It's an easy drive from Duluth, Ga.--the Atlanta suburb that is
home to the BellSouth Classic--to Augusta, due east on I-20. On
Sunday night the freshly minted BellSouth champion, David Duval,
did it in about two hours despite having to lug an oversized
cardboard check for $450,000 and the historical weight of his
Duval has been the prohibitive favorite to win the Masters for a
while now, and after his command performance two weeks ago at
the Players Championship, the BellSouth was to be little more
than a rest stop on the road to his first major championship, a
tune-up tournament in which the only goal was to avoid spraining
an ankle. That he won the thing was a bit excessive, not to
mention unfair. Duval had nothing to prove, to himself or anyone
else, as opposed to the host of players who rolled into Duluth
knowing that a victory was their only avenue to this week's
Masters because it would bring the last of the automatic
invitations. A couple of fresh young talents, Rory Sabbatini and
Mike Weir, both made gallant runs, and their pursuits were all
the more interesting because they were trying to get to Augusta
by way of South Africa and Canada, respectively. In the end it
was this Masters backstory that added an extra level of drama to
a hotly contested tournament.
"The Masters is in the back of your mind this week, no matter
how hard you try to block it out," said Duval, whose
18-under-par 270 left him two strokes ahead of his former
Georgia Tech teammate Stewart Cink. "Anybody who tells you
differently probably isn't telling the truth."
Having exhausted all the superlatives to describe Duval's play,
the facts themselves will have to do. With the victory Duval
became only the third player, after Arnold Palmer (1960) and
Johnny Miller (1974), to win four tournaments before the Masters
(more on that later). The W was Duval's 11th in his last 34
starts, and with $2,598,300 he has already broken the
single-season earnings record he set last year. What was scary
about this victory was how easily it came.
He started the final round tied with Sabbatini and John Huston,
one shot behind the co-leaders, Weir and Cink. Duval turned in a
bogeyless 67, but he didn't win the tournament so much as
everyone else coughed it up. After back-to-back birdies at the
TPC at Sugarloaf's 15th and 16th holes--the one on the 15th the
result of an unlikely chip-in--Duval found himself in a four-way
tie for the lead with his playing partner Sabbatini and two
members of the group behind them, Cink and Huston. That was when
those three pretenders began "leaking oil like the Exxon
Valdez," to borrow one of Sabbatini's colorful descriptions. On
the relatively benign par-4 17th, Sabbatini drove into a bunker,
sliced his approach into the trees, chipped on indifferently and
three-putted for a double bogey. That was textbook compared to
how the usually unflappable Huston played the hole. He was in
one bunker off the tee and another on his approach, left two
explosion shots in the sand, finally blasted onto the green and
one-putted for a double bogey. Cink, for his part, took lame
bogeys at 16 and 17. All Duval needed to slam the door was a
pair of pars on the closing holes. Said the man, "I was trying
to play smart, pick up a shot here or there, and then all of a
sudden it was like, 'Hey, I won. How'd that happen?'"
Sabbatini had the answer: "The only way Duval is not going to
win a tournament is if he stays home." It's a shame Sabbatini
won't be making the trip to Augusta, because he would surely
liven up the proceedings. Both his game and his personality are
highly excitable. Born and raised in Durban, South Africa,
Sabbatini was weaned on Gary Player stories and grew up in the
shadow of Ernie Els, but he says Seve Ballesteros is his idol.
It's easy to see why. Sabbatini surged to the 36-hole lead with
a pair of 65s that were highlighted by gutsy shotmaking and a
series of improbable recoveries. The second round coincided with
his 23rd birthday (he's the youngest regular on Tour), and he
wasn't the only one celebrating. He reported that his parents
back in Durban had stayed up until the wee hours on Saturday
morning drinking Chivas and watching the numbers change on
They must have been smashed four holes into the third round, by
which time Sabbatini had made three birdies and surged to a
six-stroke lead. At this point the gallery was on the verge of
abandoning favorite sons Duval and Cink for the scrappy rookie.
