Steve Elkington's house takes a visitor by surprise. Set amid a
suburban Houston neighborhood of handsome but somewhat stolid
brick structures, it is a sprawling, white plantation house with
forest green shutters and an airy veranda. The place conveys a
feeling of languid days spent in low, cool light, all the more
because the main building and a guest cottage are connected by a
wide expanse of lawn, lush foliage and a canopy of majestic
trees. It's a finely detailed home with character and style, and
the surprise is that it rose from the vision of a 33-year-old
A closer look at the garden reveals trimming tight enough to
suit a boutique buzz cut. It turns out that during those periods
when he isn't gracing the Tour with the most aesthetically
pleasing and technically flawless swing in golf, Elkington can
often be found out in this megayard, black earth caked on his
elbows, a big man manicuring his zoysia grass and lovingly
tending to his carefully segregated sections of roses, camellias
and bonsai. Actually, Elkington will tell you that there are
more than 100 species of flora that live on the acre he shares
with his wife, Lisa, and their nine-month-old daughter, Annie.
Elkington grew up greening his thumbs in a more modest
English-style garden as the son of a middle-class banker in
Wagga Wagga, a small town on the eastern edge of Australia's
outback more than 200 miles from Sydney. Despite allergies to
grass that require daily doses of antihistamines, and skin so
fair that doctors have recommended that he check for melanoma
every three months, he has never lost his love for horticulture.
A round at his home course, Houston's Champions Golf Club, will
find him leaving the fairway to study some flora in the same
automatic way that Arnold Palmer's head jerks up when he hears
the engine of a plane.
"It's in me," explains Elkington in a rapidly direct Aussie
delivery that seems too forceful when the subject is roses.
"Anywhere I go in the world, I study gardens. I'll go to
seminars and listen to scientists. I don't get bored." Adds
Robert McKinney, the architect of Elkington's house, a
three-time club champion at Champions but a high-handicap
gardener, "Steve is one of those people whom plants respond to.
He's got this great nurturing patience. Eventually, everything
he touches seems to flourish."
January 15, 1996
It turns out, not surprisingly, that Elkington has cultivated
his career with the same kind of inexorable care. After
sprouting from a land with a rich history of champions,
Elkington instinctively set about establishing a root system of
wise mentors and sound fundamentals to go with a relentless
desire to improve. Nature has taken its course, and as the 1996
season begins, Elkington is in the midst of a bloom that could
be as powerful and sustained as any the sport has seen in some
It began in earnest at this time last year when Elkington opened
with a victory at the Mercedes Championships. He then embarked
on a solid and perhaps foreshadowing performance in the four
majors, in which his total strokes among those players who made
the cut in all four was four less than the next closest player,
countryman Greg Norman. Although Elkington tied for fifth at the
Masters and sixth at the British Open, he let late opportunities
slip away in both with tentative play down the stretch. "It was
there, and then it was gone," is his haunting memory of St.
Andrews, where he lost by two after a bogey on the Road Hole. So
when Elkington got into position after three rounds of the PGA
Championship at Riviera, the lessons he learned bore fruit.
Playing what he would call the round of his life, Elkington put
his game into overdrive, shot at every pin and never stopped.
His 64 finished off the lowest 72-hole score in a major
championship--267--and he closed the deal with a 25-foot birdie
putt on the first hole of sudden death to defeat Colin
Elkington was playing at such a high level that what passed for
his postmajor letdown included runner-up finishes at the World
Match Play, where he lost in the final to Ernie Els; the Tour
Championship; and the Grand Slam of Golf, where his do-or-die
explosion from 70 feet on the final hole just barely missed
topping Ben Crenshaw's pin-rattling hole-out from 80 yards. And,
oh, yes, Elkington also won the Vardon Trophy for lowest stroke
average on Tour.
"I've played good before, but this was great," says Elkington.
"What's interesting is how little difference there is between
To the casual fan the difference was drastic. Part of the
perception that Elkington came out of nowhere was due to his
having spent much of 1993 and 1994 severely hindered by allergy
and sinus problems that eventually required surgery. But it is
also true that until last year, Elkington generally had trouble
asserting himself when in contention. He had won four Tour
events, including the 1991 Players Championship with a
spectacular birdie on the final hole, but more often Elkington
was the guy who didn't hole big putts, who bogeyed the 18th, who
failed to step up in the major. The kind of player the British
golf press calls a "nearly man."
