If he could have a good lie in the fairway and a driver in his hand, Mark Calcavecchia swears that he would put up $100,000 to be standing 250 yards from the final, water-guarded green in a major championship, needing an eagle to win. "I just eat that situation up," he says.
But Calcavecchia admits that he was nearly incapacitated with gastronomic yips when he sat down to eat his first meal with his Ryder Cup teammates in the home of team captain Jack Nicklaus last September. "I was afraid to lift the food to my mouth," he says. "All I could think was, Don't drool barbecue sauce down your shirt."
In spite of the obvious contradiction, the two images can exist in harmony. On one hand, the 27-year-old Calcavecchia (Cal-ka-VEK-e-ya) has every right to think he can pull off golfs toughest shots. Since September 1986 he has won the Southwest Classic and the Honda Classic, along with more than $650,000 in prize money. In 1987 he finished 10th on the PGA Tour money list with $522,398. In the process he has exhibited a game that is among the biggest and boldest ever seen.
On the other hand, Calcavecchia lost his PGA Tour card five times while scratching out less than $90,000 in his first five pro seasons. Any golfer with a record like that is supposed to forget how to use a fork in the presence of Jack Nicklaus. "Sometimes when I'm out there playing bad and thinking everyone is against me, I stop and realize how many guys would give their left arm to be where I'm at," Calcavecchia says. "Hell, I was one of them."
Was he ever. Certainly Calcavecchia, while possessing a load of raw talent, never looked like potential fairway royalty. From 1981, when he joined the Tour, to 1985, when he lost his card for the fifth time, he had a self-taught swing that often failed him under pressure. Just as bad, he had a propensity for junk food and beer that left him with a depressing weight problem. The combination produced mood swings, and he alternated between raging, club-wrecking fits of temper and periods of sullen, lonely despair.
Fortunately, Calcavecchia has always had the ability to say, "Forget it." It's a trait that may have kept him off the practice tee, but it also allowed him to keep the game from devouring him. "He gets mad on the golf course," says his wife of four months, Sheryl. "But once he's finished playing, he says, 'Let's go have some fun.' "
Fun can mean dancing, listening to rock music or playing other sports. Calcavecchia is a 195-average bowler and a talented pool shooter. He and fellow golf pro Ken Green sometimes compete in their own version of the modern pentathlon—paddle tennis, tennis, Ping-Pong, pool and bowling—with the loser buying dinner.
"I'm not your normal PGA Tour pro," says Calcavecchia, whose name means "old shoe" in Italian. "I'm a little wilder than most, a little crazier. More of a let-it-fly type. I can't really help it."
Most Tour veterans take a dim view of carousers, when they notice them at all. "I'm sure I was a jerk a decent amount of the time," Calcavecchia says. "Everybody thought I was a screw-off, and I'm sure a lot of guys didn't like me. Everyone ignored me. When I saw the name players on the putting green, I just kind of sneaked around to the other side. It was almost like I didn't belong. Of course, now that I'm playing well, everybody knows me."
Calcavecchia is no longer a screw-off. He has worked diligently to change his swing, replacing a hard hook with a powerful, softer-landing fade. The change has increased his control and has cost him only a few yards of distance; his average drive is still better than 270—among the Tour's top 10. He has also improved his putting, moving from 151st in 1986 to 22nd in 1987.
Meanwhile, Calcavecchia's life off the course has become positively PGA centrist. Sheryl is an aerobics instructor and hairdresser, and at the beginning of their courtship early last year, she started Mark on a fitness program that has trimmed the 6-footer down from a portly 230 pounds to 200. His hair is more stylish, too, though he may never make anybody's best-dressed list.
Similarly, he has made an effort to keep his anger from showing on the course. "When you are out there at 7:30 in the morning, nobody's going to get too upset if you bury your putter in the side of the green," he says. "I had my share of doing that, but a major reason my golf has improved is that I'm learning to control it."
Temper or no, the numbers say Calcavecchia is the most explosive player on the Tour. In 1986 he picked up his first win, at the Southwest Classic in Abilene, Texas, by making birdies on five of the last 10 holes. The following year he won the Honda Classic in March. Two months later, at the Byron Nelson Classic, he shot the two lowest back-to-back rounds of the year, 63-64, to tie Fred Couples before losing in a playoff. By the end of the season, he led the Tour in percentage of subpar holes, with .221.
So far, Calcavecchia has shown only flashes of brilliance in 1988. At the recent A T & T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he eventually finished eighth, he described how he played the 600-yard first hole at Spyglass Hill, during a second round 69 that tied him for the lead. "I hit my drive about 330 down the middle—it was a kill," he said. "Then I whipped out one of the greatest three-woods I have ever hit, a perfect draw that goes about 270 and rolls over the green. From there I hit a little flop shot with a sand wedge, and it goes in the hole. An easy eagle."
Such relaxed candor often leads Calcavecchia into irreverent hyperbole. In the same interview, he called a decision to allow players to lift and clean their balls at Spyglass, "the worst ruling in the history of the PGA Tour." In a question about the pace of play, he referred to Bernhard Langer as "the slowest human alive." Not exactly the kind of remarks the Tour establishment expects from a young player.
