There were no reported Elvis sightings last week during the PGA
Tour's annual stop in Memphis, probably because no one could
take his eyes off John Cook and what he was trying to accomplish
in the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the Tournament Players Club at
Southwind. For four sweltering days Cook, who was on the brink
of retirement only three months ago, took dead aim at one of the
most significant numbers in the pro game--the record 27-under-par
257 shot by Mike Souchak in the Texas Open 41 years ago.
Several players have made a run at Souchak's standard, which he
established at the 6,400-yard, par-71 Brackenridge Park Golf
Course in San Antonio in February 1955. But like those who have
pursued the 61-home run barrier put in place by Roger Maris, no
one has been able to sustain the necessary combination of great
play and good fortune long enough to get lower than 258 (by
Donnie Hammond on par-70 Oak Hills in San Antonio during the
1989 Texas Open). On Sunday, Cook had a better chance to break
through than any of the others, although he seemed an odd choice
for history's work.
Thirty-eight years old and dragging after 17 years on the Tour,
Cook was unhappy with his play this spring. In fact, he was
thinking seriously of hanging it up--or at least cutting way
back--when, before the Players Championship in March, he visited
Ken Venturi, the CBS analyst who has coached him since he was
14. For two days they hit balls and talked. "It was just nice to
hear somebody say, 'Nice shot, you're doing a good job,'" Cook
says. "That means a lot. Those two days kind of put the fire
back in me."
Cook decided to take one more shot at regaining the form he
displayed in 1992, his last good year, when he finished third on
the money list and had the British Open in his hands before
closing bogey-bogey to open the door for Nick Faldo. The
transformation didn't happen overnight, but by the time he
arrived in Memphis, Cook had made seven consecutive cuts, most
recently finishing a respectable 16th in the U.S. Open. And when
he got a look at the TPC at Southwind, his motor really started
racing. "The fairways were hard and fast, and that plays more
into my game," he said. "It made the par-5s reachable for an
average hitter like me. Coming here and seeing the ball run a
little bit got me excited, frankly. You're not as intimidated
off the tee as you are at the Open."
Cook responded with a seven-under 64 in the first round and
followed with a nine-under 62 last Friday for a 126 total that
tied the Tour record for 36 holes. On Saturday his 63 put him at
189 for three rounds, two strokes better than the record of 191
set by Gay Brewer in the 1967 Pensacola Open. Up in the CBS
booth overlooking the 18th hole, Venturi could barely contain
his excitement. "The secret word in playing good golf is trust,"
he said, "being able to believe that you can make the shot, to
look at where you have to go and not where you don't want to go.
He's got himself focused now. He knows what he wants to do. I
like the way he's thinking. I like his attitude. Especially I
like the way he's striking the ball." Said Patrick Lee, one of
Cook's frustrated pursuers, "He's in his own element. Basically,
he's playing the course by himself."
Even the 69-year-old Souchak was convinced that there was no way
his record would withstand Cook's assault. In San Antonio, of
all places, playing golf in a corporate outing, Souchak saw
highlights from the Memphis tournament on television. "With that
kind of scoring, 67 was very doable," he said. "There was
absolutely no doubt in my mind that he was going to break the
That Cook was able to establish such a strong story line was
just what the tournament needed. Many of the big names had
skipped the event because it came on the heels of the
nerve-racking U.S. Open from hell at Oakland Hills. Memphis had
to make do without the likes of Greg Norman, Tom Lehman and Tom
Watson. But Mark O'Meara, this year's leading money winner, did
show up. So did Steve Jones, the Open winner; Davis Love III,
who finished a shot behind Jones; and John Daly, who lives near
the 16th fairway.
Jones played with Dicky Pride and Ted Tryba on Thursday and drew
a gallery of about 100 fans. "He is just too unknown," one of
them, Mark Symington, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "It's
a good story about him coming back from a hand injury and
winning the Open, but he doesn't have the name recognition of a
Jones didn't seem to be upset about the relative lack of
attention. After an errant tee shot on the 3rd hole struck a
tree and landed in the rough, Jones quipped to the fans, "I
didn't know they had rough here. I thought it was all at the
U.S. Open." He shot 70-69-72-73--that's even par--to tie for
70th and beat one player who made the cut, Mark Brooks.
Love, heartbroken after the Open, opted to play in Memphis
instead of staying home and dwelling on his three-putt on the
final hole in suburban Detroit. "It's probably better to get out
and go ahead and make a few other putts, and miss a few other
ones, and get started on something else," he said. "I think if
I'd had a week off, I wouldn't have done much." He didn't do
much at Southwind, either. His 72-68-74-69 left him 67th, and he
looked like a guy who was going through the motions.
"I'm trying to come to grips with my finish at the Open and
remember the fun parts of it," Love said. "I might win no majors
and I might win 10, but that one's going to sting for a long
time. If I win a U.S. Open, I'm going to be saying, 'Well, I
should have won two.' If I win five, I'm going to say I should
have won six."
