Golf does not do won-lost records well. You go 6-10 in the NFL, and the Lexus dealer wants his car back. You go 6-10 on the PGA Tour, and they're naming sweater lines after you. Over his first eight years on the PGA Tour, Nick Price's won-lost record was 1-188, but he was a good player—an excellent player, even.
It's just that week after week he was third in this tournament, fourth in that tournament, runner-up to this guy and just edged out on 18 by that guy. Price had mastered the chin-up consolation interview. He had won one, in 1983, and then didn't win again until '91. After a while he thought that if he had to be happy for one more guy who won a tournament, he was going to scream.
Price was always the one standing behind the winner in the morning paper, just a little out of focus. He led the 1982 British Open by an ungodly three shots with six holes to play—and lost to Tom Watson. He started the final day of the '88 British Open ahead by two, only to be beaten by Seve Ballesteros, who shot a historic 65. He blistered Augusta National in '86 for a course-record 63, only to have it forgotten amid Jack Nicklaus's unforgettable sixth Masters victory. Price was a human ladder rung. When he withdrew from the '91 PGA at Crooked Stick to be with his wife, Sue, who was having the Prices' first child, the alternate who took his place in the draw, an unknown rookie named John Daly, went on to win the thing and become an American legend. Call the National Enquirer, WOMAN GIVES BIRTH TWICE IN ONE WEEK.
By this time Price was 34 years old, and if something didn't happen soon, he was heading for the dreaded Irving G. Thalberg Award for lifetime achievement. But he had been through too much, been packing this dream around with him too long to let it die. Price, who was born in Rhodesia, had interrupted a sterling amateur career to serve two years in the air force during the Rhodesian civil war, getting shot at in helicopters. At his induction examination Price had said, "I have this problem skin, Doc."
April 4, 1993
"What is it?" said the doc.
"Bullets go through it."
That didn't help. He served.
When he got out of the air force in 1977, he played on the European tour until he left in '82 for America, where he landed with a suitcase and a bag of clubs and not much else. Soon, Price began acquiring things—money, cars, boats—but not satisfaction. "I'd get in position to win," he recalls, "and something would go wrong every time. It would be a wedge shot or a chip or a putt, or I'd drive in the bush somewhere. I kept hitting the wrong shot at the wrong time."
But it's funny how life works. Sometimes you get what you want exactly when you stop trying so hard. In 1987, at the age of 31, Price finally looked up from his bucket of practice balls and saw life. He got married. At 34 he started a family. He grew into fatherhood. In time his grip lightened. He won twice in '91 and then played the tournament of his life to win the '92 PGA in St. Louis. Suddenly, Price was that most dangerous thing in sports—a man who won't be dragged back to losing by six Bigfoot trucks.
And so when he had fashioned a one-shot lead through last Saturday in The Players Championship at the TPC Saw-grass course in Ponte Vedra, Fla., somebody asked him if he was scared by the all-star leader board lurking behind him—Greg Norman, Mark O'Meara and Bern-hard Langer one shot back; Paul Azinger, two; Payne Stewart and Ken Green, three; Corey Pavin, five—a Murderers' Row in pleats. "No," said Price, in a loud and proprietary voice, "because I'm the winner of the last major championship."
And when you turned things sideways a little, you could see it really was Price whose hand looked steadiest. Langer was picking up the club too early on his backswing. Norman was trying to get used to putting the ball a little farther back in his stance. And Stewart was taking putting tips from 1) Price, whom he saw being interviewed on TV about his stance; 2) Azinger, who offered advice; and 3) his wife, Tracey, who informed him that he was "decelerating" on his stroke. All in all it seemed less like The Players Championship than it did the Walla Walla Member-Guest.
But Price was fixed. On winning. O.K., this wasn't a major, but it was at least a lip-out major. He wanted it—and what he didn't want to hear was "Nice try, Nick." He was so obsessed with winning that after Thursday's opening round, when someone asked him if he knew the size of the first-place check, he answered, "Uh, $340,000?" Try $450,000.
Then Sunday dawned, and an amazing thing happened. Price really did become bulletproof. He could not be caught. He could not be headed. He was not even threatened. He turned what should have been the shoot-out of the year into his own private layup drill at the Deane Dome. He birdied the 2nd hole and never looked back. On the 360-yard, par-4 4th hole he made a birdie that couldn't be made—hitting a sand-wedge second shot from an impossible lie at the bottom of a steep grass bunker to within two feet of the pin. "Probably the greatest shot of my life," Price said.
After that, he made three more birdies and only one bogey—he had only one of those a day all week—and some of the world's best players folded up behind him like tortillas. Langer shot 71. O'Meara shot 73. Green, 72. Azinger, 73. Pavin, 73. Stewart shot 74 and hit only seven fairways. Does Tracey give driving lessons?
Only Norman refused to fall completely away, despite having to battle an allergic reaction to some of the course's pine trees early in the round. As he stood on the tee of the famous island-green, par-3 17th, Shark had slunk to within three shots. But he hit his eight-iron just to the right of the green, and it trickled into the water to rest with the alligators. Just then Price, on 16, was lining up his sixth birdie putt of the day. Happiness is holding a three-shot lead and looking over to see Norman standing in the drop area.
"I literally couldn't see for the first six holes," Norman said afterward, explaining that he'd forgotten to take his allergy medication. "My equilibrium was off, and I couldn't sec when I was lining up." Norman, who finished tied for third and won $305,000 less than Price, got his medication before leaving the front nine, but it will go down as the most expensive bottle of Allerest in history.
No matter. Price's week was as dominating as any since Nick Faldo's romp through the 1990 British Open. Price's total—64-68-71-67 for 270—broke the tournament record by three shots. Afterward, sitting there grinning uncontrollably and fingering but not looking at the 18-inch crystal trophy, Price looked back on those unhappy years that now seemed many tears ago. "Those years made my career," he said. "Nineteen eighty-five, '86, '87, '88. All those years where I persevered without winning—it was really hard. I've been wanting to play golf this way for 15 years. And now that I've got it, I'm going to hold on to it as hard as I can."
Hard to believe, but things might just get better. Sue is expecting their second child. This time she promises to have it the week before the PGA.
Oh, one other thing: In golf's last two big tournaments, Nick Price's won-lost record is 2-0.