The week of the Buick Classic is never a normal one for Brad
Faxon. For one thing, he loves the old-fashioned course at
Westchester Country Club because it brings out the best in him no
matter how he has been playing coming in. Through 2002 Faxon had
been among the top 12 finishers at the Buick five times in six
years. For another, he doesn't have to spend seven boring nights
in a hotel room. Instead he stays with a favorite aunt and uncle,
Diane and Linnie Faxon, in nearby Stamford, Conn. Still, last
week at Westchester was out of the ordinary, even for him. "My
story is a great story," he says, somewhat cryptically. "You won't believe it."
It's pushing 6:30 on Friday night, and Faxon is one of a handful
of pros pounding balls on the range. He has already finished the
second round and, as usual, is in contention, tied for fifth at
six under par. As Faxon hits iron shots beneath a heavy, gray
sky, a man wearing a navy blue bucket hat, a black, long-sleeved
mock turtleneck shirt and world-weary blue jeans sits directly
behind him on one of those portable folding seats that the Tour
wives always carry, this one a luxury model with a red plaid
umbrella attached to it. Every so often Faxon stops, turns to the
man and exchanges a few words. Based on Faxon's reactions--he's
always laughing--they're not talking swing mechanics.
The rest of the pros wrap up their practice sessions and head for
the clubhouse. Among them is Joey Sindelar, 45, who lives in
Horseheads, N.Y., an upstate town of 6,500 that's a four-hour
drive from Westchester. ("A little less than four hours if I'm
really hungry," says Sindelar.) As he walks past Faxon, Sindelar
notices Bucket Hat and stops to chat. The outgoing Sindelar is
one of the few players on Tour who could beat Nick Price in a
nice-off, and as he walks away, he turns and calls back to Bucket
Hat, "Are you coming out tomorrow?" Bucket Hat shakes his head.
"I've got Little League," he says, somehow conveying remorse as
well as anticipation.
It's the voice that gives him away: Bucket Hat is comedian Bill
Murray. He has a house in nearby Snedens Landing, N.Y., and is a
member at Sleepy Hollow Country Club, which is only a half hour
Faxon, a Rhode Islander who lives in Barrington with his second
wife, Dory, finishes a few minutes later, says goodbye to Murray
and walks straight to his courtesy car, a big Buick sedan in the
parking lot near the range, and slides into the front seat. "Bill
said he's playing pretty well," Faxon says before turning on the
engine. "He has a nice swing, you know."
Most of their conversation, he says, had centered on the July 28
celebrity tournament that Faxon and fellow Rhode Islander Billy
Andrade host, and whether or not Murray might show up. "I'm not
very comfortable asking guys to play in it--that's Billy's
department--but Bill brought it up," Faxon says. "I love the guy.
I simply look at Bill and crack up. That hat he's wearing? He
doesn't wear it to be funny. He puts it on because he likes it."
At first Faxon, 41, is reluctant to tell his "great story,"
fearing that any talk of a turnaround in his play might be
premature. His last Tour win came at the Sony Open at the start
of the 2001 season. "I've only shot two good rounds [this year],"
he says, and because he has been struggling, he's been listening
to a chorus of coaches. "I've got it narrowed down to four or
five guys now," he says, and he's not joking. "They've all helped
In January, Faxon decided that it was time for a break from Ron
Gring, who had coached him for the last three years. On Jeff
Sluman's recommendation, Faxon turned to Craig Harmon, the head
pro at Oak Hill, in Sluman's hometown of Rochester, N.Y. Faxon
started seeing results immediately, tying for seventh at Pebble
Beach and finishing third in San Diego, but nonetheless he went
in for some fine-tuning by David Leadbetter, with whom he has
worked on and off for years.
By April, Faxon was back in a funk. Two weeks ago at the U.S.
Open, he says, he received a letter from Jim McLean, who had
taught at Sleepy Hollow before moving on to Doral. McLean had
helped Faxon play some of his best golf, in the mid-1990s.
McLean's letter came with some recent pictures of Faxon's swing.
