Hilton Head Island, S.C., is where golf goes to sleep off the
aftereffects of the Masters. So when Tiger Woods skipped last
week's MCI Classic, Harbour Town Links, with its curtains of
Spanish moss gently swaying in the zephyrs off the Calibogue
Sound, was prepared to serve as one very large hammock. But the
reverberations from Woods's performance were so strong that
players who normally find respite in the somnolent low country
remained fully stimulated, and while the game's new master
luxuriated in Cancun for a few days before jetting up to Chicago
to play his first 18 holes with Michael Jordan and tape a
segment of Oprah, they were busy turning a butt-kicking into a
"Watching what Tiger did at the Masters is going to help me,"
said Brad Faxon, who played his first nine at the MCI in a
tournament-record 29 strokes and eventually finished tied for
second. "It charged me up. He has that spark and fire inside
that's remarkable. I thought, This guy is burning. He wants it.
That's the way I want to be."
Tom Lehman, who ended the week tied for fourth yet jumped ahead
of Greg Norman to the top of the World Ranking, is already
preparing for an assault on his new position. "It would be great
to be the guy who says, 'Ah, ah, ah, Tiger, not yet,'" Lehman
said last week. "He may be only 21, and I'm 38, but I've learned
something from him: If you don't go in expecting to win, don't
play. Because if you don't have that same mind-set, he's going
to kill you, and I'm not ready to get killed like that every
So even without Woods, this MCI had an intense, edgy feel. Last
Friday, Woody Austin, who would miss the cut, became so
infuriated on the 14th green that he whacked his very hot head
with a putter shaft, finally bending the offending weapon on the
fifth whack. That sort of emoting was not unusual, and it
underscored the sense of urgency, even desperation, that was
being felt by some of the players in the wake of Woods's
12-stroke victory in Augusta.
Perhaps because he already knows what it's like to be the best
player in the world, and what it will take to reach that level
again, Nick Price responded in a different way. Dedicating his
play to his friend and former caddie, Jeff (Squeeky) Medlen,
who's gravely ill with leukemia, Price lit up Harbour Town as
its signature lighthouse never will. With scores of 65-69-69-66
for a 15-under-par 269, Price won by six strokes over Faxon and
Jesper Parnevik. The win was Price's first on the PGA Tour since
the 1994 Canadian Open.
That Canadian had ended a run of 17 victories worldwide during a
two-year span that began with the 1992 PGA Championship and
included two other majors, the British Open and the PGA in '94.
But throughout 1995, when Price finished 30th on the money list,
and most of last year, when he dropped to 50th, the virtuosity
that had made him the No. 1 player in the world was missing. A
lack of affinity for the spotlight, some troublesome endorsement
contracts, health problems and abysmal putting took their toll
on his energy and enthusiasm.
The 40-year-old Price, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in
Hobe Sound, Fla., began to rebound late last year after he found
a medication that helps prevent the debilitating sinus
infections he suffers as a result of allergies. Since December,
he has been either first or second in six tournaments around the
world. After finishing 21 strokes behind Woods at the Masters,
where his low ball flight, medium length off the tee and uneven
touch on the greens conspired against him, he arrived at Hilton
Head both aggravated and motivated by a major he believes
disproportionately rewards length. "I don't really get on that
well with Augusta," Price said last week. "My game doesn't,
anyway. I feel like I'm walking on a razor's edge and at any
point I'm going to slip off and cut myself to death. Tiger's
like a guy who can ace every serve. It's not a match. It was a
joke, the clubs he was hitting in. I need five strokes a day
from Tiger on that course. The fact that I played solidly and
didn't put in a score fueled my desire this week."
More important, Price was once again willing to make the
sacrifices necessary to become the game's top player. "There is
nothing better, honestly, than playing golf well under
pressure," he says. "And I have missed it."
Price missed virtually nothing at Harbour Town, a Pete Dye
design whose narrow fairways and small greens complement Price's
skills as much as Augusta negates them. For the week, he hit
more fairways (50 of 56) and greens (54 of 72) than anyone else.
Price bent his drives both ways, shaped his iron shots through
swirling winds to the hearts of the tiny putting surfaces and
refused to succumb to the low-percentage play. After booming a
drive on the 575-yard, par-5 15th hole during the third round,
Price had only 211 yards to the front of the green, but would
have had to carry a 60-foot-tall stand of pines. When the fans
implored him to go for it, Price, whose clothing is festooned
with swooshes, took out a short iron to lay up and joked, "I am
not Tiger Woods." On Sunday, though, Price was as dominating in
his way as Woods is in his. By the time Price hit a seven-iron
to eight feet on the spectacular 18th and holed the putt for his
66, he had put on a display reminiscent of his runaway victories
at the 1993 Western Open and the '94 PGA at Southern Hills.
