Maybe it has something to do with being in a boomtown where
zoning once meant clucking at skyscrapers that abutted more than
two used car lots, but for professional golfers, Houston has
always been a good place to start something big.
Prior to this year, the last five times the PGA Tour stopped in
the nation's oil mecca a player earned his first career victory.
Houston hosted the first wins of such illustrious names as Bobby
Locke (in 1947), Hubert Green (1971) and Corey Pavin (1984). In
1952, when Jack Burke became the only player other than Byron
Nelson to win four consecutive Tour events, one of them was
Houston. The same was true in 1978, when Gary Player became the
last person to win three straight tournaments. And last Sunday at
the Shell Houston Open, Payne Stewart finally ended a winless
streak that stretched all the way back to the 1991 U.S. Open.
Stewart won a tournament that on Sunday morning figured to be the
biggest yawner of the year but instead turned into the most
dramatic nonmajor of the season. He negotiated the firm, windy and
watery Tournament Players Course at The Woodlands with the control
and poise that have helped him win two major championships and,
now, seven other Tour events. On the final hole of regulation play
Stewart rapped in one of the most important birdie putts of his
life, a 16-footer to close out a four-under-par 68 that helped him
make up seven strokes on his Orlando neighbor Scott Hoch. And then
in sudden death, Stewart made a solid par that was good enough to
beat the mistake-prone Hoch.
The 38-year-old Stewart's ninth career victory was a testimony to
a late-blooming maturity built on the basic realization that hard
work and focus are essential to championship golf, while self-pity
is not. ``You know, you have to want it, and this year I'm making
the effort,'' Stewart said on Sunday. ``I've been more honest with
myself. I'm the one who controls my destiny.''
It wasn't quite that simple at Houston. In order to win, Stewart
needed to dodge the customary potential first-time winners who
pepper the leader board -- players such as Charlie Rymer, Paul
Stankowski and Tray Tyner. Rymer, a 6'4", 240-pound rookie of 27
who provided comic relief with an overeating shtick worthy of
George Foreman, hung the toughest among the neophytes, making a
bogey on the 71st hole to fall into third place. That earned him
the princely sum of $95,200, five times his previous earnings for
the year, which nearly insures that he will retain his exempt
status for next season. ``That's awesome,'' Rymer said afterward.
``American Express has got a hit squad looking for me. Now I can
pay 'em off.''
But more than anything, Stewart got a Mother Teresa-caliber
assist from the tragic Hoch. A 39-year-old winner of five
tournaments, Hoch started the day with a five-shot lead and,
with two early birdies, built it to seven with 13 holes to go.
But from that point on, Hoch leaked so much oil he could have
been leaving product samples on behalf of the title sponsor. He
bogeyed the 12th, 14th and 16th holes. And then, with his lead
down to one on the 383-yard 17th hole and the swing that had
been nearly flawless for three days now clearly out of sync, an
off-balance Hoch pushed a seven-iron from 148 yards into the
lake fronting the green. The resulting double bogey put Hoch one
If ever a player was whipped, busted and disgusted, it had to be
Hoch. So what did he do? He drove well on the 445-yard 18th and
steered his approach 40 feet left of the pin. When he got to the
green, Hoch made a playful black-magic gesture toward Stewart, who
smiled, shrugged and said, ``Knock it in.''
``I just thought he'd make it,'' Stewart said later. ``I was
prepared for him to do it.'' Which, somehow, Hoch did.
Seeing the ball dive into the hole must have sent a jolt through
Stewart's system to rival the shock he received when another of
his friends, Paul Azinger, holed out a sand shot on the 72nd hole
to beat him at the 1993 Memorial. But rather than bemoan his fate,
Stewart took a long walk up the fairway to the 18th tee, where the
playoff would begin, and gathered his faculties. He reminded
himself that even though his lifetime record in playoffs was 2-5,
he was undefeated in the 1990s, having most recently beaten Scott
Simpson in an 18-hole U.S. Open playoff at Hazeltine in 1991.
Stewart, with the honor, drove well and then watched as Hoch made
two more mistakes. First he hooked his three-wood off the tee into
some trees, and then he pulled his six-iron approach from the
rough over the green and against the steep back slope of a bunker.
Hoch's stance was so awkward -- his left foot was in the bunker,
and he was kneeling with his right knee behind him on the fringe
-- that he actually lost his balance and fell on his back while
trying to set up. The symbolism of that collapse was almost cruel,
though Hoch was able to force a game smile. He finally blasted
past the pin and left a 20-footer coming back just short. After
missing a 15-foot putt for birdie, Stewart had one of the most
mentally challenging four-footers he had ever had to make.
Although he contended afterward that he had been ``shaking like a
leaf,'' he drilled the putt in the middle of the cup. Stewart was
finally a winner again, and Hoch, who has suffered a
disproportionate number of painful defeats in the last decade, was
once again a loser.
