At the first full-field event of the new season, the potential
was as limitless as the horizon in Tucson's rarefied air. While
other people tinker with their lives by making a few New Year's
resolutions, PGA Tour players get a fresh start every January to
shape their careers anew.
Tucson is the perfect place for the 26 rookies who teed it up to
let optimism run unchecked. The record book at the Nortel Open
is filled with exciting precedents, and every rookie there
wanted to emulate Lee Janzen, Robert Gamez and Phil Mickelson
and let a win at this event launch his career.
Of course, emulating Phil Mickelson would have been a lot easier
had the real thing not gotten in the way.
Mickelson didn't stick his head into the helmet trophy last year
after winning what was then known as the Northern Telecom Open,
mindful of the painful scraping he took when he won the prize as
an amateur in 1991, but this year the considerate Conquistadors
had lined the trophy in leather for his comfort. He admitted to
feeling slightly goofy as he fitted the shiny hat on his head,
"but when you are handed this big check and this helmet, you
really don't care."
Half of Mickelson's Tour wins have come in Tucson, and all but
one in the first two months of the year. Though pleased to have
once again firmed up his schedule for the weeks of the World
Series of Golf and the Mercedes Championships, Mickelson
explained that winning early can throw off the whole balance of
the year: "After you win a tournament, you believe that you
should be winning every week. You get up there and you just want
to win. It doesn't give you the proper thought process. Because
your expectations are so high, you start forcing things."
It's remarkable that a single win could so flummox a player who
has had to compete under Jack Nicklaus-like expectations for
years, although, as Mickelson himself pointed out, "it's been a
while since anybody [made the comparison with Nicklaus], since I
haven't won in a year."
Actually, the Nicklaus comparisons started fading two years ago,
after the then 23-year-old Mickelson won his fourth tournament,
the season-opening Mercedes. At the time he was the youngest to
have won four since Nicklaus. He is still the youngest to have
won six since the Bear, but by Mickelson's current age of 25,
Nicklaus had won 14 times, including the Masters twice, the U.S.
Open and the PGA.
Golf is somehow easier for Mickelson in Tucson--a tie for ninth
is his worst finish there as a professional--and this year the
route to victory was almost absurdly rudimentary. All he had to
do was beat the Q school's graduating class and a handful of
rusty veterans, catch up to and pass Joel Edwards, Ronnie Black
and David Toms, and then hold off late Sunday challenges by
Janzen and Bob Tway. All of which Mickelson accomplished on the
Tucson National course he has played dozens of times, in fine
playing conditions with a score four strokes higher than his
winning total last year.
He was on an inexorable road to victory from the first round,
when he shot a 69 at Starr Pass. Though four strokes off Larry
Nelson's first-round lead, Mickelson's score was one of the best
of the week at the Nortel's secondary course. Only five in the
158-man field bettered it. While Tucson National produced scores
that averaged nearly a stroke under par, Starr Pass's average
was more than 2 1/2 strokes over.
The penal design of Starr Pass, with its narrow fairways framed
by an aggressive, often unplayable, desert environment, was much
of the reason for the scoring, but the poor condition of the
greens was a contributing factor. Three-putts were common,
complaints were prevalent, and Rob Sample, the superintendent at
Starr Pass, lost his job on Friday.
Sample, failing at the unenviable task of trying to grow perfect
bent-grass greens in the Arizona mountains in January, provided
one of the few deviations from the generally shiny storylines in
Tucson. Keith Fergus supplied another. He was attacked by bees
while on the practice range last Saturday afternoon. "There were
hundreds of them," he said. "They swarmed after me and my caddie
for 300 yards down the [1st] fairway. My caddie jumped in the
lake. I never saw anything like that. Never. They were vicious."
Despite some 10 to 20 stings, Fergus was able to play on Sunday
and shot 69, finishing 13th.
An attack by bees might have been the only thing that could have
marred the week's enjoyment for the 1996 rookie crop. Kevin
Sutherland tied for 13th to finish as low rookie at eight under
par. His check for $20,781.25 increased his previous career
earnings by a factor of 10. "I've been smiling nonstop since I
got here on Monday," he said. "I've been just having the best
time. Everyone treats you like you're something special out
here. It's not the real world."
Other rookies were trying to act blase, snuggling assuredly into
place among the veterans. They emerged from courtesy cars with
an air of old habit, dressed the part in logoed attire, and
walked the walk with unbounded confidence and a sense of
Jeff Gallagher, a six-year veteran of the Hogan/Nike circuit,
said he might have felt more intimidated had he not caddied for
his brother, Jim Gallagher Jr., on more than a dozen occasions.
"It's a lot easier when you come out here and already know the
Hal Suttons and the Nick Prices," he said. But many of newest
members of the Tour were less shy about asserting their belief
that they have earned the right to play on the PGA Tour and
belong there as fully as Mickelson and the rest.
When Curtis Strange was a rookie, fitting in wasn't that easy.
"I felt like I didn't want to say much, just listen and try to
learn," he said. "I felt like I was out of my league for a year
or so, these guys were so good. Nowadays players are better
prepared, older, more polished when they come out on Tour. The
Nike tour is a great stepping stone."
Eleven rookies made the cut, but optimism and ambition were
running too deep to really discourage those who missed. Jarmo
Sandelin of Sweden, Rookie of the Year on the European tour last
year, was two under par with seven holes to play on Friday, but
finished the day at four over, four strokes on the wrong side of
the cut line. His disappointment at not being able to play the
weekend was more than balanced by his delight at playing the
U.S. tour. "A lot of players said it would be different over
here, and after one week I can see many differences," he said.
"There are small things, like they actually gave me my own car,
that would never have happened in Europe. And telephone
calls--you don't have to think about having change, you just pick
up the phone. And, of course, the weather. In Europe it changes
a lot more often."
The rookie playing under the most scrutiny, 47-year-old Allen
Doyle, was also the rookie speaking with the most
circumspection. "I just want to be 125th and stay out here," he
said. "Any rookie who has more in mind probably won't end up
doing as well."
Manny Zerman learned even more quickly how expectations can
change. Playing without a card, and on a sponsor's reprieve from
what would have been a week on the Asian tour, the South
African-born, Italian-passported Tucson resident had his hopes
fixed on a top-10 finish, which would keep him on Tour for
another week. In fourth place after an opening 67, Zerman lost
his chance with a prerookie mistake on Friday. He found his
drive on the 2nd hole one foot out of bounds, and three quarters
of the way back to the tee hitched a ride with a golf-carted
marshal. Sorry, pardnuh. That's a two-stroke penalty.
Zerman ended up with a quadruple-bogey eight on the hole, shot
76 and eventually finished 27th, nine shots behind Mickelson.
One of the biggest frustrations ahead for the rookies, and other
Q schoolers, is the forced gaps in their schedules when too many
players in higher exemption categories fill up the field. But at
least they know they will be playing on the Tour. On Sunday,
Zerman was waiting for the midnight flight to Malaysia but
claimed the week had been of inestimable value. "It's always
worth it to play on this Tour whenever you can," he said.
"Especially when you gain as much experience as I did this week."
The PGA Tour is a meritocracy, and one with limited space.
Inherent in that structure is the inevitability that several,
and probably many, of the dreams that were brought to Tucson
will be shattered this year, some beyond repair. For the moment,
though, the next Tour stop is the one they call the Hope.