"Jim said he knew this was a bad thing to do because I didn't ask
him for help," Faxon says, "but as a friend he felt I was on a
dangerous path. It's a ballsy letter. I could've ignored it, but
I didn't. I called Jim and told him, 'I don't think I'm mad, but
I could be.' Then we talked."
Faxon reaches into the backseat of the Buick and grabs the 22
pages of analysis McLean had sent. Beneath each swing photo is a
comment by McLean. Several of the photos are particularly
damning. In one, Faxon's body has moved so far to the right at
the top of his backswing that the ball is several inches ahead of
his left hip. Major move away from target, McLean had written. In
another, Faxon's club face points to the ground at the top of his
follow-through. Clubface is completely rolled; this ball went far
right. The worst positions are two just before and after impact.
Faxon's left arm points down at six o'clock but the clubhead
points toward eight o'clock. "Look at Jim's comment," Faxon says,
laughing. McLean had written a single word on the page: No. In
the next shot, Faxon's left arm has passed the ball while the
club head lags behind and still hasn't made contact. No, McLean
had again written. This is not going to work for straight driving
... similar to 1990 when we first started.
Faxon shakes his head as he repeats McLean's discouraging words.
In addition to the photos of Faxon's swing, McLean had included
sequences of Fred Couples, Charles Howell and Annika Sorenstam to
show how much difference there is between their finishes and
Faxon flips to Annika's follow-through. "I think this looks
weird," he says, "but she hits it really straight." He flips back
to his sequence. "My forearms are touching in this shot," he
says. "That's not good. It's like Tiger Woods says, 'My arms get
stuck behind me.' Everyone says that now, but look, I have too
much hang-back. I get way too inside, get it stuck and then flip
the hands. I can't catch up and the club face can't square up."
On the Tuesday of Buick Classic week, Faxon worked with Kevin
Sprecher, McLean's former assistant, who is now the teaching pro
at Sleepy Hollow, but something odd had occurred before that.
Earlier on Tuesday morning Faxon had gotten a call from Johnny
O'Neil, an old college friend who runs a restaurant in Orlando.
"Johnny said he woke up at 4:30 in the morning in a cold sweat,"
Faxon says. "In his dream I was hitting balls and there was this
guy watching me. The guy told me I needed to swing a club two
feet above the ground, like a baseball swing, 1,000 times a day.
I said, 'Johnny, what are you talking about?' He said, 'I don't
know, but you need to do this.' He was serious."
Hours later Sprecher watched Faxon hit balls for five minutes,
then suddenly stopped him and asked him to make a few swings
about knee-high, like a baseball swing, to get a feel for the
clubhead. Faxon, stunned, grabbed his cell phone and called
O'Neil. They were spooked.
Most fixes aren't that scary, or that simple, Faxon says, but at
Westchester he could feel the difference in his swing. He was
still on the leader board until the soggy third round, which had
been postponed by rain with Faxon on the 8th hole, resumed on
Sunday. In blustery conditions he bogeyed four holes on the back
nine, shot a 74 and dropped out of contention. A six-under 65,
which matched the low score of the day, on his final 18 left him
in a tie for eighth at nine-under 275, four strokes out of the
Jonathan Kaye-John Rollins playoff, which Kaye won on the first
extra hole. Another Buick Classic, another top 12, and Faxon felt
as if he had made some progress.
There are always unanswered questions, though, and on Friday
night, before hitting the road for Stamford, Faxon asked one. "Do
you think maybe the guy watching me hit balls in Johnny's dream
was Bill Murray?" he wondered.
That would be a great story.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHUCK SOLOMON RIGHT AT HOME Faxon tied for eighth at Westchester, a favoritecourse on which he always seems to play well.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF BRAD FAXON (3) WHO ASKED YOU? In sending Faxon this critique of his swing,McLean broke Tour protocol by giving unsolicited advice.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF BRAD FAXON (3) OUCH! McLean may be a friend of Faxon's, but his unsparinganalysis of Faxon's swing flaws still cut to the bone.