HOCH as...in CHOKE

When Scott Hoch blew a gimme putt to lose the Masters, an old rap resurfaced...but a victory and a grand gesture three weeks later proved that he's a winner
June 11, 1989

Two and a half feet isn't much. People have been served noodles longer than that. Two and a half feet is less than a man's stride, not as long as a three-iron. Yet 2½ feet was all that lay between Scott Hoch and some very sweet redemption.

Two and a half feet of Georgian mother earth was all Hoch had left on a drizzly April evening to win this year's Masters golf tournament and the immortality—to say nothing of the silver—that goes with it. All he had to do was roll his Titleist 30 inches across the lush bent-grass green into a hole, and a whole lot of wrong would be right.

Two and a half feet? You could get Hoch out of REM sleep, turn on a floodlight and hand him a lampstand, and he could make 99 out of 100 putts from 2½ feet. He hadn't three-putted once in this Masters, and if you know Augusta's greens, you know that's like two-putting a Ventura off ramp. This was Hoch, as in stroke.

The putt was just about in the leather, a gimme—as in, Gimme the green jacket, boys. I feel a speech coming on.

The 33-year-old Hoch knew what this shot meant. It meant his first win in the U.S. in five years. He had won only three PGA tournaments lifetime, and two of those victories were in the Quad Cities Open. The Masters would look very nice on his rèsumè.

This is a man who, when he entered his first PGA tournament, in 1980, wrenched his back going up some stairs before he could play an official round and had to sit out five months. This is a man who in 1982 was hogtied for an hour in his hotel room in Tucson while wondering if he was going to die. An intruder had announced himself as a policeman, held up Hoch and his wife, Sally, at gunpoint, and tied them up. He then threw Scott into the corner of the room along with the furniture cushions. "I figured they were to muffle the shots when he killed me," says Hoch. When the gunman finally left, he and Sally were poorer but alive.

Even Hoch's brass rings seemed to turn green. When he won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average—70.08—in '86, he was roundly roasted. Critics complained that Hoch not only had not won a PGA event that year, but also had lowered his average by entering marshmallow events. "The ancient and honorable Vardon Trophy is in danger of becoming a joke," Thomas Boswell wrote in Golf magazine. "And that rhymes with Hoch."

Not everyone, however, loves a good wreck. This is a man who was named Least Popular Golfer in a poll of Tour players conducted last spring by the Dallas Times Herald. According to Charles Cooper, a Times Herald assistant managing editor at the time, of the 157 Tour pros the paper canvassed, about 50 returned ballots, and Hoch got the most votes.

Hoch and his agent, Dick Madigan, have declared the poll bogus, claiming that only three players actually wrote in Hoch's name. But Cooper, Dave Burgin, then editor of the Times Herald, and the paper's golf writer Greg Stoda all swear Hoch was the loser, even though they didn't keep the exact figures. "It wasn't like it was close," says Cooper.

Hoch was stung. "It really hurt," he says. "It was cruel. It hurt my family and my friends. I don't know why they did it."

Sally was so angry she stopped traveling with him on the Tour. Nonetheless, in spite of his doubts about the poll's veracity, Hoch admits that before Augusta he could be "kind of a smart-ass" and "kind of hard to get to know." He did indeed strike some people the wrong way.

"I've known Scott since I was 10 years old," says Chip Beck, another player on the Tour. "Even then he'd always be in conflicts, and people would talk about him. They considered him cocky and arrogant. But that was just Scott trying to be the best he could be."

Although Hoch's friends find him warm and funny, he does have a different way about him. When he won a $118,000 Rolls-Royce for making a hole in one at Las Vegas in 1987, he asked for the money instead. "It won't fit through the drive-through at Wendy's," he said.

On the other hand, how many of his fellow pros knew the troubles Hoch had seen? How many of them had been there that day in 1986 when he returned to his Orlando, Fla., home after two weeks out on the Tour? The day he realized that his 2½-year-old son, Cameron, who had been limping when he left, was still limping when he got back? The doctors had said Cameron probably had a sprained ankle, but Hoch thought something was not right.