"I'd be up in the booth announcing," says his close friend Gary
McCord, "and while other guys were going crazy on Sunday holing
30-footers, Elk was always the guy who kept hitting it to 15
feet and just missing the putt."
That image, and his own aversion to hype and self-promotion,
have left Elkington with a rather low profile that even winning
the PGA hasn't overcome. Both Golf World and Golf magazines
somehow neglected to include his 64 at Riviera on their lists of
best rounds of the year. "I'm used to that, but if Jack Nicklaus
had won like I did, they would have put up a damn statue behind
the 18th green," says Elkington. On the other hand he suffers no
such shortage of recognition among students of the game.
"Steve's got more tools than anybody," says Norman, who
regularly receives the same accolade. "As far as technique and
physical ability, Elk is the best in the game," says Tom
Weiskopf. "He's a beautiful player," says Crenshaw, "but not in
any kind of superficial way. What's really impressive about Elk
is that everything is built to last."
Doing things the enduring way, the quality way, the right way,
is the guiding principle in Elkington's life. Add a strong
aesthetic sense (he was talented enough to have been offered an
art scholarship to the University of Sydney), and it is easy to
understand why Elkington is drawn to things built carefully over
time, that have a classical bent, that are, frankly, old.
Elkington's house, for example, was designed on the model of a
1791 Baton Rouge plantation called Magnolia Mound. It took two
years to build, largely because Elkington's desire for complete
authenticity required a search for century-old doors of cypress
and floors made of longleaf red pine.
Considered one of the classiest dressers in golf, Elkington
favors custom-tailored clothing in fine fabrics (he has pants
that are 1% mink), flowing lines, subtle patterns and muted
colors that were the trademark of great players like Byron
Nelson, Ben Hogan and Tommy Bolt. "I wish the players would
start dressing like they did on the Tour in the '50s," he says.
"Those clothes made you look like a better player."
Of course, Elkington's signature--his golf swing--is the ultimate
reflection of classical tastes. The action was shaped early by
the example and instruction of Alex Mercer, the former
professional at Royal Sydney and Australia's longtime national
coach who began giving Elkington lessons after he qualified for
the New South Wales junior team at age 14. Each Friday after
school, Steve and his older brother, Robert, would take the
14-hour train ride from Wagga Wagga to Sydney to spend the
weekend with Mercer, returning in time for school on Monday.
Steve was a model student who worked tirelessly to incorporate
Mercer's guiding principles of balance, rhythm and tempo. "He is
the master of those three areas," says Mercer--who at 61 remains
Elkington's primary teacher--by telephone from his home in
Sydney. "He never questioned me, was a tireless worker and never
got swept up in being a teenager."
Everything about Elkington's play is pleasing to the eye.
Besides possessing an athletic grace, he is a brisk player who,
once he picks a club, moves with streamlined efficiency. Over
the ball he eschews a waggle and moves smoothly into a textbook
backswing. His forward swing is devoid of any rerouting of the
club or ungainly leg action. Instead, with an economical
rotation of his weight toward the target, he sweeps his long
arms and heavy shoulders through the ball with unrushed yet
palpably powerful force. Perhaps the most classic element of
Elkington's action is a finish that presents a pose so striking
it might inspire Madonna to take up the game. "I'm a seminervous
person," explains Elkington, "but I never feel nervous during my
swing." Since devoting himself to heavy-resistance workouts over
the last four years (he can leg-press 500 pounds 15 times), the
6'2" Elkington has gained consistency as he has grown from 190
pounds to a broad-backed 214. The strength and thickness have
given him a more stable base and further reduced unnecessary
movement in his swing. Whereas he used to lack tremendous
length, Elkington now has an extra 20 yards at the ready.
"Elk swings more like Sam Snead than anyone else I can think
of," says Weiskopf. "He doesn't have the lower-body slide and
curve in the back that Nicklaus and Miller and I had. He's been
influenced by Faldo and Strange, but he has a cleaner motion. I
think of him as a modern classic, kind of a throwback to a
golden era." Elkington likes the idea of being a throwback, so
much so that he has fitted his life into a kind of time tunnel.
