GROOVING ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON

Don Pooley came on strong to win a Memorial awash in low scores and grooved irons
June 07, 1987

It will take much more than the bludgeoning of par that occurred at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, last week to diminish Muirfield Village Golf Club's reputation for toughness. But let's face it, the pros carved out enough tap-in birdies to make the founder and host, Jack Nicklaus, wince, and Old Tom Morris and Young Tom Morris, to whose memory this year's event was dedicated, do sepulchral 360s.

Muirfield Village ultimately retained most of its dignity when the second- and third-round leader, Scott Hoch, flew too close to the sun and saw his wings melt, allowing the icily efficient Don Pooley to finish with a 16-under-par 70-67-65-70—272 for a three-stroke victory over Curt Byrum worth $140,000. Hoch's 67-64-67 start had put him 18 under par—the lowest 54-hole score ever at the 12-year-old event—and four shots ahead of Pooley. But an incongruous final-round 78 put him in a tie for third with Denis Watson and Chip Beck at 276. Hoch was without a bogey for the first 55 holes of the tournament. Even the severe thunderstorms that interrupted Saturday's play and postponed completion of the third round until Sunday morning didn't bring him back to earth. But on the second hole of the final round a well-struck eight-iron somehow failed to travel the 155 yards downwind that Hoch had planned and ended in a bunker. He bogeyed that hole as well as the next two to fall into a tie with playing partner Pooley. The spell was broken.

"When it stopped, it really stopped," said Hoch, who didn't miss a fairway but took 35 putts in the last round. Gamely he half-joked, "I guess the guy who wrote 'Hoch as in choke' was right."

It was fitting that the 35-year-old Pooley, whose only previous PGA Tour win was the 1980 B.C. Open, became the beneficiary of Hoch's misfortune. The two share the distinction of being the most-unheralded winners of the Vardon Trophy in the award's long history. Hoch won it last year with a 70.08-per-round scoring average; Pooley, in 1985 with a mark of 70.36. This year they made the Tour's alltime most lucrative aces. At the Las Vegas Invitational in May, Hoch won a $118,000 Rolls-Royce as a bonus prize by sinking a three-iron. In March at the Bay Hill Classic in Orlando, Pooley hit a $500,000 jackpot when he holed a four-iron. "I'm still smiling about it," says Sheldon George Pooley Jr.—he's called Don because his dad is known as "Shel."

Actually, the Tour hit Ohio last week on a collective roll. In the six tournaments since the Masters, the highest winning score had been 12 under par, by Jay Haas at the Houston Open. And in the two weeks before the Memorial, the numbers got downright ridiculous. At the Colonial, which rookie Keith Clearwater won with a 64-64 finish, the 36-hole cut was 141, two strokes lower than it had ever been. In Atlanta, Dave Barr won with a 23-under-par total of 265.

The biggest factor in the low scoring has been an uncharacteristic lack of wind, a situation that continued at Muirfield until a gentle breeze finally kicked up on Sunday. Give pros no wind, soft greens and exact distances, and their greatest worry is bouncing the ball off the flagstick too solidly.

Still, the sheer volume of recent low scores raised questions that perfect scoring conditions alone couldn't answer. At the Memorial a subject that had generated controversy on the Tour all year took on new urgency: the rewards and perils of high-tech golf. The biggest issue is the recently developed "box-shaped" or "U-shaped" grooves in irons, especially pitching and sand wedges, which an increasing number of Tour players, including Pooley, are using.

The new grooves work on the same principle as rain tires. With more area than conventional V-shaped grooves, they can trap more grass, water, sand or dirt while leaving the face of the iron cleaner. This makes it easier to apply backspin and thus control the ball.

Course designer Nicklaus, a critic of the new technology, had hoped Muirfield Village, which like Augusta National has undulating greens, which place a premium on the approach shot, would be hard, fast and windy for the Memorial. Instead, rain softened the course even more than it had last year, when Hal Sutton won with a record 17 under par and Pooley was the runner-up. U grooves or V grooves, everyone was throwing darts at the stick again last week.

"I don't think anybody likes to see it play quite that easy," said Nicklaus. It wasn't easy, though, for Greg Norman, whose 283 put him in 27th place, or for Nicklaus himself, who finished 66th at 293.

Conditions on Thursday were advantageous to everybody. With 17-year cicadas filling the course with a sizzling background buzz, Byrum led the way with a course-record-tying 64. Twenty-two players broke 70, so that a 68, like the one shot by Masters champion Larry Mize, drew yawns. Mize is having no trouble with the demands of celebrity. "I'm recognized once in a while, but I'm not Prince yet," he drawled. "Of course, every time I miss a green, people tell me to chip it in again."

On Friday, Hoch shot his own 64. He split the fairways driving with a metal-headed two-wood and made a passel of 10-footers. A matter-of-fact 31-year-old with a boyish face evocative of Alfred E. Neuman's, Hoch can ride his upright compact swing to prodigious birdie runs. He shot 29 on the front nine during the first round at Colonial. On Friday he expansively said his 32 on the back nine during the opening round at Memorial "easily could have been 27 or 28."

Hoch has spent much of his eight-year career fighting injuries. He has a weak left thumb, and he reinjured his right shoulder slapping high fives after his hole in one at Las Vegas, when he surprised people by asking for the cash value of the Rolls rather than making it the family car for his wife and two small children. "Spilled apple juice and smashed-up raisins don't look very good on white leather seats," he said.

Pooley, on the other hand, didn't question the bounty for his ace—monthly payments of $2,083.33 for the next 20 years—just as he didn't question Hoch's sudden generosity on Sunday. After taking the lead on the ninth, Pooley played steadily while Hoch, Byrum and David Frost of South Africa struggled to catch him. Byrum, playing with Pooley and Hoch, birdied the 15th to tie for the lead but nervously three-putted from 20 feet on 16 to fall back again. Then Pooley slammed the door with birdies on the last two holes.

"I feel like I've had a great career," said Pooley later. "A lot better than I expected to have. I wasn't a great junior player. I wasn't a good college player. I wasn't a good minitour player...."

But that was long ago, and as Old Tom and Young Tom would tell you, remembering the past is what the Memorial is all about.

TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINPooley coolly capitalized when Hoch (below) suddenly began to struggle with his putter. TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINIdeal scoring conditions were of little help to host Nicklaus (top) and Norman, who both finished well back.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)