When a mop-headed golfer whose eagles are rarer than bald ones won the International at Castle Rock, Colo., in one dramatic swoop Sunday, you could almost hear proponents of this unique event crying out, "Eureka! The System works!"
The System in this case is a method of scoring, originated at this two-year-old tournament, that allows golfers to come from behind faster than a hurry-up offense in arena football. And with the help of a suspiciously easy par-5 hole, John Cook made a last-round eagle 3 to steal victory from Ken Green and win a cool $180,000.
"Now I know how Greg Norman feels," said Green. The tournament's defending champion, Green sank a four-footer for par at the 18th and then had only Cook to worry about among the 17 other players in the Sunday shoot-out.
That putt kept Green two "International" points ahead of Cook. But moments later, Cook, who had made only one eagle in 23 events this year, whistled a four-iron from 210 yards to 12 feet on the 492-yard 17th. He calmly dropped the eagle putt and collected five points for it, and that put him three points ahead of Green—a position of such superiority that even with a bogey on the last hole he won by two points.
Such last-round drama was precisely what the tournament founders had in mind when they adopted this scoring format. It was borrowed in principle from the Stableford system, the predominant method used in friendly matches among amateurs in Great Britain and Australia. Players at the International are awarded eight points for a double eagle, five for an eagle, two for a birdie and zero for par. Bogeys count minus one point and double bogeys or worse minus three. While critics have said the system is often inequitable, pointing out that a round of 18 pars is worth zero points while a round of nine birdies and nine bogeys is worth nine, the players seem to find the change refreshing.
This year's International started with a 162-man field that was cut over four days of 18-hole rounds. There is no cumulative scoring from round to round: Every day everyone starts from scratch. On Friday, when the remaining 78 players competed for 54 spots, the "bubble," or cutoff number for advancing, was a score of minus two. On Saturday it took a plus four to make the final field of 18 for the Sunday scramble for $754,500.
And Sunday is what the International is all about—a hyped-up final day of melodrama, when the objective is no longer survival but to "shoot the lights out." Which is why the PGA Tour needs this kind of change of pace. The usual medal-play format, particularly in major championships, too often rewards conservative—almost defensive—golf. By making a birdie and a bogey worth more than two pars, the International has at least created the perception that the winner will be a plunger instead of a plugger. "This is something a lot of people have said was needed in golf," said Ben Crenshaw. Tour commissioner Deane Beman was similarly impressed: "I'm charmed by the International. It has the feel and the majesty of match play."
The tournament's founder, Denver oil magnate Jack Vickers, is eager for the International to achieve major championship status, and he has cut no corners. The clubhouse at the Castle Pines Golf Club, in the foothills of the Rockies outside Denver, is one of the best-appointed in the nation, and the course itself was designed by Jack Nicklaus. The greens were the finest the Tour has seen all year. "When you miss a makable putt on them, it just about kills you because there is no excuse," said Crenshaw. Although Castle Pines measures a gargantuan 7,503 yards, players say it's at "two-club altitude"—meaning rarefied air that makes 180-yard eight-irons and 340-yard drives not unusual.
At the outset the tournament marquee was nicely star-studded, with the likes of Nicklaus, Norman, Crenshaw, Tom Watson, and Fuzzy Zoeller, among others. Nicklaus opened with a plus 12, based on a lovely 67 that he called his best round of the year. But by Friday both Nicklaus and Norman were gone in bizarre fashion. First Nicklaus self-destructed with a 44 on the front nine that featured three double bogeys. Norman's demise was not entirely his own fault. Standing on the 18th tee with minus two points, Norman needed only a par to advance to Saturday's round. Tournament officials had by then estimated that the cut would begin at minus three.
Unfortunately for Norman, he didn't know that—and officials had previously decided it would be unfair to inform late finishers where they stood in the overall ranking while they were still on the course. Norman guessed he needed a birdie to advance and promptly hit a too-bold tee shot into the water. The double bogey put him out of the tournament and into a very bad mood. It also caused officials to change the notification rule for the rest of the tournament.
Saturday was a brighter day for stars. Crenshaw birdied three of the last six holes to make the final, and Watson birdied three of the last five to join him. When Zoeller survived a seven-way playoff for the last six spots, the International had three of golf's top names in its Sunday showcase round.
Cook had barely advanced in the first two rounds and sneaked through Saturday's seven-player playoff. "I was a couple of swings from going back to Palm Springs," he said. On Sunday, Cook made three bogeys on the back nine, but he also made two birdies to go along with his eagle on the 17th. In this format, that was plenty. "You can't say enough about this system," said the 29-year-old Cook, who last won in 1983. "I knew I would make birdies, so the bogeys I made weren't tournament-ending bogeys."
"We couldn't have scripted it any better," said Vickers. He then confessed that the 17th, which was played in an under-par average of 4.57 strokes, is nevertheless his overall favorite because of the drama it provides his tournament. "That's what it's all about," he said. "That's the System."