As he sat down in a cushy overstuffed chair, something caught
his eye. Omar Uresti turned around, and there it was on the
table behind him--the silver trophy that goes to the winner of
the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic. The trophy had a
hypnotic effect on Uresti, and as it shimmered in front of his
daydreaming eyes, you could almost read his thoughts: I'm going
to come back in here on Sunday and claim this trophy, and why
the hell not? I have as good a chance as anybody.
Somebody coughed. Uresti blinked. Then he turned back to the
dozen or so writers assembled in front of him in the press tent
last Thursday waiting to review the five-under 67 he had shot in
the opening round at Forest Oaks Country Club. He was the early
leader, yet no one asked about his chances of winning. No one
outside his family, anyway. "It's time for him to win, and he
knows it," said Rusty Uresti, Omar's older brother and caddie, a
retired minor league catcher. "We talk about it. He's been out
here six years. He can do it."
You can't understand the every-day pressures of the Tour until
you meet someone like Uresti, a 31-year-old Texan of Spanish
descent. At 5'6" and 175 pounds, he is something of a small
businessman. His earnings have improved steadily from the
$104,876 he made as a rookie, in 1995, to the $405,201 he won
last year, when he ranked 99th on the money list, but in all
that time he has contended on Sunday only once, at the '97 Bay
Hill Invitational, which he led after 54 holes but shot a 71 in
the final round and tied for third.
He and scores of other winless pros arrived in Greensboro, N.C.,
last week hoping that their luck might change and that one of
them might finally pull the sword from the stone. They were
loath to admit it, but many took hope from the fact that Tiger
Woods was on vacation. If Woods is intimidating to established
pros, imagine the terror he inflicts on the unestablished. There
were plenty of other proven champions to overcome at Greensboro,
including six of this year's top 10 money winners, but the
absence of Woods was enough to give Uresti and his peers cause
to imagine that all of their dues-paying might finally pay off.
"That's the way it works most of the time," Uresti said. "Every
now and then you see somebody who is able to win right away, but
usually it takes a lot of time to learn how to do it."
As it turned out, they were all going to need a little more
time. Hal Sutton easily won the tournament, jumping into the
lead with a 64 on Friday and then outclassing the field with a
14-under 274, good for a three-stroke win over runner-up Andrew
Magee. The victory was Sutton's second in a month--he trumped
Woods in the Players Championship in late March--and with it he
moved from seventh to fourth in the World Ranking, passing Ernie
Els, Davis Love III and Vijay Singh.
At the very least, though, last week's near misses were
entertaining. Almost every one was accompanied by much
hand-wringing and self-analysis. Exhibit A was submitted by
36-year-old Doug Dunakey, who admitted that his Uresti-equaling
67 on Thursday was almost ruined by "a lot of negativity."
Dunakey came to Greensboro without having made a cent on Tour
this year. He had missed five straight cuts on the West Coast
before returning home to Port Charlotte, Fla., and watching
television for about a month, fitting in a couple of starts in
Buy.com (formerly Nike) tour events amid the reruns. "I'm
fighting it all day, really," Dunakey said of his negative
thoughts. "My caddie gets me out of it by talking about other
things, so I don't have time to think about the three-footer I
have for birdie and the million ways I can miss it."
As they approached the end of the first round, Dunakey's caddie
committed a cardinal sin--never anticipate the outcome of a
tournament--and that, somehow, had a calming effect on his
player. "He was wondering how much money I could make," said
Dunakey, who wound up in a tie for fifth, at seven under, and
won $109,500. "He's from Venezuela, and he wants to go back home
for a couple of weeks."
In the second round, however, both Dunakey and Uresti were
overtaken by 40-year-old Barry Cheesman, who shot a 66 to go
into the weekend in second place at eight under. "I feel like
I'm a young 40," said Cheesman, for whom golf is a second
career. In his previous life he had been, like Uresti's brother,
a minor league catcher. The St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in
the 25th round out of high school in Galesburg, Ill., in 1977.
"I had a good arm," Cheesman said, "but I could also play catch
with the centerfielder." He spent two years in the minors with
the Cardinals and another season in the California Angels system
before the New York Yankees briefly tried to make a pitcher out
of him. By 20 he had retired from baseball with no thoughts of
playing golf professionally. Then he started entering
tournaments and in 1986 won the Florida State Amateur. He turned
pro that year, got his Tour card in the fall of '87 and has
since appeared in 178 Tour events, making the cut in 67 of them.
When Cheesman wanders in among the gallery to chase down errant
shots, he sometimes hears giggles behind his back, for on the
rear of his cap is embroidered his sobriquet: BIG CHEESE. "Up
until last August, I weighed 253 pounds, so you can kind of
figure that out," says the 6'1" Cheesman. Now a svelte 210 after
a year of dieting, yet still blessed with a catcher's thick hips
and legs, Cheesman averaged 294 yards off the tee--second best
last week--while keeping his drives clear of the thick rough at
Forest Oaks a commendable two thirds of the time. He seemed most
proud of his decision early in the week to revert to a
cross-handed putting grip for the first time in years and
celebrated his Friday round by driving to a college baseball
game played in the home park of the Durham Bulls, though he
failed to see any similarity between himself and Crash Davis. "I
guess I'm not much of a film buff," he said.
