For a dozen years Loren Roberts was simply a name in the agate
type of golf, a blue-collar pro about as well known as Mark Weibe
or Richard Zokol, except that they had both won tournaments. Until
1994 Roberts was 0 for his career. Making the cut was certainly
cause for joy, finishing in the top 10 meant party time.
Then last year at the Nestle Invitational, Roberts got a taste of
life in the winner's circle. Not surprisingly, he loved it. The
$216,000 he made was more than he had earned in each of his first
seven years. More important, it instilled a sense of confidence he
perhaps had lacked, because he and his fluid putting stroke went
on to tie for fifth in the Masters, tie for second in the U.S.
Open after losing a playoff to Ernie Els and tie for ninth in the
PGA Championship. His earnings for the year topped $1 million. He
became a Ryder Cup team probable. His agate-type days were over.
Last week at the Nestle, the 39-year-old Roberts was at it again,
shooting a 16-under 272 to win comfortably over Brad Faxon and the
suddenly ever-present Peter Jacobsen. As he rolled in putts of
every size, people of authority were calling him the best putter
on the PGA Tour -- apologies to Ben Crenshaw. What's his secret?
Surprisingly, Roberts disclosed that he putts with ``my eyes out
of focus and my brain in neutral,'' a revelation that along with
the cross-handed grip may start a new trend.
But Sunday afternoon, when Roberts was standing on the par-3 17th
hole of the Bay Hill Club in Orlando, his eyes were clearly in
focus, his brain whirling. What he saw was the water hazard
fronting the green and the hypnotic reflections of people and
trees. Knowing his lead was substantial and that he had, as he
would say later, ``eliminated the choke factor,'' he placed his
tee shot safely away from the water, and from 60 feet, three-
putted for the first time all week.
``I made a conscious effort not to look at the leader board on 17
until I finished the hole,'' Roberts said afterward.
When he did look, he saw that he had a three-stroke lead with one
hole to play. But the board was wrong. Jacobsen had just bogeyed
the final hole, and as he teed off at 18, Roberts was ahead by
You see, you can't always trust a leader board, especially in the
early going of a golf tournament. It plays tricks, telling who's
scoring well but not necessarily who's playing well. Midway
through the rain-plagued Nestle, the board would have you believe
that any one of a dozen or so players could win -- not just
Roberts or Faxon or Jacobsen.
But you could have eliminated half the contenders at a glance.
For instance, two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange was there
briefly, looking for his first win since the '89 Open, but if you
saw him standing pensively on the 16th green during the second
round, his left hand supporting his chin, you had a hunch this
would not be his week. And there was first- round leader Mark
Brooks walking 20 yards behind his playing partners on Saturday
evening, lost in thought. Sayonara. You had former Masters and
U.S. Open champ Fuzzy Zoeller, after missing a short putt, rubbing
his hands together and whistling -- the Zoeller equivalent of
breaking a club across one's knee.
And you had any number of guys with the wrong walk. The wrong
``When you're playing well, you have a certain walk,'' said Billy
Andrade, showing a spring in his own step after opening rounds of
67 and 69. ``When you're struggling, your walk isn't that
The par-72, 7,114-yard Bay Hill course was a good testing ground
for Andrade's walk thesis. For every player whose demeanor
matched his high position on the leader board -- the meticulous
Roberts, for instance, or the late-charging Duffy Waldorf, whose
final-round 65 leapfrogged him into a seven-way tie for fifth
place -- there was someone else who seemed as comfortable with his
subpar numbers as a cashier caught short at the end of the day.
No one, for example, trooped down the fairways looking glummer
than John Daly did despite his first-round 68. Lately the Tour's
most prominent recovering alcoholic has played like John Daly
before the 36-hole cut and like Tyne Daly after the cut. Friday,
as if he couldn't wait for the other shoe to drop, Daly hit three
balls into the water on Bay Hill's round-the- lake par-5 6th hole.
His 10 for the hole yanked Daly off the leader board and brought a
rare smile to his face, as if he suddenly felt relieved of the
double burden of controlling his emotions while trying to play
The leader board can't convey such subtleties: All it knows is red
numbers and black numbers.
``It happens all the time, where you're really not playing well
but you get lucky,'' Roberts said on Friday, having bullied the
rain-softened Bay Hill course with a nine-birdie 65. ``You can be
up on the leader board just because you chipped it in a couple of
More unusual is the golfer who's playing well but knows he can't
win. At Bay Hill, that summed up the conflicted demeanor of Fred
Couples. On Thursday the easy-swinging former Masters champion
almost holed a seven-iron over water on the difficult 11th, but
while tapping in for birdie he looked uninterested. One hole
later, after sinking a sensational high lob from the greenside
rough for an eagle 3, Couples reacted with only a thin smile.
His every gesture said: wasted on a lost cause.
Couples's problem was an aching back that had kept him out of
competition for two weeks and left him fearful of a repeat of last
year, when a herniated spinal disk caused him to miss three months
of competition. On Friday, Couples swung fluidly and moved to
seven under, but as his back tightened, he bogeyed 17 and 18.
Saturday, with an hour delay because of rains that disrupted the
tournament, he had to warm up, wait an hour, warm up again and
then play 15 holes. As a result he spent most of the afternoon
stretching and windmilling his arms between shots.
Many pros think the best way to predict a winner is to
cross-reference the names on the leader board against those
players who have the best gait. At Bay Hill, that gave you the
jaunty Mark McCumber, eight under after three rounds; the
front-runner, Roberts; Faxon, who moved into contention with a
third-round 64; and Jacobsen, whose two West Coast victories had
him walking on a cushion of prize money and Ryder Cup points. In
fact, Jacobsen's long, purposeful strides, coupled with his
animated hand gestures and nonstop chatter, had him looking like a
winner all week.
``It's more than the walk,'' observed Roberts. ``When a player
goes off his game, you can see it in his tempo, his pace, his
preshot routine. The first place it shows up is in indecision
when selecting clubs.'' Or in reading putts. On Saturday, Brooks
plumb-bobbed a 15-footer on the 5th green from every point of the
compass, asked his caddie more questions than F. Lee Bailey asked
Mark Fuhrman and then still blew it past the hole.
Sunday's play cleared up all the bad reads -- of greens, of the
sky, of demeanors, even of leader boards. Couples finished with a
76 and hauled his tender torso off to Ponte Vedra, Fla., for this
week's Players Championship. Daly, succumbing once again to Sunday
Swoon, shot a final-round 81 and finished 72nd.
Roberts, meanwhile, teed off with a two-shot lead on Faxon and
five on the rest of the field -- looking every bit the Ryder
Cupper he almost certainly will be come September. Under a partly
sunny sky and with the wind kicking up for the first time in the
tournament, he shot a trauma-free 71 -- proving that it's not so
much how you walk that matters, but the route you take. Even the
way he played Bay Hill's two long, water-guarded finishing holes
seemed the epitome of good course management.
``Loren is not a stupid player,'' said Jacobsen, whose
third-place finish kept him atop the money list and on target for
his own Ryder Cup slot. ``He's very cagey, and with a lead, he's
just going to keep it dry on the last two holes.''
Dry it remained, as Roberts laid up left of the green on the
441-yard par-4 18th, settling for a pitch-and-two-putt bogey.
Faxon cut the official winning margin to two by making a 40-footer
for birdie at the last, but it was too late. As Roberts hugged his
wife, Kimberly, and then accepted the winner's trophy from host
Arnold Palmer, the number 272 went up by his name on the big
scoreboard behind the water hazard.
In the end, of course, the leader board always gets it right.