30th from 114th in the Tour's putting stats since April. His
chipping was also off, as was his confidence. "You want to quit
sometimes--you're not going to, but you want to," says Azinger.
"You wonder what it's going to take to play the kind of golf you
were once accustomed to. You can only take so much mediocrity
when you're used to something different."
Azinger's putting was spotty again last weekend, but on Saturday
he enjoyed an electric moment when he used his wedge like a
putter and saved par from just off the 4th green. "Mister
Azinger," a fan shouted, "you are the man."
If not, he feels he's getting close. "I'm disappointed about my
finish," Azinger says, "but I hit a lot of good shots this week.
I'm thinking about winning again. I believe it now. I'm sure I
won't be listed among the picks to win the PGA, but 16 weeks ago
Mark O'Meara was the best player who had never won a major and
supposedly didn't have any heart. Now he might be a Hall of
A third major title in a year for O'Meara would be big. So would
a comeback-capping win for Price, Sluman or Azinger. Last call,
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL SOLID STATE Price, who won a pair of PGAs earlier this decade, prepped for Sahalee with a flawless performance from tee to green. [Nick Price golfing]