That morning the Big Cheese had been grouped with Fuzzy Zoeller,
and between swings they had gabbed like a couple of ballplayers
spitting sunflower seeds in the dugout. The next afternoon
Cheesman was paired in the final group with Sutton, and they
hardly shared a word. But that was the least of Cheesman's
worries. Having lipped out a putt for par at the 6th hole, he
pushed his next drive right of the cart path into rough that had
been stomped down by the fans. Rather than take a drop, Cheesman
addressed his ball while standing on the asphalt path, jerked
the clubhead back an inch--the one nervous tick in his
swing--and launched a powerful 160-yard fade that wound up five
feet above the hole. From the middle of the fairway Sutton
answered cruelly by hitting the flagstick with his approach.
After Cheesman lipped out his birdie putt, Sutton made his
three-footer to go 13 under, five ahead of Cheesman. Welcome to
the big leagues, son.
All weekend it was as if Woods had left the keys to the
champions' secret society in Sutton's care, with orders to keep
out the riffraff. Sutton had celebrated his 42nd birthday a week
early on Friday with his tournament-low 64, which gave him a
five-stroke lead. Despite a 72 on Saturday, he still led Magee
by three, and the other players did not draw strength from being
on the leader board, especially Jonathan Kaye, a 29-year-old
looking for his first win.
After a 71 on Saturday had inched him to seven under and a tie
for fifth, Kaye sneaked out the back of the scorer's tent and
tried to sign autographs without attracting the attention of
reporters. Unfortunately, one approached him. "I didn't play
really well today," Kaye explained. "I'm happy to get out
without shooting my wad." How did he like his chances for the
final round? "I don't know." Did he know where he stood? "I
didn't look at a leader board all day." Did he want to be told
how far out of the lead he was? "No."
Apparently Kaye returned to his hotel and went to sleep not
knowing that he was six shots behind Sutton. The next day Kaye
would finish where he began, at seven under, in a tie for fifth
with Dunakey and Chris Perry. His $109,500 check put him 38th on
the money list. Kaye's playing partner, Cheesman, would lose two
strokes and land in 13th place ($58,000 and 99th in earnings).
"If you had told me before the week that I would finish where I
did, I would have been happy," Cheesman said. "A lot of times
making the cut is a good result for me."
As the final round began, the closest of the winless challengers
was Uresti, who had come up with a 69 on Saturday to move to
eight under, five behind Sutton. "I'm going to shoot a 64, and
then we'll see," Uresti told his brother on Sunday morning. A 64
was not out of the question: Uresti still holds the professional
record of nine consecutive birdies, set while winning the Nike
Shreveport Open in '94. To watch Uresti's preshot routine is to
see a player grinding to win. Before each shot he grips the club
with one hand and carefully places it behind his ball; then he
inspects the alignment of his feet as if he were on the ledge of
a high-rise looking down at the traffic 20 stories below. To his
credit, he says he has added 10 yards to his drives since last
October, when he began working out with Michael Maroney, a 1995
All-America javelin thrower at Texas. Maroney and Rusty Uresti
follow the Tour in Rusty's '99 Chevy Suburban, while Omar
usually flies. "We've got Michael on the minimum wage," says
Rusty, half-jokingly. Maroney was willing to accept a small
salary because he hopes other golfers will hire him if his work
with Uresti pays off.
The TV commentators like to say that the trophy is more
important than the oversized check, and that's true for a small
portion of the players. But from the perspective of the winless,
making money is the first priority. Uresti needs to earn about
as much as he did last year to make the top 125 and keep his
Tour card. He had begun the year missing the cut in six of his
first seven starts and had won only $53,094 before Greensboro.
His brother and his trainer were relying on him. Imagine, then,
how hungry he must have been for the $540,000 first prize that
went to Sutton. Uresti double-bogeyed the 1st hole on Sunday and
then did the same on the 3rd. He fought back for a 74 to finish
at six under. The tie for eighth was worth $81,000 and leaves
him 111th on the money list.
One group behind, Sutton was protecting his lead and solidifying
his place as the second-best player in the game this season. As
Sam Snead--winner of eight titles at Greensboro, a Tour record
for one tournament--presented the new champion with the silver
trophy that bears Snead's name, Sutton shared a few words by way
of the club's loudspeakers. "It's so hard to beat these guys,"
he said. "You don't know how hard it is."
Uresti didn't hear that part. He was rushing to the airport to
catch a flight to this week's tournament in Houston.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND GOOD O-MAN When Uresti opened with a 67, he thought he might be on his way to Tour victory number 1.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND JUST-MISSED CAST Cheesman (top), Kaye (middle) and Dunakey each had his moment on the leader board and wound up with a big check, but not a first title.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND It was as if Woods had left the keys to the champions' secret society in Sutton's care, with orders to keep out the riffraff.