Although he mixes easily on the practice tee and in the locker
room, he is close to very few players his own age. Elkington's
confidants are older.
He calls Mercer twice a week to talk about golf or life in
general. Elkington and the 51-year-old Weiskopf are
tight--Elkington has often been a guest at Weiskopf's Paradise
Valley, Ariz., home, and he describes his favorite day ever in
golf as a round with Weiskopf at Loch Lomond in Scotland that
was followed by a whisky-fueled bull session. "Steve has got a
million questions," says Weiskopf. "He wants to know all about
the guys I played with: about Bolt and Hogan and Nicklaus. He
wants to know how to hit shots. He just loves the traditions of
golf, and he wants to fill his life with the best parts of the
Explains Elkington, "My dad taught me when I was little, young
doesn't learn from young. Young learns from old. Period. I've
never learned anything from young people in my life."
Elkington's best friend and closest confidant is 72-year-old
Jack Burke, the former Masters and PGA champion who along with
Jimmy Demaret founded Champions. Elkington first met Burke
shortly after arriving in the U.S. in 1981 to attend Houston on
a golf scholarship. After turning pro, Elkington paid his own
way to join Champions and was soon absorbing knowledge as a
regular guest at Burke's breakfast table.
Elkington calls Burke "my secret weapon." Although Burke
professes a disdain for golf's so-called gurus, he is in fact a
guru in the truest sense to Elkington, a kind of
philosopher-king imparting wisdom with a witty turn of phrase
and a captivating delivery. Burke warns against the perils of
"the money pot," the pursuit of wealth before improvement, and
against "confetti," which is shorthand for the cardinal sin of
celebrating before the last putt is holed. Most of all, he
believes that no matter what a player accomplishes, he must
always "tiptoe in on the game," Burke's way of saying the
traditions of golf should remain sacred and larger than any
"Hey, it's no big mystery," says Burke, who gets cantankerous
when portrayed as Elkington's Svengali. "Elk's an interested
person, and all I do with him is talk golf. We just talk about
the game." The thing is, that's like talking acting with Anthony
Hopkins. Burke has exchanged ideas with the most influential
figures in American golf. He is the last player on Tour to have
won four tournaments in a row and is universally acknowledged to
be one of the best putters in history. He was also considered
one of the game's fiercest competitors. "I wouldn't be the
player I am without having known Jackie Burke," says Elkington,
who out of deference is mum on the specific content of their
discussions. "Being around him has made me smarter, made me
harder, given me an example to follow and things I will think
about for the rest of my life."
The essence of Burke's advice is that anything achieved in
tournament golf is achieved alone. And Elkington admits there
are plenty of questions to which he still does not have answers.
"I know I can hit the ball better than all the guys most of the
time," he says. "It just comes down to me beating them for the
biggest prize. But that involves a lot more than hitting the
ball. People don't understand that the formula for winning is
not written down anywhere. Each time I've won, it's been
different. The whole thing is fragile. I've always felt I've had
tons of natural ability, a great swing, a good attitude and the
other things you need, and I've worked hard all the time. I feel
like I've done everything you are supposed to do. But all that
has just gotten me to the door."
To walk through it will require the subtle improvements that
come with experience and commitment. McCord urges Elkington to
be as unchanging in his approach to putting as he is in his full
swing and to "think volatility in the scoring area, go for the
big putt down the stretch a little more." Weiskopf would like to
see Elkington take a bolder approach from the fairway. "When
Steve's swing is on, he can shoot at every pin. He proved that
at Riviera." Mercer, who has worked with Elkington the longest,
has the simplest advice: "He only has to realize how good he is.
Simple as that." Elkington still isn't sure. "The ultimate
package would be to have all four major championship trophies
sitting on your desk," he says, "but that's unrealistic." There
are more than a few people who would disagree.
Naturally, when Elkington wants to think things out, he goes to
his garden, where he often climbs into the crook at the juncture
where an oak and a pecan tree have grown together over the last
175 years, forming a wide canopy that reaches 100 feet into the
air. "What I've got here, it's good," Elkington declares while
perched above the world he has so carefully cultivated. "Not
Only the finishing touches on a modern classic.