When Mark McCumber and Fuzzy Zoeller found themselves facing the first hole of a sudden-death playoff Sunday at the $3 million Tour Championship in San Francisco, each stood on the Olympic Club's historic 18th tee and pulled out the big ammo—his perspective.
"This is fun," said McCumber, who would describe himself as "full of energy," though his peers might choose "hyper." Zoeller, whose shades and swagger evoke Sugar Bear but who really doesn't care how he is described, came back hard. "You know," he intoned, "it's only a game."
In this case the game was the PGA Tour's season finale and the richest tournament in the world, and it was no coincidence that it was decided not by award winners and record setters named Nick Price and Greg Norman, but by a couple of aging warhorses just happy to still be good enough to be in the hunt. With most of the other players in the field—which was limited to the Tour's top-30 money winners of 1994—either too worn out or too focused on the week's lucre to play their best, the similar outlooks of McCumber and Zoeller might have been the biggest reason they were the last two standing.
Although McCumber is a devout Jehovah's Witness while Zoeller is the Tour's perennial leader in ribaldry, they actually have a lot in common. Born two months apart in 1951, both play a schedule of no more than 20 events a year. Both have unorthodox swings that nonetheless hold up under pressure—at the end of the proceedings on Sunday each had 10 career victories. Both are accomplished golf course designers. Both keep up running dialogues with their galleries and pass the time between shots whistling.
November 7, 1994
Zoeller warbles whatever comes into his head, but McCumber's trills are more melodic. On Sunday, McCumber relied on some hymns, as well as a medley from Fiddler on the Roof that could have served as the score for his week.
Tradition would have worked as McCumber admired the intimate confines and classic lines of the 77-year-old course that has broken the hearts of Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson in three U.S. Opens. If I Were a Rich Man would have been appropriate after four straight birdies in the middle of the final round put him two strokes ahead in the race for the $540,000 first prize. And when he committed a cardinal error on the final hole and put his approach above the pin on the diabolical 18th green, Sunrise, Sunset would have fit all too well. The resulting three-putt from 25 feet gave him his first bogey of the day and dropped him to 10-under-par 274, which Zoeller tied with a par on the last hole.
But when the musical pair strode to the 18th green in the playoff, there was no whistling—not even of the graveyard variety. "I suspect we were both pretty dry," said McCumber, whose 40-foot birdie putt on the playoff hole was just a few feet inside and along the same line as Zoeller's putt. "But as my good friend Bert Yancey used to say, 'If you can't spit, you know you're doing good.' "
McCumber, who this time left his approach below the hole, promptly rammed in his uphill bomb, earning a congratulatory headlock from Zoeller, whose own birdie putt had come up short. It gave McCumber the once-in-a-lifetime (so far) sensation of making a long putt on the final hole to win a tournament, and it put the cap on his finest year, in which he won three tournaments and $1.2 million. If it hadn't been for a certain Mr. Price, 1994 might have been the year of the stumpy bald guy with a slice.
With just a little more luck, it could also have been the year of the insouciant rogue with a hook, for Zoeller's runner-up finish at Olympic was his fifth of the year. He had also come in third at the British Open, where he was tied for the lead after 54 holes. Zoeller didn't seem rattled at Olympic. After all, he had lost the Nestle Invitational at Bay Hill by bouncing an errant three-iron shot off a spectator's head and into a lake on the 71st hole, and The Players Championship by shooting an impressive 20-under only to be overwhelmed by Norman's record 24-under. "What are you going to do?" he said of McCumber's putt. "It was like kicking a 60-yard field goal."
Zoeller could take some solace in the $324,000 second prize, which made him the first player ever to earn $1 million in a year without a win. "It was a pleasure to play the game," he said, wetting his whistle after the round with a triple vodka tonic. "You try your best, but you're butting heads with the best in the world." Perhaps it's no accident that Zoeller's favorite saying could be paraphrased as, "Hey, number 2 happens."
Actually, what happened in sudden death at Olympic's Lake Course salvaged what had been a tournament high on perks but low on drama. Although the Tour Championship was in part designed as a season-ending stage to settle honors like Player of the Year and the money title, those baubles had been essentially put out of reach by Price. His four regular Tour victories, along with the British Open and PGA championships, added up to the most dominant year by a player since Watson won seven times in 1980. So it was easy to see the tournament more as a year-end bonus with no 36-hole cut and a last-place payout of $48,000.
It was no surprise that Price arrived at Olympic mentally tuckered out, a condition reflected in his tie for 20th, 10 strokes back. But even Norman, who with a first or second could have won the money title to go along with the Vardon Trophy he earned with a record scoring average of 68.81, suffered from ennui. Although he sprang for more than $18,000 in bar tabs (paid for by hole-in-one insurance) after scoring an ace on Saturday and added levity by wearing a horrific Halloween mask on the 72nd hole, the Shark couldn't get out of the doldrums and finished 13th.
Both McCumber and Zoeller have been through the grinding schedules that take the zest out of the game, and in their remaining years near the top they are determined to play only when they are fresh.
"Mark and I are getting older, so we appreciate the game a little bit more," said Zoeller. "We have more fun with it. The old fire is still there. I think I can still beat these guys."
"I know I am as excited as I was when I started on the Tour," said McCumber. "The pay isn't bad, but I never thought of the pay for a second. I played the game and fell in love with the game when it had nothing to do with money."
Judging by the results at Olympic, they should be taken at their word.