APB for a Champion

In the search for a dominant golfer, four players appear to be the primary suspects
April 10, 1988

On the eve of a masters that many hope will begin a new era in golf, consider this passage from Herbert Warren Wind's The History of American Golf: "...the new stars failed to make contact with the sympathies of the sideliners, and golf began to take on a flat, mathematical quality." Wind used those words to describe the state of golf in the early 1930s, but they also serve as an apt appraisal of the sport in the late 1980s.

Today, pro golf is an army of faceless young men battling for Nabisco points on the all-exempt PGA Tour, their disappointment at not winning buffered by the $135,000 they can pocket for finishing second. Even the four most promising of these players—Paul Azinger, Steve Pate, Chip Beck and Keith Clearwater—have as yet failed to identify themselves as champions of the first rank, either on the course or with the galleries. A victory by any one of them at Augusta this week would change all that.

Golf has lacked a "king" for four years, or since Tom Watson bogeyed the Road Hole at St. Andrews to lose not only the 1984 British Open but also the knack of winning. Such interregnums are not unusual in golf. The retirement of Bobby Jones in 1930 left the throne empty until Byron Nelson and Sam Snead emerged in 1937. Then came Ben Hogan, whose reign ended when Snead beat him by a stroke in the 1954 Masters playoff. Six years passed until Arnold Palmer took charge. Today's fans, treated to the smooth transition from Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to Watson—with some Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller mixed in—hunger for someone to name an era after.

Alas, the usual suspects, Seve Ballesteros, 31, and Greg Norman, 33, are becoming a little suspect. To leave an indelible mark they need to win some more majors in a hurry. Both fit the description of the kind of player that Watson, who separated himself from a very distinguished pack in the mid-'70s, thinks will emerge again to dominate. "It will most likely be a guy who hits it a long way, but above all, he's got to have the magic with the putter," says Watson.

Curtis Strange, 33, seems primed to win a major after 11 years of trying. Bob Tway may return to his 1986 Player of the Year form if he can grow comfortable with a starring role. Pure talents like Payne Stewart, 31, Dan Pohl. 33. and Joey Sindelar, 30, seem only to need a few more wins. Foreign stars such as Sandy Lyle, 30, Bernhard Langer, 30, and Ian Woosnam, 30, have power, guts and imagination. And even the old king himself, Watson, 38, shouldn't be ruled out.

Miller, who played some of the hottest golf in history for two years and then cooled off, says all of the aforementioned, with the exception of the 28-year-old Tway, have one inexorable element working against them—time. "If you don't do it [get to the top] in your late 20's, you probably aren't going to do it at all," says Miller, who interrupted Nicklaus's reign by winning the 1973 U.S. Open, when he was 26, and 12 more tournaments in 1974 and 1975. "That age range is when you are going to get the next guy who will dominate. That doesn't necessarily apply to Seve, because he had a prime in his 20's, and the really great players usually have two primes. But I think you have to look at the young guys."

Several players who have won tournaments in the last two years are on Miller time. Mark Calcavecchia, 27, Davis Love III, 23, and Fred Couples, 28, are all big hitters who can be brilliant. But the Tour cognoscenti are even more impressed with the skills of the four pros who together have won 10 tournaments in the last 15 months: Azinger, 28, Clearwater, 28, Beck, 31, and Pate, 26. Also mentioned, but with an asterisk because he is still winless in the U.S., is last year's scoring average leader, 28-year-old David Frost of South Africa. "You can't force it," says Frost. "It will happen. It's nothing I can control."

Somehow Azinger, Clearwater, Beck and Pate have been able to control it. Each could be nicknamed Robo-Pro for the efficiency with which he approaches the game. Of the four, only Clearwater, the 1987 Rookie of the Year, didn't rank in the PGA's Top 10 in all-around play last year. All are mechanically sound, can concentrate when the heat is on and are dedicated to the game. Each has paid his dues and then embarked on a pro career marked by steady improvement. None is awed by greatness.

The one who has had the closest brush with it is the lanky Azinger. He was Player of the Year in 1987, when he won at Phoenix, Las Vegas and Hartford and earned more than $820,000 in prize money. He nearly broke through at the British Open but bogeyed the last two holes at Muirfield to lose to Nick Faldo by one stroke.

