John Cook comes with a variety of temperature settings. Away
from the golf course he gives off the warm glow of a fireplace.
"He's about the nicest guy I know," says Mark Calcavecchia,
despite being singed by Cook during Sunday's final round of the
Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Indian Wells, Calif. "I know he
doesn't have an enemy, that's for sure." On the course Cook's
rage often makes him about as easy to get next to as a man on
fire. "I don't associate this guy with that guy," says sports
psychologist Bob Rotella.
Cook's game has a similar duality. He's a short hitter with a
sweet swing, but before the Hope he had had a so-so eight
victories in 17 seasons and finished among the top 10 on the
money list only once. Beneath the precise style and modest
record, though, lies an exceptional talent. This Cook knows how
to sizzle. Last summer in Memphis he shot the lowest opening
three rounds in PGA Tour history, a 24-under-par 189, and came
within a stroke of the 72-hole record with a 26-under 258. "I
hit it so close for four days it was frightening," he says. In
1992 Cook won the Hope by making three birdies and an eagle in
sudden death to beat Gene Sauers, who birdied all four holes.
Finishing last week's marathon--five rounds on four courses with
an army of celebrity hackers--with two days at vulnerable Indian
Wells, Cook exploded again, backing up an 11-birdie 62 last
Saturday with a nine-birdie 63 on Sunday. That tied the record
for the best back-to-back scores ever, which Cook had also
equaled in Memphis and is shared by three other players. Those
kinds of numbers proved too much for Calcavecchia, who after
going four strokes up on Cook with 14 holes to go, couldn't
withstand eight Cook birdies coming home. Calcavecchia
relinquished his lead on the penultimate hole when he mishit a
drive into a eucalyptus tree 50 yards from the tee and made
bogey. He birdied the final hole, but so did Cook by sinking an
eight-footer for the win. "It hurts to play as good as you can
play and not come out on top. What do I have to do?" said
Calcavecchia, whose 32-under 328 would have won every Hope save
the 1993 tournament, in which Tom Kite shot 325.
Unlike the big hitters on Tour, Cook didn't bulldoze his way to
surreal numbers by driving par-4 holes and hitting par-5s in 2
with short irons. Instead, he did it the old-fashioned way, with
dead-straight 270-yard drives and radarlike approach shots. Cook
was particularly effective with his wedges. On four occasions on
Sunday he left himself between 75 and 80 yards from the pin, his
favorite distance with a sand wedge. On five other holes he had
about 110 yards, just right for his pitching wedge. On six of
those nine approaches Cook put his ball within six feet of the
January 27, 1997
Indian Wells, a 6,478-yard par-72 cream puff with immaculate
fairways and greens, is always among the easiest courses on the
Tour and is a perfect track for Cook's finesse game. Last week
the landing areas were firm, which gave Cook the added advantage
of extra roll on his drives. "When I get on a course that plays
into my hands, I feel like I'm in control of my game," he said.
"And when I get that way, I think I have a chance to win--as
long as I don't beat myself up."
The trouble is, Cook's best club has often been the figurative
one that he uses on himself. With his mop of hair and boyish
features, Cook, at 39, still looks like a carefree surfer boy,
but in fact he's a perfectionist with a self-destructive temper.
Mark O'Meara, who has been a friend since denying Cook
back-to-back U.S. Amateurs by defeating him in the 1979 final,
is sometimes so put off by Cook's negative attitude that he
avoids him. "Cookie gets so pissed I just don't want to play
with him," O'Meara says. "He gets so it looks like his head is
going to blow off. We all get mad, but with John, it's like,
Bud, why are you doing this?"
O'Meara was at the '93 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am when
Cook snap-hooked his drive on the 18th hole into the Pacific.
Cook admits that he "went completely ballistic," slamming his
club on the ground, gesturing wildly and cursing. "I thought we
were going to have to get the straitjacket out before he jumped
into the ocean," O'Meara says. Later, a contrite Cook apologized
to his amateur partner, Orel Hershiser, who joked, "Hey, I play
for Tommy Lasorda. Don't sweat it."
"John has always been hard on himself," says his father, Jim
Cook, a former college football and baseball coach who's now the
tournament director of the NEC World Series of Golf. "Our whole
family is very competitive--we expect a lot from ourselves--and
while John probably holds his temper in better than most of us,
it comes out on the golf course."
