In times square the new year begins when the ball drops at midnight, but on the PGA Tour it doesn't start until commissioner Deane Beman sets the money counter back to zero and the feeding frenzy resumes. That happened last week at the $750,000 MONY Tournament of Champions, in Carlsbad, Calif., where a select field of 33 Tour pros and 20 seniors hiked the eucalyptus-scented fairways of the LaCosta Country Club, exulting in their return to competition and, by and large, following Walter Hagen's advice to "smell the flowers along the way."
No less a figure than Greg Norman, who two weeks earlier had been scowling at his clubs at home in Orlando, Fla., and battling the holiday blues by flying relatives in from Australia for Christmas visits, hailed the '90s as the millennium and called the New Year "a breath of fresh air."
However, by Sunday afternoon only two guys were still whistling as they worked—Paul Azinger, who pocketed $135,000 for his one-shot victory over Australia's Ian Baker-Finch, and George Archer, who won $37,500 for his seven-stroke runaway in the seniors' tournament-within-a-tournament. The rest were once again inhaling the miasma of doubt and self-pity that pervades tournament golf.
For a few days, though, the new season was all promise and promises. British Open champ Mark Calcavecchia, claiming to be eight pounds lighter than he was on Christmas Eve, vowed to shed 10 more. Payne Stewart promised to "take a cleansing breath" before every shot and said he would try to treat every tournament "as if the first shot on Thursday is the same as the last shot on Sunday." And Azinger said he hoped to be more patient in 1990.
The Tournament of Champions inspires this sort of uplift and bonhomie because: 1) it is a prestigious event, open only to players who have won official Tour events in the previous year; and 2) it is a cream puff. Who wouldn't feel optimistic while playing for $750,000 with no 36-hole cut and a guaranteed $9,000 for last place?
The T of C inevitably feels more like spring training than Opening Day, with every caddie talking like Sparky Anderson about his man, and every golfer believing in his heart that this will be his World Series year. Alas, golf courses rarely yield to mere resolve. Azinger spoke to that point last Thursday, after shooting a 66 to share the first-round lead with Norman and Baker-Finch.
"One thing I didn't ever want to do this year was hit a shot when I wasn't ready or I was distracted," Azinger said, "and I did it three times today." Similar lapses in '89 kept Azinger from fully capitalizing on the hottest streak of his golfing life. He earned almost $1 million last year and finished first in the Tour's "all-around" statistical category, but he won only one tournament and beat himself in several others, mostly through careless putting and mild fits of peeve.
As for Baker-Finch, a handsome 6'4" Queenslander who moved to Florida last year to tackle the American tour, he credited tips from tall golfers Nick Faldo and Bob Tway for his return to the form that won the Colonial National last May. "The game looks different when you're tall and lanky," says Baker-Finch. "It's not at all the same as when you're five-eight and stocky."
A 67 on Friday gave Baker-Finch a one-shot edge over Azinger and four shots on the rest of the field, but on Saturday the Australian began spraying the ball left and right, missing every fairway on the back nine and shooting what he rightly called a "hard-fought 72," for 205. Azinger, celebrating his 30th birthday, shot a third-round 69 for 203 and a two-shot lead, but he, too, had to scramble. Calcavecchia pulled to within three shots of the lead at 206, and Mark O'Meara, playing with a sore back and accompanied by a chiropractor borrowed from Chi Chi Rodriguez, shot the best round of the tournament (65) for 207. "Monday, I couldn't even hit a ball," O'Meara said, shrugging carefully.
On Sunday, Azinger and Baker-Finch both showed admirable patience, so much so that their twosome was warned for slow play for the third straight day. Baker-Finch, bothered by the stopwatch, hit his second shot into the water on the fourth hole and double-bogeyed the hole to fall four behind. He then birdied seven of the next 10 holes—"the best stretch of golf I have ever played"—to catch Azinger at 16 under.
If either player's resolve was going to crack, this was the time. At the par-5 17th, Azinger winced as his birdie putt glided past the hole. Twirling his putter in frustration, he somewhat heedlessly tapped in the foot-and-a-half putt for par. a putt that was no shorter than the one he had missed in the final round of last year's Disney Classic, and that had cost him the tournament. This time the ball dropped.
The two men went to the 18th tee still tied, and that's where impatience decided the tournament. Rushing a little—"probably because I felt so confident and relaxed"—Baker-Finch pulled his drive into a fairway bunker. Unable to clear the lip of the trap with the five-iron he needed to reach the green, he wisely laid up short with an eight-iron, hoping to save par with a good pitch. That opened the gate for Azinger, who took about 12 of Stewart's "cleansing breaths" and lingered over his shot from the fairway like a gardener tending a prize begonia. Finally, satisfied, he rifled a five-iron to about 16 feet above the hole. Minutes later, Baker-Finch's long par putt trickled past the cup, and Azinger took two deliberate putts for a 272 total and victory.
"It's so corny," said the tickled Zinger afterward. "I had to prove to myself that I could play without getting ahead of myself, and today I was able to do that."
Not to be outdone in this patienter-than-thou business, the gracious Baker-Finch praised Azinger lavishly, declared himself more than satisfied with his own play and then left to catch a transpacific flight, saying, "I can go back to Australia now and play with the confidence that I can win there."
Clever fellow, that Baker-Finch. He knows how to keep his start-of-the-season optimism alive.