What was it about last week's Greater Hartford Open at the TPC
at River Highlands? Greg Norman left feeling old. Norman, who
played in the pro-am with John Rowland, the 39-year-old governor
of Connecticut, kept saying that he was 42 even though that
birthday is seven months off. Sure enough, after being run out
of town over the weekend, the Shark had aged.
Tom Kite, 46, didn't want the feeling he had to go away. He
hadn't had this much fun in, what, 17 months? The putts were
rolling, and there he was, finally in the hunt again. "Man, I
wish I'd committed to [this week's] Western Open," Kite kept
repeating after finishing second.
And D.A. Weibring, 43, was feeling healthy, mostly, and that
alone was a refreshing change. Weibring lost control of his
right eye to Bell's palsy four months ago, yet it was the left
one that was causing all the trouble on Sunday. He's not ashamed
to show his emotions, but tearing up and succumbing to them
might have kept him from winning the tournament. After playing a
terrific seven-iron shot from a fairway bunker to within 12 feet
of the hole at the 17th to guarantee victory, Weibring
instructed his caddie to talk to him, to say anything to take
his mind off the tears that were welling in his good eye.
It was a far cry from where he had been on Feb. 26. That was
supposed to be the day Weibring ended a seven-week,
pneumonia-imposed hiatus from competition. Instead he woke up
with the right half of his face paralyzed, then choked on his
breakfast cereal. When Weibring's condition was diagnosed as
Bell's palsy, a disorder without known cause that is basically
untreatable, he was given steroids to bring down the swelling in
his face and was told the paralysis would abate in three weeks
to six months, with a 20% chance that it would never go away.
During the five weeks in which he had no movement on that side
of his head he would enthrall friends of his daughters--Katey,
13, and Allison, eight--with a grotesque half smile, but he could
clearly see the fear in the eyes of his 16-year-old son, Matt.
Weibring couldn't shave and, to hide his paralyzed features, he
wore a hat and sunglasses. Still, his appearance freaked out
unwitting passersby. "You don't know how bad you looked," Matt
told his dad on Sunday before the final round.
Drop by drop Weibring splashed an ocean onto his unblinking
right eye to keep it from drying out, and at night his wife
would tape it shut so that he could get the three hours of sleep
that now passed for a good night's rest. Bending made him dizzy,
and when he tried to play golf he couldn't see the ground
clearly. With his vision distorted and his depth perception
compromised, Weibring was afraid he would miscalculate the
distance between himself and the ball and slam his club into the
earth, possibly reinjuring a vulnerable right wrist.
Weibring worried that his Tour career might be over after 19
years. After he began to recover, he worked hard to get his game
back in shape, but Hartford was only his seventh start since
contracting the palsy, and just the third time he had survived
the cut. Weibring still contends with "a flickering feeling" in
his right eye and a small degree of unease whenever he gets in
front of a camera. "In the pro-am picture they took on the 2nd
tee you can see my left eye squinting and my right eye wide
open," he said. "It looks like I'd had about 12 beers."
When that picture was taken, Weibring's expectations for the
week were low, but by Sunday his biggest problem was keeping in
check an overwhelming sense of pride. "I lost it a couple of
times out there because the quality of what I was doing was so
good," he said. "That's what you practice and play for, to
perform in that situation."
During his illness Weibring would work out and dream about
winning again, yet even an aerobically charged imagination could
not conjure up such a convincing victory so soon. Weibring's
10-under-par 270 left him four strokes clear of Kite and five
ahead of Mark Calcavecchia, Dicky Pride and Fuzzy Zoeller.
When Norman went to his gym back home in Hobe Sound, Fla., last
weekend, it was to banish any thoughts of River Highlands.
Norman vented his anger and frustration during the most
punishing exercise session he has put himself through in years.
It beat looking at the clock and wondering what might have been
In this most recent freakish occurrence in the ongoing saga of
the Shark, Norman was tied for fourth--five off the lead with 36
to play--when he disqualified himself for using an illegal ball.
As far as the PGA Tour was concerned, the issue was simple: The
ball Norman used in the first two rounds had xs-9 stamped on
it, and that model is not listed in the USGA's book of
conforming golf balls, a copy of which is always available for
player reference at the 1st tee. The penalty for using a ball
not among the more than 1,500 listed in the book is
disqualification, even if the ball is manufactured to USGA
Norman says that he was asked by Maxfli to test three balls,
stamped xs-7, xs-8 and xs-9, all of which had been USGA-approved
with different stampings, according to Maxfli. When Norman told
Maxfli technicians that he preferred the xs-9, a supply for the
tournament was sent to him, with his Shark logo and the
unsanctioned xs-9 printed on them.
"It was just an oversight on the part of the research and
development department of Maxfli," Norman says, "which didn't
understand that the stamping on the ball has to be the identical
stamping approved by the USGA." Maxfli executives did not
discover that Norman had been sent the unsanctioned ball until
Friday, when it was too late.
The incident continued a frustrating run of events for Norman
that began with his dramatic crash in the Masters. The unplanned
"free" weekend was his fourth of the season, with the preceding
three missed cuts being as many as he has had in any one year.
That has caused him to reorder his goals. It used to be that
Norman had little interest in the money title. He coveted the
Vardon Trophy for low scoring average. This year the Vardon is
out of reach because he is unlikely to play enough rounds to
qualify, and his 69.93 average puts him in 13th place behind
leader Fred Couples (69.36). Now money is a priority. Had he won
in Hartford--and last Saturday after he got home he said, "The
fact is I could easily have won this golf tournament"--Norman
would have moved to third on the money list. Instead he's sixth.
Norman would have had to shoot a pair of 66s to beat Weibring.
What is certain is that more than a few people were disappointed
when the tournament lost its biggest star. After Norman the next
best player in the field according to the Sony World Ranking was
Brad Faxon, at No. 24. John Daly, second in popularity to Norman
but 57th in the ranking, ended up 13 strokes behind Weibring. So
on Sunday the fans turned to Kite, the 1997 Ryder Cup captain
who hasn't won since the 1993 L.A. Open, or even had a top-10
finish since the 1995 Northern Telecom Open.
Kite was thrilled to be in the spotlight and thrilled with his
play. "This could have easily been a win instead of a second
because I have had tournaments where I have done the same things
I did today and produced a win," he said.
Kite has been easing up on his grueling practice sessions
recently, though he admits it might take a trained eye to spot
the difference. The key to his performance last week was
improved putting. Kite came to River Highlands near the bottom
of the putting stats, ranking 134th on Tour. At Hartford he was
the 22nd-best in the field on the greens.
If he continues to putt well, Kite could break out of his slump
and make good on his goal of being the first playing captain of
a U.S. Ryder Cup team since Arnold Palmer in 1963. "I performed
really well the last couple of days," he said on Sunday. "I was
pleased I was able to hit good shots when I needed to, and
believe me, when you haven't been there for as long as I have,
that can be difficult to do. The putts didn't all go in, but I
hit them all the way I wanted to."
Still, he never really threatened Weibring, who began the final
round with a three-stroke lead and seemed to get stronger as the
day wore on. Weibring bogeyed the 1st hole, ran off eight
consecutive pars, then sealed his fifth career win by birdieing
four holes on the back, the most challenging nine at River
Highlands, to shoot 67. "That's what you live for," he said
afterward, blinking hard. "I tend to get a bit emotional."
That's better than being without feeling.