Cook's tantrums grew worse when he failed to blossom as a pro.
"My lows have really been low," he says. When Cook joined the
Tour in 1980, his sterling amateur record, blond hair and
All-America status at Ohio State prompted comparisons with Jack
Nicklaus. His well-publicized tutelage under Ken Venturi further
raised expectations. Cook won at Pebble Beach in 1981, but the
next season he injured his right hand and for seven years,
during which he won only twice, he played in pain. After
numerous failed attempts to find the cause of Cook's discomfort,
an MRI in 1989 revealed that he had been competing all that time
with a broken bone in his hand.
Cook emerged from a year's rehabilitation injury-free and
refreshed, but the '90s have been a mixed bag. His best year was
in 1992, when he won three times and finished second in the
British Open and the PGA. Yet he was torn by the demands of his
career. A devoted family man with three children, Cook struggled
to balance his urge to dedicate himself to golf with his desire
to spend more time at home.
By 1995, after two winless years, Cook was seriously considering
retirement. He reached his nadir at the Memorial, where his
temper led to a bizarre incident. Angry that he had left a wedge
shot short of the 5th green, Cook swiped at his ball with his
hand while picking it out of casual water. He failed to catch
it, instead batting the ball into a nearby water hazard where it
sank out of sight. A two-stroke penalty was assessed, and that
turned out to be the margin by which he missed the cut. "What
happened at the Memorial really killed him," says his wife, Jan.
"That dug him back into a hole. He had to do something, but how
do you tell your husband--in a nice way--that he needs help?"
Fortunately Cook had already come to that conclusion. He went to
see Rotella, who has helped Cook understand and manage his
anger. But his turnaround really began when he had an emotional
two-day reunion with Venturi last March.
"It was like I was 14 again," says Cook. "I've always kept a
book of our old notes, and we started over. There was no
cheerleading, no 'You're the greatest, just have patience.' It
was nice to finally hear someone say, 'No, it's not fun, 75 is
not fun. Sixty-five is fun, 75 is no good.' I finally thought,
Yeah, now I can talk to somebody who knows what I'm going
Having determined that his ambivalence about dedicating himself
to golf had been the major cause of his frustration, Cook
decided to immerse himself in his game. "People think I'm nuts,
but I could've easily stopped playing," he says. "My wife and I
figured out a plan, and that stopped all the questions. I was
tired of being just another guy, looking at the board on Friday
trying to figure out if I made the cut. That's not me. A lot of
guys, that's the way they play, and god bless them for being out
here and for the talent that they have. But that's not why I was
Peace of mind is a powerful thing, particularly at the Hope with
its 5 1/2-hour rounds, myriad skulled iron shots and omnipresent
miniskirted Classic Girls. But this year, for the first time
since the tournament began in 1960, it was held without Arnold
Palmer, who was recovering from the prostate surgery he had
undergone earlier in the week. For most of the players, concern
for Palmer outweighed the tournament's many distractions.
The fact that the Hope was the first full-field event of the
year also worked in Cook's favor. "It's early, so everybody
still has the good attitude working this week," said
Calcavecchia, who has been known to do a pretty fair Raging Bull
himself. What's more, Cook was playing in his adopted
hometown--he has a house at Mission Hills Country Club in nearby
Rancho Mirage. On Sunday, Jan rented a bus to transport about 50
family members and friends to Indian Wells to watch John play.
"He's in a nice zone," said his caddie, Frank Williams, before
the round began.
The ultimate test came hours later, particularly on the 89th
hole where, despite Calcavecchia's bogey, Cook was jolted when
he missed a six-footer for birdie that would have locked up the
"I wanted that one bad, really bad. Maybe that's why I missed,"
Cook said. "I had to regroup at 18 and somehow finagle a
birdie." Another crisp wedge from 80 yards, plus one more
eight-footer, and he had begun what he hopes will be a sustained
comeback. "I hung in there," said Cook, who will reinforce the
positive by skipping this week's tournament in Phoenix to spend
two more days with Venturi in Florida. "My mental mistakes were
few, but I'm never, ever one to say, 'Yeah, I've got this thing
licked.' Saying that is a major mistake."
No matter what his temperature setting, John Cook knows he'll
always be flammable.