Daly has been trying to sell his house in Memphis so he can move
to Fayetteville, Ark. "I love this place," he said, "but I've
got family in Arkansas, and I just want to get closer to the
Hogs." Daly annoyed the locals last year by skipping the
tournament, withdrawing six days before the kickoff because of
headaches. "It was tough not playing last year," Daly said. "I
know some radio stations bashed me pretty good, but I had to do
what I had to do." The criticism abated a few weeks later when
he won the British Open at St. Andrews. Daly opened with a 64
last week that tied for the lead but then seemed to lose
interest. He shot 71-70-76 in the last three rounds to finish
That left it to Cook to provide the headlines, and the setting
seemed appropriate. Until last week Memphis was mainly known as
the tournament at which Al Geiberger shot a 59 in the third
round in 1977. That score--tied by Chip Beck at Las Vegas in
1991--is still the Tour record. It came at the Colonial Country
Club in Cordova, Tenn., which was replaced as the tournament
site in 1989 by par-71 Southwind, a course designed by Fuzzy
Zoeller and Hubert Green. The tournament record had been the
21-under 263 shot by Jay Haas in 1992.
But everything was in place for Cook. A resident of Scottsdale,
Ariz., Cook thrives in the heat. "The hotter, the better," he
says. Besides that, the playing conditions included almost no
wind, quick zoysia fairways, short rough and smooth, receptive
It was a far cry from the type of public course on which Souchak
had shot his 257. "They couldn't grow grass on Brackenridge Park
when I set the record," Souchak said, "so they put down a
10-foot square block of cement and that was the teeing area on
every hole. They put two rubber mats on the cement, one to stand
on and one to hit off of."
Southwind was ready to be had. "We were very lucky this week,"
Cook said. "It was warm, the course was fast, and the greens
didn't track up. When the conditions are like that, you can't
hide the pins from these guys. We're professional golfers, and
we're going to shoot some low scores. But what's wrong with that?"
Such upbeat talk would have been unthinkable back in March.
"Early this year I just wasn't showing myself anything," Cook
said. "I was playing and I was shooting O.K. scores, but I
wasn't getting much out of it, and it was frustrating me. I've
been out here 17 years, so I didn't want to sit around and watch
myself become just another guy."
But that's what he had become. After his big year in '92, Cook
dropped to 45th on the money list in 1993, 37th in 1994 and 97th
last year. His most recent victory was in a tournament run by
his father, Jim, the 1992 Las Vegas Invitational--a tournament,
by the way, in which he was paired for the last two rounds with
John Adams, his closest pursuer last week. Adams, who's 0 for
488 in his efforts to win on the Tour, finished at 19 under in
Memphis, which would have been good enough to win all but one of
the seven previous tournaments held at Southwind. "It's a shame
you can shoot 19 under and not even sniff winning the
tournament," said Adams, who leads the Tour in driving distance
this year with an average of 283.8. "This was another learning
experience that I didn't need."
On Sunday the tournament's outcome seemed a foregone conclusion.
Cook took a six-shot lead into the final round, so the drama
revolved around whether Cook could shoot a 67, finish 28 under
and break Souchak's record. Playing more conservatively than he
had in the first three rounds--"I didn't want to get in my own
way, as I've done so many times in the past," Cook said--he went
to 26 under with a birdie at the 10th. After five straight pars
he finally began to think about the record. When Cook arrived at
the par-5 16th hole, he knew that he had accomplished his main
objective, winning the tournament, so he figured he could go for
A drive, three-wood and wedge left him four feet away from the
record-tying birdie. "But there was a spike mark about an inch
high in front of my ball," Cook said. "I tried to hit it through
the spike mark." The putt rimmed out, and Cook settled for par.
On the par-4 17th, Cook had another birdie attempt, this one
from 12 feet, but left his putt a couple of inches short. Then,
on the final hole, another par-4, with water on the left, he hit
his drive to the right, put a five-iron on the fringe short of
the green and gave the gallery a thrill by hitting the flagstick
with his chip. When he tapped in for 69 and a seven-stroke
victory, the seventh win of his career, he was at 258 and a
stroke short of Souchak's mark. "There have been a number of
people who've had the opportunity to break the record, and I'm
surprised it still stands," Souchak said. "Forty-one years is a
Cook's final numbers were amazing. He was remarkably consistent,
with 25 birdies, one eagle, one bogey and 45 pars. In the first
three rounds he hit almost every fairway and put, by his
estimation, at least 12 approach shots close enough to the hole
for virtual kick-ins. And the course didn't really lie down for
the players, despite the conditions. The cut came at a
respectable two under, and for the week Southwind played to an
average score of 70.264.
Yet the numbers were not what was important to Cook. "I knew I
had this in me at some point in my career," he said. "This week
I drove it with some length, I hit a lot of greens, and I made
some very nice putts. What else can I say? I bet I didn't make
five birdies all last week at the Open. I had 'em saved up."
Maybe he should have put a couple in his pocket for the British
Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes later this month. Cook has
never won a major, and a victory there would erase the bad
memories from '92. But what was that he was saying in his
posttournament news conference? That he'll probably pass the
British because he has promised to take his wife, Jan, and their
three children to the Olympic Games in Atlanta that week?
"I've been close at the British Open before, and I know what
that golf tournament means," Cook said. "I just hope people
understand what my family means to me. There will be other
British Opens, but there will be only one chance for me to take
my kids to the Olympics in this country. There are some other
things in life that are more important to me than playing golf."
Ladies and gentlemen, John Cook has left the building.