The X-rays taken the next day at the Orlando Regional Medical Center showed a dark mass about the size of a quarter on the boy's right femur. That was bad. Further tests showed the same thing. Scott and Sally feared the worst, and when they asked Dr. Joe Flynn if it was cancer, all he would say was, "I can't rule it out."

That was a sleepless week. "It was like living in a knot of fear," recalls Hoch. Sally would spend all day and most of the night at the hospital, waiting for test results. It wasn't the best place to be hopeful. Many of the kids on the floor with Cameron had terminal diseases.

One test remained: taking a piece of the bone out for a biopsy. When Flynn came into the waiting room afterward and said, "It doesn't look like cancer," the Hochs collapsed against the wall and cried.

Cameron had a rare bone infection called kingella kingae. It responded to medication, and he went home a month later, on Scott's 31st birthday, three days before Thanksgiving. "That was the happiest Thanksgiving ever," says Sally. But as Cameron grew stronger, many of the other children on his floor grew weaker, and some eventually died.

Scott was determined to give some money to the hospital. Sally kept pestering him to write a check, but he kept telling her no. "I was starting to get a little mad,"" she says.

She didn't know his plan. He wanted to handle the donation in his own way, doing it after he had won a tournament. But try as he might, he couldn't win, though he came close. He blew a four-shot final-round lead at the 1987 Memorial Tournament and ended up tied for third. He three-putted from eight feet on the last hole of that year's PGA to finish one stroke out. Each time he was ready to make his donation, but as each year passed Sally would look at him a little harder. "You've got to give something," she would say.

He was trying so hard he was not doing anyone any good. He began 1989 hungry for a victory and bothered by a thumb injury. He came in 39th at the Nestle Invitational in March and missed the cut the following week at The Players Championship.

He became so disgusted and frustrated that he stopped playing for the two weeks before the Masters, just to have time to think. One thing he decided was that he wasn't having any fun. His caddie on the Tour, Rick Cesario, had already given him some unsolicited advice. "Every day you come off the course tied up in knots," said Cesario. "You're going to play this game for a living for what, the next 25 years? Is every day going to be like that?"

Maybe Cesario was right. The poll had taken something out of Hoch too. Was he having any fun? Was he any fun? He left his clubs alone for 10 straight days, arrived at the Masters on Tuesday, a day later than usual, and set out to have a few laughs. "I loosened up," says Hoch. "I was completely at ease the whole week. I was so relaxed, it was eerie."

He had cruised through 72¾ holes—"He played a level of golf I'd never seen from him," says Sally—and now needed to navigate 2½ more feet of No. 10, the first playoff hole, to beat Britain's Nick Faldo. For some reason, though, Hoch conducted a mental filibuster over the putt. He paced and repaced it for almost two minutes. "I wasn't nervous," he says. "I just remembered I hadn't taken my time with the PGA putt [in '87], and I wanted to this time."

It was a downhill putt on a wet green. He had run his first putt, a 30-footer, by the hole. Now Hoch thought he should aim for the inside left of the cup and let the ball break sweetly, gently into the hole. Then again, maybe he should hit the putt firmly and straight. He stepped up to it. He stepped away from it. "I wasn't sure in my mind what I was going to do," he says. "That's the worst thing you can do—step up to a golf shot without a clear idea in your head."

Firm and straight, or easy and left edge? Had he forgotten that sound Scottish advice: There's nay bony in a three-foot putt. Putt it straight.

He stepped up to the putt again and struck it firmly—at the left edge. The ball went scurrying five hideous feet beyond the hole. The crowd made an embarrassed, painful groan, as if it had just seen a great actor forget his lines in the crucial scene of a play.

As Hoch threw his putter 15 feet into the air, one could feel history fitting him for a black coat. A 2½-foot putt to win and he gagged. Nobody at Augusta figured he would win now, and indeed, after Hoch made the five-footer—a putt he has virtually no memory of—Faldo poured in a 25-foot monster on the next hole for the victory. "Well," said Hoch at the press conference, grinning a most unconvincing grin, "I'm glad I don't carry a gun with me." Nobody seemed worried, not with his aim.

