Sand doesn't usually scare Tour pros. They look at the stuff as
a nuisance, something that can get under their contact lenses or
in their shoes. Today's uniformly groomed bunkers have made the
neatly nipped explosion shot golf's equivalent of the free
throw. But at last week's Doral-Ryder Open in Miami, the bunkers
played like what the Rules of Golf say they are--hazards.
Raymond Floyd, hired to restore the Blue Monster to something
resembling the course that scared the bejesus out of him when he
was a 20-year-old rookie in 1963, rebuilt, enlarged and added
enough bunkers to make what had been a relatively roomy layout
as tight as any U.S. Open track. Floyd topped off his work with
thousands of tons of fluffy white sand, and because it hadn't
had time to settle and was therefore inconsistent, the pros
played as if Gene Sarazen had never invented the sand wedge.
All week the powdery stuff from the 117 bunkers--18 of which are
new--blew through the air as golfers, used to landing in maybe
three or four bunkers a round, played out of half a dozen or
more. And many balls settled into awkward lies or were buried
completely. Even normally easy shots were riddles. Balls were
fluffed or bladed, spun too much or too little, and hit too long
or too short. A common sight last week was a frustrated player
slamming his club into a wall of sand. "I never raked so much in
my life, and we won," said an exhausted Joe (Gypsy) Grillo, who
caddied for Steve Elkington. Elkington emerged from the Doral
desert with a 13-under-par 275, two strokes better than Nick
Price and Larry Nelson, who will be eligible to join the Senior
tour in September.
The capriciousness of the sand was best illustrated in the third
round. First Price sank a 38-yard bunker shot on the 4th hole;
then at the 13th, faced with another of about the same length,
he skulled it 100 yards over the green. "Probably the best and
worst shots of my life," said Price. Behind him last Saturday,
Greg Norman, who was making his 1997 U.S. debut, came to the
fearsome 18th contending for the lead, but he hit a fat
four-iron shot from a fairway bunker into the lake to the left
of the green and made double bogey. He ultimately finished
ninth. On Sunday third-round leader David Duval, still looking
for his first Tour win, was done in when he barely moved a
20-foot bunker shot at the 15th hole. He wound up fourth. Even
Elkington failed to get up and down after he hit into greenside
bunkers twice over the final six holes.
When all the exploding, head shaking and sand raking were over,
Elkington, a 34-year-old Australian, had his seventh Tour
victory and his first since the '95 PGA Championship. His plan
of attack was not the all-out assault on par used by Norman in
'93, when he won with a score of 23 under. Elkington's approach
was the kind of play usually reserved for the majors, when par
is a good score. Yes, Elkington used his syrupy swing to hole a
150-yard six-iron shot for eagle on the 3rd hole in the final
round, but he cautiously played the last eight holes in two
over, confident that the exacting, windswept course would not
surrender a low score. Among the top eight finishers, only
Elkington broke 70 on Sunday, and no one shot lower than 68.
Compared with the glorious closing 62 and eagle chip-in in the
ensuing playoff that highlighted Norman's win at Doral in 1990,
Elkington won ugly. He bogeyed the 13th and 14th holes after
hitting into greenside bunkers and was fortunate to par the 72nd
after driving into another bunker and hitting his third shot
from 135 yards.
As far as Floyd was concerned, he had accomplished his mission.
To bring Doral up to its former standard, Floyd had to ignore
the fact that the Blue Monster is a resort course with a hefty
greens fee of $220 for 51 weeks of the year. "It's a nightmare
for the average guy," says Elkington. To make the course
challenging to Tour pros, Floyd added 186 yards to Dick Wilson's
original design, stretching the Blue Monster to 7,125 yards, and
moved several greens closer to water. Floyd also shaved the area
around the greens so that a shot that missed the putting surface
had a good chance of running into the drink. And, of course,
Floyd did his sand work, building nearly all of his bunkers with
steep banks, to complete the White Monster.
The hole that caused the most commotion was the 435-yard 18th,
already considered one of the hardest on the Tour. Floyd added
six bunkers that pinched the landing zone for drives to less
than 20 yards wide. Although Floyd said that the players were
almost unanimous in their praise for the renovation, the 18th,
which played to an average of 4.40 strokes, making it the
toughest hole of the week, was not popular in the locker room.
Fellow architect Jack Nicklaus was diplomatic, saying, "Raymond
said he wanted to make it tougher, and he sure did that."
But Elkington, one of the Tour's more outspoken players, was
more direct. "I think it's overdone, to be honest," he said. "I
think the consensus is that the 18th is too severe." Those who
wished a pox on the house of Floyd had to be smiling when
Raymond made a bogey at the 18th on Saturday, and his son
Robert, a junior at Florida, finished his tournament on Sunday
with a quadruple-bogey 8.
Such a finish would've ruined Elkington's revival, and
considering his recent luck, it wouldn't have been all that
surprising. After overcoming serious allergy problems to have
his best year in 1995, Elkington was primed for '96. However,
his favorite set of clubs was stolen out of his car in January.
After a six-month search for suitable replacements, Elkington
finished third in his defense of the PGA. During the off-season
Elkington dropped 20 pounds and got himself into the best
physical condition of his life. But after coming in 15th at
Pebble Beach, his replacement clubs were stolen en route to a
tournament in Thailand. This time, however, Elkington had made
provisions for a satisfactory backup set. When he appeared at
Doral after a three-week break during which his second child was
born, the swing many of his peers rate as the best in the game
was dialed in, and his putting stroke, generally rated as
mediocre, was responding to the extra attention he has been
giving it. "When you've got your game and it's your turn, you've
got to go for it," said Elkington. The eagle, which made up a
two-stroke deficit with Duval, was all it took to convince
Elkington that Sunday was his turn.
That's the kind of carpe diem that pays off on demanding courses
like the revived Blue Monster. Floyd's changes may have been
jarring, but the winning score and the quality of the winner are
proof that they were neither extreme nor unwarranted.
If anything, this year's tournament proved that to slow down the
scoring on Tour, design changes need to be drastic enough to
raise hackles. And they've got to be scary.