Calcavecchia's sudden success made him Exhibit A in the case against square-grooved irons, in particular the Ping Eye 2 model. Calcavecchia has used those irons since 1985, and when his eight-iron from deep rough on the 70th hole of the Honda Classic last year hit the green and stopped, several veterans rose up in unison to protest that the irons could make the ball spin from otherwise impossible lies. "It was as if all the other holes I had played had nothing to do with [my win]," says Calcavecchia.
"I think it's a lot of baloney to say the irons make that big a difference," says Paul Azinger, who used a square-grooved wedge as he was winning 1987 PGA Player of the Year honors. "Mark could play, and win, with any kind of club."
A growing number of other pros agree. "Mark's a fighter," says Lanny Wadkins, who was impressed with Calcavecchia at the Ryder Cup. "He's not afraid of anybody or of shooting low scores. And when you are not afraid, then you just go ahead and win."
Calcavecchia, without an identity for so long, loves the one he has now. "It's great being known as an aggressive player," he says. "I used to always be afraid. Now if I think I might be on TV, and I have an iffy shot, I'll go for it. It's like, Hey, I'm an aggressive player. My decision is already made for me."
Calcavecchia's introduction to golf was made in the unlikely town of Laurel (pop. 900), in the northeast corner of Nebraska, where he was born the third and last child of John and Marjorie Calcavecchia. John was an insurance agent who also managed the town's bowling alley. His first love was golf, and when he and his friends tired of driving 15 miles to Wayne to play, they built their own nine-hole course in a cornfield and called it Cedar View Country Club.
Mark was eight when he started riding his bike to the course with a set of clubs slung over his shoulder. By the time he was 12, he was playing 36 to 45 holes a day in near-par numbers. "The golf course was Mark's best friend," says Marjorie. It remained so after the family moved to North Palm Beach, Fla., when Mark was 13, so that John could better cope with the effects of multiple sclerosis. Unable to play himself, he enjoyed following his son in a cart. Says Mark, "I was his golf."
With his father's backing, Calcavecchia began playing national tournaments and in 1976 won the Florida State and Orange Bowl junior championships. He knew he had talent, but his devotion to golf was somewhat less than Hoganesque. His next stop was the University of Florida, where, he admits, he "never" went to class, but remained eligible. Then at 20 he turned pro.
He played the Florida minitours for six months before trying his first PGA Tour qualifying school in 1981. "I didn't even care if I made it, because I was having so much fun on the minitours," he says. "Plus, I knew I didn't have the game for the Tour." He was right, although he qualified with a 68. By the end of the first year, Calcavecchia had won $404 and lost his card.
He earned it back, but the next three years were marked by a heavy dose of reality. He called home every night to report on his round, a ritual he continues to this day. Sometimes the news was good, as when he shot a final-round 66 to tie for fourth at Milwaukee in 1984. But mostly it was bad. At the 1984 Tucson Match Play, he was seven up on T.C. Chen with nine holes left, but then lost on the third extra hole.
All the failures started Calcavecchia on a cycle of overeating and guzzling beer. It wasn't that long before he had gone from 190 pounds to 233. "It was typical for me to play bad, get a six-pack and a couple of Big Macs and sit around and watch TV," he says. "Then I'd go to a few bars and drink some more."
He hit bottom in 1985. In January his father died. After losing his card for the fifth time, Mark tore cartilage in his left knee fooling around on the beach. He was barely able to hit the ball 240 yards and again failed to qualify for the Tour.
"I was lost, and had to regroup," says Calcavecchia, who underwent arthroscopic surgery. "I realized that a bunch of guys I used to beat had passed me." One of them was his friend Green, who had won his first tournament, the Buick Open, that year. Says Green, "I remember telling Mark, 'Believe it or not, this is going to be the best thing for you. You are either going to decide you want to play golf and work at it harder or you're going to end up in the middle of nowhere, just a basic golf bum.' "
Rededicating himself, Calcavecchia went to Peter Kostis, a teaching pro who helped him develop his new swing. Then he entered the B.J. Thomas Classic, a minitour event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in March 1986. He defeated Keith Clearwater by a stroke to win $19,000, his biggest check ever. Next he shot 65 in the first round at Doral to take the lead and then followed with three 72s for an eighth-place tie. "That's when I knew I would be coming back on the Tour, and when I did, it would be to stay."
Calcavecchia continued to play well that summer. His fourth-round 65 at Shinnecock Hills, his first U.S. Open, earned him 14th place. Then came his victory at the Southwest Classic. Going into the final round, he led by five strokes, but he slipped to one behind leader Tom Byrum by the time he reached the 8th tee. "I was thinking, Everybody must be saying, 'What a choke,' " says Calcavecchia. "All kinds of crazy things. But somehow I held it together. Once I did that, I knew I could do it again."
In 1987 he proved it. That was also the year he met Sheryl at a Phoenix disco. On their first date she cut his hair, but, unlike Samson, losing his locks seemed to make Mark stronger. Calcavecchia says his two proudest moments are when he played in the Ryder Cup and when Sheryl accepted his proposal.
This year Calcavecchia is ravenous for more success. "Winning is my goal," he says. "I know I can do it, and if I keep that focus, good things will happen."
After a round at Pebble Beach, he watched the seals on the rocks of Carmel Bay. "One kept getting pushed off this rock by these other two," he recalls. "Finally he figured out a way to come up the rock from another angle. He sat there for a while, then he figured, What the hell, and he pushed off the one that had pushed him. I probably looked like an idiot, but I was cheering."