Fred couples won the (Ahem) Johnnie Walker (nudge, nudge) World Championship on Sunday at the (wink, wink) world-famous Tryall golf course in (suppressed giggle) golf-mad Jamaica. He took home a first-place check worth $525,000 (gasp).
What was not unimaginable was Couples's winning it. Boom-Boom has been dynamite since the U.S. Open in June, winning three tournaments, riding shotgun during the U.S.'s win at the Ryder Cup this fall and finishing in the top six in 12 out of 14 tournaments. For the year he earned enough prize money ($1.725 million) to purchase a small Florida. And it was not unimaginable that Couples—once golf's perennial Saturday leader, Sunday loser—threw what he called his "best Sunday finish" at 'em, a sporty 66, the best round by anybody all week. The old Couples would have shot 40 on the back nine, then gone to the wrong airport. This Couples had that Tom Watson steel in his eye. No wonder: He got it from Watson, who recently hosted Couples for a week at his home in suburban Kansas City. During the stay, Watson told him, "Don't play 63 holes of a tournament and then let down the last nine. Pay attention to every shot."
No, what was unimaginable was that there even was a so-called World Championship for the suddenly Ready Freddy to win in the first place. The event is solely the invention of the International Management Group (IMG), which found one of the last open weeks on the already cluttered golf calendar, convinced a liquor company to pour $2.55 million into the event, rented a practically unknown course in the eastern time zone with lots of water and palm trees (good for TV), grew the rough nearly as high as Ian Woosnam, supposedly limited the field to the winners of what IMG deemed to be 26 of the best tournaments in the world (though three of the top five finishers last weekend had, in fact, entered by special invitation) and slapped a pretty title on it. Voila! Instant classic. Isn't that how the Masters was invented?
The only problems were that Tryall was not a great course (it was a resort course; more than 400 yards had to be added just to reach 6,848), not all the world's greatest players were here (notably absent were Josè María Olazàbal and three of Europe's other top 10 money-winners), and nobody in Jamaica gave two coconuts about it. At one point on Thursday, U.S. Open champion Payne Stewart and British Open champion Ian Baker-Finch were playing the 18th hole, and not 10 people were following along.
"Geez, Ian," a reporter said later. "You only had three people following you guys on 18."
"Yeah," said Baker-Finch, "but there had to be four or five on 17."
It was as if they were holding the world chess championships at the Tastee-Freez in Keokuk, Iowa.
Oh, well, everybody repeat after me: All that matters is TV. And this event was TV City. It was aired on tape-delay in the U.S. for the perfect scheduling fit. There was a small, 26-man field for easy camera work, but there were plenty of big names for ratings. And there was no messy crowd to tangle up the cables.
The only thing the players had to worry about was screwing up, finishing dead last and going home with a mere $50,000. That was what John Daly won for shooting 77 and 87 in the first two rounds, signing an incorrect scorecard (he made 6 on the last hole on Friday, not 5) for a disqualification and getting on the next Air Jamaica flight out. Those scores won't win you a set of Wiffle balls anywhere else, but this Daly bread alone almost equaled all his 1990 Ben Hogan tour checks combined. No wonder he was in such a chipper mood about it all. "Hey, I got my spot covered," Daly said with a grin before departing.
Nevertheless, you got the feeling that if Daly doesn't slow down, he's going to end up as the Schwab's Drugstore Boy of the Month. Since winning the PGA in August, he and his Titleist-eating driver have been around the world nearly twice. He blew into Montego Bay as one burned-out little pheenom rookie, and he played like it. On Thursday, Daly four-putted number 11 by raking the ball toward the hole from four feet and missing. On Friday he made a nifty 8 on the same hole, followed shortly thereafter by a sudden alteration to his putter. What happened, Long John?
"Uh, I think it got a little bent."
"Well, my foot might have gotten in the way."
From there he made a 9 on 12 (he putted with his sand wedge), a bogey on 13 (putting with his driver) and, hooray, a par on 14 (he drained a 40-foot putt with his three-iron). "This course just ain't made for me," he said.
To be fair, the course wasn't made for anybody this side of Iron Byron. The fairways were as narrow as Parisian alleys. The second cut of rough was often 18 inches high, and the greens were treacherous. Add to that a steady five-club wind (25 miles per hour, gusting to 45) on Friday and Saturday, and you had what Nick Faldo called, "the toughest course I've ever played."
If you've ever wanted to see pros play like you, Friday was your day. On the fiendish par-4, hurricane-blown 11th, 22 of the 26 players made bogey or worse. The best in the world played that sucker an aggregate 46-over-par that day. Then again, for this much money, they should have to suffer, right?
Still, the truly great players blew to the front. That marvel of German engineering, Bernhard Langer, led on Thursday with a 67. Then Paul Azinger, a special invitee, led by two on Friday, which amazed nobody as much as Azinger. "I didn't have a clue," he said with a shrug.
By Saturday, Langer and Azinger melted into a two-man tie at one over par, with a leader board of millionaires in sweaty pursuit—Couples (one behind), Greg Norman and Faldo (three) and Seve Ballesteros (four). "This," said Azinger, "could get exciting."
And Sunday was just that—for five holes. That's when Couples opened with birdie-birdie-par-par-eagle, took the lead from Langer and never checked his rearview mirror. On those five holes he had, let's see, six putts. He turned the front nine in four-under 30, birdied the par-4 10th to go two ahead, found out Langer had bogeyed right behind him and led by three.
Meanwhile, Zinger went zoing with three bogeys on the front, Faldo and Norman christened the back nine with back-to-back bogeys, and Ballesteros burned out after three birdies in the first five holes to finish eight shots back.
By the time the locals had set up their coconut-milk stand, the only drama left was to see whose name would be placed on the second-place check. Or don't you think $295,000 is worth worrying about? Azinger had it, then blew it on 16 with a double bogey while his playing partner, Langer, birdied. All that that cost Zinger was $105,000, the difference between Nos. 2 and 3. All that it did for Langer was to make him golf's first $2 million-in-one-season winner. Not bad for a guy whose year will always be remembered for a missed six-footer at the Ryder Cup.
Now the question is, How long will golf remember Couples's feat? Probably not much past New Year's Day. On Saturday someone asked Couples whether he would call the guy who won here the (grin) world champion.
"Nah," he said. "I'd say, 'Congrats for winning down in Jamaica, mon.' "
No, Fred, you the mon.