Azinger had trouble gathering himself after that defeat, and cynics wondered if a fellow who had gone through the Tour qualifying school three times was ready to disappear back into obscurity. "I was feeling a lot of pressure from people comparing me to other guys who have had good years and then fallen off, plus I didn't want to admit that the British Open bothered me," he says. "Trying to disprove them was driving me crazy."

That feeling carried over into the early part of 1988. While in contention during the final round of this year's Bob Hope, he four-putted one green and five-putted another. But during a practice round at the Bay Hill Classic in March, Azinger finally opened up. "I told my caddie, 'I haven't been the same since the British Open,' " he says. "It felt so good to say it."

With that psychic load removed, Azinger found that the irritability clouding his natural affability also fell away. That week he played like the Azinger of '87 and in the final round dramatically held off a charge by veteran Tom Kite to win. The victory boosted his confidence and reinstated Azinger as the leading man who would be king.

Azinger is long off the tee, a superb iron player and the kind of putter who rarely misses a six-footer. He swings on a flatter plane than most tall men (he's 6'2" and 170 pounds), and his grip would seem to invite a hook, but his zeal under fire overcomes those apparent hindrances. "This guy has a chance of doing it," says Miller. "I look at him and I think his swing's not too good and his grip is no good. But what separates a dominant guy most is a hidden ingredient. I get the feeling he might have it."

Azinger believes his primary strength is mental. "I think I can outconcentrate most people," he says. He learned visualization and breathing techniques from a boxing coach in Florida and has used them to great effect. "The stuff works," he says. "I heard Watson say once that when he learned how to breathe, he learned how to win."

Azinger's mental powers will undergo their toughest test as he battles the expectations that are increasingly being thrust upon him. "I'm trying my hardest to do great things, but I'm going to let my clubs do the talking," he says when asked whether he thinks he is a potentially dominant player. And his clubs have been eloquent. As Watson says, "These other guys are perched to shoot for the top. But they are only perched. Azinger is the one doing it."

Clearwater is nearly as impressive as Azinger. Last year he became the first rookie to win two tournaments since Jerry Pate did it in 1976, and he set a rookie prize-money record of $320,007 as he finished 31st overall on the earnings list. With his trademark flipped-up collars and pleated pants, Clearwater might be the Tour's most stylish dresser. More important, he might also have the most stylish swing. It's simple, solid and pure. Says Miller, "If you were to ask Ben Hogan who has the best mechanics, I think he'd pick Keith, hands down."

Clearwater failed qualifying school four times. Rather than give up, however, he doggedly played the minitours until he dominated them, winning 19 events in five years. "I never questioned what I was doing," he says. "I considered myself as being on a program to get as good as I needed to be. I would have done it for five more years, if that's what it took to get out here."

Once on the Tour in 1987, Clearwater showed he belonged. At the Colonial National Invitational he had the best 36-hole Sunday in Tour history, shooting 64-64 to win by three strokes. He shot another 64 in the third round of the U.S. Open at Olympic and led by one going into the final day, only to balloon to a 79. "Believe it or not, except for one or two shots in that round, I played great," says Clearwater, a relentlessly positive man who also says his game was solid during a period when he missed five cuts in a row earlier this year. He admits his Sunday round at the Open didn't help his confidence, but at Tallahassee in November he won again while playing less than his best. "I just managed myself extremely well and putted my way around," says Clearwater. "That boosted my confidence back up."

Clearwater, a sturdily built 6-foot, 175-pounder, is a straight driver who is particularly accurate with short irons. When his compact swing is in a groove, his game can get outrageously hot. When it's not, it's usually because of his putting, which can dip to a level below mediocre. However he is playing, Clearwater's perspective on the sport remains unchanged. "Golf is definitely not No. 1 in my life," he says. "But that doesn't mean I don't want to be the best player in the world. It's just that golf is nothing to be afraid of. There's nothing out here to be afraid of, ever."

While Clearwater seems mature beyond his years. Beck is a 31-year-old veteran who is just beginning to tap his talent. "All my life I've been a late bloomer," he says. "What's important is just that you bloom."