``You can print it now, that's why Hoch rhymes with choke,'' said
Hoch, in a heartbreakingly obvious joke. ``I couldn't have had an
easier tournament to win. It's just pitiful. It was so easy early,
that's what the problem was. Then I made a bogey and started
protecting instead of just going out and playing golf. No matter
what you write, its going to hurt less than what I feel right
Hoch is no stranger to pain. At the PGA Championship in 1987, he
finished early on Sunday, but a three-putt from six feet on 18
ultimately caused him to miss a playoff by one. Two years later at
the 1989 Masters, Hoch had to make only a 22-inch par putt on the
first hole of sudden death to defeat Nick Faldo. Sickeningly, he
missed it and then watched Faldo birdie the next hole to take his
first green jacket.
Hoch was candid and accessible after those losses, but Sunday's
collapse seemed almost too much for him. He uncharacteristically
declined to go into the press room, submitting only to a rushed
and disjointed question- and-answer session in the parking lot
before driving away. When Stewart heard that Hoch had used the
word choke, he was saddened. ``I hate that word,'' Stewart said.
``I'm sorry to hear him use it. It's a nasty, hard word.''
Stewart has been the beneficiary of collapses before -- most
notably in the 1989 PGA Championship, where, after Stewart
finished with birdies on four of the final five holes, Mike Reid
had a bogey on 16 and a double bogey on 17 to lose by one. And in
that Open at Hazeltine, Stewart tied Simpson in regulation because
Simpson bogeyed two of the final three holes. Stewart won the
playoff when Simpson played those holes in three over par.
Recently, though, his luck had been going the other way. In 1993
Stewart finished second in four events and third another three
times. That series was particularly painful to Stewart because he
was struggling to right himself after handling his victory at the
Open poorly. He had been in big demand in '92 and had run himself
ragged, but with that year behind him, he had raised his
expectations for '93. When he failed to come up with a win,
Stewart had no juice left for 1994. He finished 123rd on the
money list, his worst performance since his rookie year of 1981,
and never contended for a victory. By the end of the year he
realized that he had lost control of his career. He had allowed
the building of his 13,000-square-foot house in Orlando to consume
too much of his attention, he was having withdrawal symptoms while
struggling to give up chewing tobacco, and he had placed much of
the blame for his bad play on the new clubs and balls he was
playing after signing a multimillion-dollar contract with
Stewart finally decided enough was enough. He gave up tobacco for
good, he moved his wife and two children into the new house, and
he got Spalding to adapt his irons to his liking. He also began
working harder on staying in good physical condition and
practicing more diligently.
The new approach has paid off. In January, Stewart tied for fourth
in the Phoenix Open and finished fifth at Pebble Beach, and in
March he tied for third at the Players Championship. With his
victory Sunday, he jumped to fourth on the money list with
$561,157. ``You just can't be out here and have things pull from
your energies if you're going to compete and challenge to win golf
tournaments,'' Stewart said last week. ``You can get by and make
cuts and make checks, but to get in the heat of the battle and to
thrive on it, you have to have everything here. I came out this
year with everything here. Last year I didn't have anything
As he has grown happier with himself, Stewart has also been
friendlier to others. A measure of his maturity was displayed in
his concern for Hoch -- a kind of sympathy he failed to show for
either Reid or Simpson. ``Scott is a hell of a player,'' Stewart
said Sunday evening. ``The hardest thing to do in golf is on a
tough day hold on to the lead. You have to figure out a game to
play with yourself to allow you to be aggressive and make birdies.
It's hurting him how he finished. He'll bounce back.''
Stewart already has. He was clearly proud of his effort. He
called his six-iron shot to the 72nd hole, which left him a
16-footer for birdie, a ``quality shot'' and the ensuing putt, a
``quality, quality putt.''
Of the last gut check he endured when he ran his 25-footer a
scary four feet past the hole in sudden death, he said, ``That
putt was too long, but I stood up there and said, Look, this is
time to be a champion again. You have to stand up there and make
this putt. I didn't look at it. I just held my head steady and
hit it solid.'' Reminded that it went in the heart of the cup,
Suddenly 1995 sets up as a Payne Stewart kind of year. He is now
11th in the Ryder Cup standings, just one place away from
automatically qualifying for the team, and he has played well in
the past at two of the remaining major-championship venues. At
Shinnecock Hills, site of next month's U.S. Open, Stewart held the
lead in 1986 after 66 holes, though he eventually dropped into a
tie for sixth place. And at St. Andrews, where this year's British
Open will take place, he finished second to Nick Faldo in 1990.
``This is going to make it easier for me to win another golf
tournament this year, and maybe more,'' Stewart said after last
week's win. ``I'm starting to play good, and I'm loving the game
again. I'm loving working at it.''
It sounds like, once again, Houston might be the start of