The men's golf season didn't end with the PGA Championship; it
only seems that way on the U.S. Tour. The one blip left on the
screen is the Dec. 11-13 Presidents Cup in Australia, which is a
very big deal to a winless (0-2) International team. The good
news for the Internationals last week at Sahalee was that their
crippled and beleaguered squad claimed three of the top four
places, showing that they could very well make it a contest at
Royal Melbourne Golf Course against the heavily favored U.S.
That prospect didn't seem likely a few weeks ago. In the first
three majors, the 10 highest-ranked International players had
only two top 10 finishes--Nick Price of Zimbabwe was fourth and
Australia's Stuart Appleby 10th in the U.S. Open. Of the eight
Internationals who played in the Masters, only Ernie Els (16th)
and Steve Elkington (30th) made the cut. At the British Open,
Robert Allenby and Vijay Singh tied for 19th while no other
International finished better than 29th. That record looked even
worse when compared with the top 10 Americans on the qualifying
list for the Presidents Cup. They had won all three
championships and totaled 13 top 10 finishes.
Even while Price was winning the FedEx St. Jude Classic in
Memphis, he was lamenting the sorry state of the International
team. "It seems strange to me," Price said, "but if you look at
it on paper, the Americans would almost whitewash us. They've
got Fred Couples, David Duval, Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods, who
are all playing well. Look at us. Ernie isn't playing well [due
to a bad back], and Greg Norman isn't playing at all. I've been
playing O.K., but Vijay hasn't played worth a darn. Same with
Elkie and Frank Nobilo. The Americans have certainly outplayed
us the first six months. We're going to have to pull our socks up."
They took the first tug at the PGA. Singh won his first major by
finally getting a grip, literally, on a career-long putting
problem. He switched to a cross-handed grip in June at the
Motorola Western Open, started to hole putts and began to gain
confidence. He finished second at the Western, shot a
final-round 62 the next week at Hartford, tied for 19th in the
British Open and was eighth at the Buick Open--a nice stretch
considering that he hadn't had a top 20 finish since March.
Singh has always had trouble on the greens. He almost won the
1996 PGA at Valhalla while using a long-shafted putter. He tried
three putters during this year's Kemper Open. "Every day was a
different putter; every day was a different style," Singh said
last week, wincing at the memory. "It's been bothering me so
long. It was almost trial and error. Since I changed at the
Western Open, I've felt comfortable on the greens. I'm thinking
about making every putt now."
Perhaps more heartening was the revival of Elkington, who is one
of the top players in the world when he's healthy, which is
hardly ever. Since last August the 1995 PGA champ has had a
strained rotator cuff, a hip injury, a foot inflammation, seven
sinus infections that led to a second sinus operation, and a
second case of viral meningitis--he first came down with the
disease in 1986. In July he had to withdraw from the British
Open because of a pinched nerve. "It's been a frustrating year,"
Elkington said. "I would have been fine if I'd only had sinus
problems, but I forgot how hard it is to come back from
meningitis. I'm just now getting over it."
Elkington, who finished three strokes behind Singh, in third, at
Sahalee, was the only player to shoot subpar scores in every
round (69-69-69-67). "It was good to feel nervous for once this
year," Elkington said. "I've been out of it for a while. I
wouldn't say I'm satisfied, but I think I'm over the hump. I'm
making a comeback. Mentally, I was very sharp. Physically, I
could have won this tournament easily. I definitely had all the
tools this week. I've always played well when I'm healthy. I
don't do any good when I'm wounded. I'm close to 100 percent."
Price's victory in Memphis signaled that he's close to the form
that made him the game's best in 1993 and '94. If he could putt
as proficiently as he did then, he would be dangerous. At
Sahalee, Price tied for fourth thanks to a course-record-tying
65 on Sunday. The difference between winning and losing?
Sixty-four putts during the first two days. "Putting is such a
fickle thing," he said. "It's a science, a game within a game."
Singh, Elkington and Price weren't the only candidates for the
International team who made a good showing at Sahalee. Allenby,
of Australia, came in 13th, while Els, the two-time U.S. Open
winner from South Africa, was 21st after rallying with a 66 in
the final round. "I wish I could have played this way at the
beginning of the week," he said. "I felt comfortable with my game
for the first time in a long time." Carlos Franco of Paraguay
popped up on the leader board in the second round, although he
had drifted to 40th by tournament's end.
Two wild cards come December could be the success of Norman's
rehabilitation and the strength of the emotional bond created
among the Internationals by the tragic death of Stuart Appleby's
wife, Renay, who was killed in a traffic accident in London in
Norman hasn't played since the Masters, after which he underwent
arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder. Recently, though, he has
begun to putt and chip at home. He says that his recovery is
ahead of schedule and that he should be ready for the Presidents
Appleby, a 27-year-old Aussie who has won twice on the PGA Tour,
rode a roller coaster of feelings at Sahalee, where he was
making his first start since his wife's death. Determined to get
on with his life, he patiently answered questions from reporters
and welcomed the condolences of friends. "There's not an hour
that goes by that I don't think of Renay," said Appleby. "The
toughest times are when you wish things were different." That
sentence contained many tearful pauses and Appleby was barely
able to finish it.
Although he missed the cut at Sahalee, where he shot 77-73,
Appleby's a lock to make the Presidents Cup team and could serve
as a rallying point in Melbourne, something the far-flung
Internationals have lacked in the past. In June, Appleby
established himself as a rising star by outdueling Scott Hoch to
win the Kemper Open. Last year he won the Honda Classic and was
second at Bay Hill and in the Sprint International.
Appleby said he played last week because Renay would have wanted
him to. The galleries gave him a warm reception. "It was pretty
emotional when he started off," said Singh, who along with Phil
Blackmar played with Appleby in the first two rounds. "He got
applause at every green."
Appleby struggled with his game and the added attention. "It
feels weird when you walk on a green when you're putting for
double bogey and people are clapping," he said. "It was hard for
me to concentrate on one thought. It might take time."
The Internationals have three months, but one week has already
made a huge difference in Price's outlook. "We're looking good
now," he says. "It shows you how quickly momentum can change in
this game. With a swing like Elkie's, all you've got to do is
stand on your feet and you're going to do well. If Greg [Norman]
comes back, the Presidents Cup is going to be exciting."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Triple play Elkington, the only player to break 70 in all four rounds, was one of three Internationals among the top four at Sahalee. [Steve Elkington playing golf]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER Battle cry The International team could rally around Appleby, who played last week for the first time since the death of his wife. [Stuart Appleby at microphone]
"We're looking good now," says Price. "It shows how quickly
momentum can change in this game."