Part of Sabbatini's appeal is that he's the antithesis of those
assembly-line Tour players, with their overly pressed pants and
tailored swings. Sabbatini, listed generously by the Tour at
5'10" and 160 pounds, takes a mighty rip with a driver that's
longer (46 1/2 inches) than average, and he hunches over his
putter like a man with a sore back, gripping it practically on
the steel. Like everyone else, he seems to delight in the
volatile nature of his game and was in good spirits even after
blowing up with five bogeys the rest of the way last Saturday
and finishing with a 73. Sabbatini was brought into the press
room and asked to go over his card. "You may need a map and a
compass to get around this one," he said. On his way out
Sabbatini put a bear hug on a startled Weir, a fellow Q school
grad whom he had nonetheless met only that afternoon on the 1st
Weir is used to a little extra attention. A native of Samia,
Ont., Weir, 28, has been called the Tiger Woods of Canada, but
considering the media contingent from his home country that
scurries after him, Se Ri Pak might be a better analogy. "They
are around almost all the time," he says of the writers from
north of the border. In 1997 Weir won the Canadian Masters and
became the first homelander to lead the Canadian tour's money
list since Jerry Anderson did it in 1989. As a rookie on the PGA
Tour in 1998, Weir just missed keeping his card, finishing 131st
in earnings. The highlight of his year was a tie for fifth in
the Greater Vancouver Open. That matched his best-ever finish on
the Tour, which had come two years earlier at...the Greater
Vancouver Open. (You were expecting the Houston Open?) Last
week, on the eve of the final round, Weir was asked about the
opportunity to earn a tee time at the Masters. "Growing up, it
was a big tournament for us to watch up there as well," he said.
"It would be unbelievable to play in that event. I'm sure those
things will be entering my mind tomorrow."
Weir played solidly on Sunday but couldn't make any birdie
putts. He shot 72 to tie for fifth. Sabbatini tied for third,
and both left Duluth with mixed feelings. Weir was on his way
home to Draper, Utah, to his wife, Bricia, and their
16-month-old daughter, Elle Marisa, while Sabbatini was heading
to Tucson to visit his girlfriend, Katie Bohlander, a sophomore
at Arizona. ("I am not cradle-robbing," Sabbatini said, not that
anyone asked.) Both players planned to spend this weekend glued
to the tube, dreaming about life on the other side of the glass.
"I made a run at it, you know," Sabbatini said. "That's O.K.
There's a Masters every year. I feel like this week I made a big
step toward next year's."
It goes without saying that Duval's focus is trained on the
Masters at hand. Grinding out four rounds on a course as long
and hilly as Sugarloaf was not a popular means of preparation
for the year's first major. Like many top players, Woods, the
defending champ at the BellSouth, tubed the tournament in favor
of some downtime and a little extra homework on revamped Augusta
National. Last year Duval also took the week off before the
Masters. Only his allegiance to his adopted hometown and its
tournament brought him to Atlanta. (Duval was given a sponsor's
exemption to play in his first Tour event, the 1992 BellSouth,
while he was a junior at Tech.) On Sunday evening Duval was
hardly regretting the decision. "I decided to give myself two
weeks of competition as preparation, and it couldn't have gone
any better," he said. "My head is where it needs to be. My swing
and overall game are where they need to be. The biggest thing
is, I have to get up there and make sure I'm rested." To that
end he planned to skip practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday,
which isn't as much of a handicap as it sounds because last
month he buzzed into Augusta for two days of reconnaissance.
Whether Duval has enough juice left to conquer the hills at
Augusta remains to be seen, as does the jinx of carrying a
two-week winning streak into the year's first major. Remember,
it's at the Masters that players purposely blow the Wednesday
par-3 tournament because the winner has never won the real
title. "I'm not superstitious like that," says Duval, who won
three straight starts to close the '97 season. "I don't buy into
it. The thing is, if you ask any big gamblers, they say don't
bet against streaks."
A certain amount of historical evidence points to Duval's coming
up aces this week. It was in 1960 that Palmer brought his four
wins to the Masters. With a brilliant finishing kick he snatched
that title, too. (Miller finished 15th in '74, blaming his so-so
play on having gotten caught up in the hype.) More recently only
two players have ascended to No. 1 in the World Ranking without
having won a major, Ian Woosnam in 1991 and Fred Couples the
following year. Within weeks of reaching the top spot, both were
being fitted for green formal wear.
At the champion's press conference on Sunday, Duval was asked
what it meant to head to the Masters as everyone's favorite.
"It's nice and it's flattering, but it has no bearing on how I
will perform," he said. "I can tell you that nobody else is
going to care, so I certainly won't." Duval entertained a couple
of more questions and then cut the session short. He had another
appointment he needed to get to.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB MARTIN
COLOR PHOTO: EDWARD M. PIO RODA Let 'er rip The youngest player on Tour, Sabbatini, 23, stayed on the offensive and tied for third.
COLOR PHOTO: EDWARD M. PIO RODA Honor student Weir was first in his class at December's Q school but has been the top Canadian on the pro scene since 1997.
"If you ask any gamblers, they say don't bet against streaks,"
says Duval, who this week goes for three in a row.
Only two pros became No. 1 without a win in a major. Within
weeks both were being fitted for green formal wear.