So Hoch packed himself, Sally, Cameron, daughter Katie and the treasonous putter into their Plymouth Voyager and drove to the next stop on the Disappointment Trail—Hilton Head. Along the way, the magnitude of his defeat sank into his brain and settled in his heart. "I feel like I've let you down," he told Sally as they drove. "I feel like I've let you down and my parents, your parents and our friends." More than that, he had let down the hospital.

"I couldn't sleep for two nights," says Hoch. "My dad couldn't sleep. Chip [Beck] couldn't sleep either. I guess when your friend has just blown the thing that you yourself have always dreamed of winning, it's a little hard to take."

Choking on the Tour is considered something of a disease, and the general belief is that it's contagious. Hoch became to any gathering of Tour players what Charlton Heston was to the Red Sea. He would walk up, and they would part. "Some guys would see me and feel so bad they wouldn't know what to say," he says. "They'd sort of duck."

Hoch sought out Ed Sneed, who had needed but one par over the final three holes at the 1979 Masters to win and bogeyed them all. He lost the playoff to Fuzzy Zoeller and has won only one tournament since, back in 1982. "Just be patient with the media," Sneed told him. "They will never allow it to die."

Is this what Hoch had ahead of him? To be forever known as the man who was an arm's length from a green jacket and let it slip through his grasp? He remembers thinking, Am I ever going to win again?

Two and a half weeks later in Las Vegas, it dawned on Hoch that he had beaten everybody at Augusta except himself. Why did the Masters have to be a comment on the narrowness of his throat instead of the broadness of his talent? "When someone comes out of a hell like that," Cesario would say later, "he either comes out as dust or he comes out never letting anything affect him again. Scott came out like tempered carbon steel."

Going into the final round in Las Vegas, Hoch led by a stroke. That night, he recalls, he had "these incredible vibrations that I was going to play like gang-busters." The next day he birdied the 18th hole to force a playoff with his old Wake Forest teammate, Robert Wrenn. Whose heart could take this?

On the first playoff hole, Hoch missed the green and looked dead. But he chipped to within three feet of the hole and made the putt. He missed the next two greens too. "I kept saying to the man upstairs, 'You do want me to help these kids, don't you?' " says Hoch. Each time Hoch chipped up and made the putt for par to stay even with Wrenn.

He birdied the fourth hole, but so did Wrenn. If destiny was Hoch's, it sure was taking its sweet time coming. Finally, on the fifth hole, Hoch had an eight-foot birdie putt. He took only about 45 seconds to ponder it and then knocked it in for the win.

Four one-putt greens out of five. When ESPN put its mike in front of him, Hoch was ready with his long-deferred speech. "There's something I've been keeping from my wife for a long time," said Hoch. You don't think that would make a wife's ears itch? He then announced that he would donate $100,000—the difference between the prize money for first-place ($225,000) and second ($135,000), plus another $10,000—to the hospital.

It was hard to tell who was more thrilled, Scott or Sally. "I don't think I could have been any happier winning Augusta than I was at that moment," he says. "That was the ultimate gut-check for me. If I had lost there, it could've spelled the end for me."

Beck, too, was moved by Hoch's generosity. "I'd like to see all the people that have judged Scott stand up and give $100,000 to charity," he says. "I don't know if they could. I don't know if I could. He's a terrific man."

Now take the poll.

PHOTOJONATHAN NEWTON/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTIONHoch debated striking the ball gently at the cup's left edge or firmly straight at the hole. PHOTOJONATHAN NEWTON/ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTIONSo he hit it firmly to the left and lost a chance to win the Masters on the first playoff hole. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINIn May, the Hochs celebrated Katie's third birthday and Scott's first Tour win since '84. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINA father's yips are visited upon the son: Short putts give Cameron problems too... PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN...but Scott couldn't care less since Cameron has recovered from a frightening illness.

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)