"From the very first time I played this golf course, I wanted to
win here because it tests just about every club in your bag," he
On Sunday the only club Price didn't hit was his three-iron, yet
what pleased him most was having to use his putter only 26
times, a proficiency he will need if he is to return to the
level he reached in 1993 and '94. As recently as last year Price
had all but given up hope that his short, jabby stroke would
ever allow him to be an effective putter again. But a week
before the Masters, he switched from a mallet-style putter to a
Bobby Grace blade with a white plastic insert made of what the
clubmaker calls HSM--Hole Seeking Material, naturally. At
Augusta, despite failing to make many putts, Price said he had
"a beautiful feel with this putter."
That confidence was tested on Sunday when Price was paired in
the final twosome with Faxon, who is considered to be Ben
Crenshaw's successor as the best pure putter in the game.
Leading by two strokes after 54 holes, Price watched Faxon, who
had put on a putting exhibition two weeks before while winning
in New Orleans, hole a 60-footer from off the green for a birdie
on the 1st hole. Price topped him with a 20-footer for his own
birdie. After Faxon, who also birdied the 2nd, hit his approach
shot at the 3rd two inches from the cup for a tap-in birdie that
moved him even with Price at 11 under, Price drained a 40-footer
to go back in front. "I couldn't have picked a better time to
hole a long putt," said Price. "It sent a signal that I wasn't
going to lie down."
Turning the tables for good, Price holed a 20-footer for par at
the 4th before Faxon three-putted the 6th for bogey and missed a
six-footer for par at the 7th. When Price birdied the 7th and
8th with short-iron approaches that appeared to be equipped with
hole-seeking material of their own, his lead was five and the
tournament was over.
"All the ingredients were there, it was just a question of
waiting for them to come together in one week," said Price, who
credited his play to what he calls the X factor. "Your long game
might be an 8 out of 10, and your putting is 7 out of 10," he
said, "but then you multiply it by this confidence, or X, factor."
The real X factor might have been Medlen, whose leukemia was
discovered during last year's Western Open. Caddying for Price
since 1990, when his only Tour win had been the '83 World Series
of Golf, Medlen played an integral role in Price's breakthrough
years. Medlen, 42, last caddied at the Sarazen World Open in
November and since then has undergone an unsuccessful bone
marrow transplant from his mother, Jackie.
Price says that the prognosis is not good. "Squeek's sicker now
than he has ever been," he said last week. When Price visited
Medlen at the Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus on the
Sunday before the Masters, he was devastated. "I barely
recognized him," Price says. "He's down to about 120 pounds
[from 180]. He has all these pipes coming out of him. It's
difficult for him to talk. It's very, very sad."
At Hilton Head, Price's caddie was Jimmy Johnson, who was asked
by Medlen to take the bag when he no longer could. Along with
nearly all of the caddies at the MCI, and several players,
Johnson pinned a green ribbon on his hat in honor of Medlen. "It
was understood that we'd try to win for Squeeky," Johnson said.
"Nick and I hate to even talk about it because it's on our minds
every day and it's depressing. The happiest day of my life will
be the day Squeeky comes back and caddies for Nick."
"I think about him probably 30 or 40 times a day," says Price,
"so it's hard, especially the way I'm playing now. The last time
I felt I was playing this well, he was right next to me. Poor
Jimmy. I keep calling him Squeek."
Before last Thursday's opening round, Price called Medlen and
became forceful after being told that he was balking at a
doctor's recommendation to undergo a blood transfusion--again
with his mother as the donor--in an attempt to raise his white
blood cell count. "He was very negative," says Price. "I said,
'Hey, you don't know how many people have done so much for you.
You can't just give up and say you are not going to do this.'
And it seemed to work because it changed his attitude a little
bit." Medlen acceded to the transfusion, and Price went out and
played one of the best tournaments of his life. The entire
scenario was eerily reminiscent of 1988, when Norman won at
Harbour Town and dedicated the victory to Jamie Hutton, a young
fan from Madison, Wis., who was also stricken with leukemia.
"I won this one for Squeek, and I just hope it gives him a
boost," said Price, who during the final round wished his friend
well through the lens of a CBS camera. No doubt that raised
Medlen's spirits, just as an uncharacteristically dramatic week
at Hilton Head raised Price's game back to where it belongs.