He has, making him a potential exception to Miller's career clock. Last year Beck had his best season, winning $523,003, to place ninth on the money list. Coming into 1988 he had seven second-place finishes in nine seasons on the Tour, including one at the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. But he had never finished first. Then in February, Beck won the Los Angeles Open with perhaps the best golf of the year, a 17-under-par 267 at vaunted Riviera. Says veteran Jay Haas, who played with Beck on the final round, "To have watched him play, you would have thought he had won 30 times." The next week at Doral, Beck finished second again.

Beck used to struggle with a loose, upright swing that required perfect timing. Two years ago he began working with touring pro and swing guru Mac O'Grady and developed a simpler action that depends more on hip and torso rotation. "Playing and not winning is the best thing that ever happened to me," says Beck. "I had to learn how to play; now I know what it takes for me to win."

Beck says he takes strength from the career of another disciplined late bloomer, Hogan. Beck runs, stretches and lifts weights religiously, building muscle and elasticity into his 5'10", 170-pound frame. "I mainly do it for my mind. The stress from a three-foot putt is easier to handle if you've put yourself through some pain," he says. Working out has also made Beck a power player. In the '80s no PGA player has made more eagles—65 through last year—than he has.

And he is intense. After shooting a 65 in the first round at Riviera, he was on the practice tee grooving drive after drive, slapping his thigh gently and uttering a nearly silent "Way to go, babe" after each good shot. "For me, it takes all of me to be successful," he says. "I wish it didn't. But I can only be me."

Beck is also one of the Tour's friendliest players. "I've always been told, "You're too nice. You can't win,' " he says. "But I've never believed that you had to be nasty to be a winner. I'm so glad I stuck to that belief."

Beck's ambition is to ride his talent as far as it will go and, he hopes, win some majors. "I'm not concerned with beating other people," he says. "I've discovered that the battle is with yourself. As long as I feel I'm improving, I'm going to keep going for it."

Improvement is what Pate is all about. In 1985, his first year on the Tour, he got into a playoff at the Atlanta Classic. Last September he won the Southwest Classic. And this year he was the Tour's first double winner, with victories at the Tournament of Champions and the Andy Williams Open.

Pate is probably the least heralded of our quartet. But his putting stroke is potentially in a class with Ben Crenshaw's, and he's a long, dependable driver. Thus he excels in the two areas that Watson considers most important for anyone who aspires to greatness. He also seems to have "that certain something," as Haas put it after Pate edged him at San Diego. That something has helped Pate come up big at the right times. At Atlanta in his rookie year, he made a 12-footer on the 72nd hole to get into the playoff, which he ultimately lost to Wayne Levi. At the Southwest he made a five-footer on the last hole to win. At the Andy Williams he overcame some erratic shots on the back nine and birdied the final hole for the victory.

"My concentration has gotten very good when I'm playing well with a chance to win," says Pate. "After hitting a bad shot, I'm getting better at approaching the next shot with a good attitude. When I have a putt to win, I'm not thinking about what can happen if I miss it. All I'm thinking of is how to make it."

Pate is trying to control his temper, which was legendary while he was playing for UCLA in the early '80s—he was an All-America in '83—and when he first joined the Tour. His volatile nature is surprising, considering Pate's relaxed, tobacco-chewing off-course demeanor. "It's still a problem," he says. "I know it doesn't help me any. But I hate to lose, and I hate not doing as well as I think I should."

Will Pate end up being the guy who can win six or seven times in a year and take the game to another level? "Everybody who wins takes the game to that level," he says. "It's doing it often that's hard. I wish I knew what it took."

Maybe he does. Or maybe no one does, judging from the way golf has evolved over the past few years. But with the last 18 major championships having been won by 18 different players, a particularly delicious sense of urgency hovers over this year's Masters.

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINFinding the groove at 31, Beck is proving that nice guys don't have to finish second. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINDouble winner Pate is hoping to keep his game hot and his temper cool. PHOTOJAMES DRAKEA collapse in the 1987 British Open haunted Azinger until he won at Bay Hill last month. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERAfter five years on the minitours, Clearwater became an overnight success in the big time.