It never used to be a problem distinguishing the Kemper Open
from the U.S. Open. Of course, it never used to be a problem
distinguishing pro basketball from pro wrestling. Welcome to the
No one is going to mistake the TPC at Avenel in Potomac, Md.,
site of the Kemper Open, for nearby Congressional Country Club,
where the U.S. Open is being held, but last week there were
similarities. Open rough is normally meaner than Albert Belle,
while Kemper's is nicer than Rosie O'Donnell. Last week Avenel's
rough was unusually tough, thanks to a cool, wet spring in the
East. Open greens are baffling, so hard and fast that one
mistake and you're gone in a flash. Avenel's greens were a
mystery too, but for a different reason--Poa annua, the grabby
seasonal grass that sprouts seed heads until the first wave of
hot weather. The mostly bentgrass greens at Avenel were still
showing splotches of Poa annua, which made them play like
quilted minefields. Balls would stick in the Velcro-like Poa
annua, then shoot through the patches of slick bentgrass. "I
don't know how many of you fish," Joey Sindelar said to
reporters, "but these greens are like putting on a pickerel."
Those conditions kept the scores high, just like at the Open, in
which four straight pars can constitute a charge. Since the
Kemper moved from Congressional to Avenel in 1987, only twice
has the winning score been higher than the 10-under-par 274 put
up by Justin Leonard, last week's champion. By contrast, in 1991
Billy Andrade won at 21 under. So give the Kemper a U.S. Open
learner's permit. The tournament even featured an Open-like
finish. Leonard, the preppy 25-year-old Texan, won the Kemper
the Open way--by barely surviving, then letting the other guy
dial 911 and beat himself. (How to win major championships: See
The other guy at Avenel was equally gritty Mark Wiebe, a
39-year-old from Denver who not only hadn't won in 10 years but
also hadn't played well in the last four, especially since
injuring his right shoulder in a 1994 skiing accident. Wiebe
clung tenaciously to the lead for the first three days, inspired
by a recent pep talk from Broncos quarterback John Elway.
They've long been friends, but over postgolf drinks a month ago
at Castle Pines Golf Club near Denver, Elway told Wiebe, "Hey,
man, I've played with all these Tour guys. You're as good or
better than all of them, and it's time for you to start playing
June 15, 1997
Wiebe was surprised. "It was not quite tear-in-your-eye,
Cinderella-story stuff," he says. "He just gave me a kick start.
We talked about a lot of things, and one of them was getting my
butt in gear."
Wiebe kept grinding along, then lost control at the end. An
errant drive and two three-putt greens caused him to bogey three
of the last four holes and lose by one shot. It got ugly when
Wiebe led by one with two to play. His six-iron shot cleared the
pond at the par-3 17th but left him a 40-foot putt. He lagged to
inside three feet, then lipped out the par attempt. "I got a
little shaky there," Wiebe said.
He responded with a terrific drive at the 18th and a solid
nine-iron approach to 20 feet. The potential winning putt for
birdie was a fooler. It took a hard left, stopping three
feet--maybe less--below the hole. The crowd, anticipating a
playoff, groaned when his par attempt didn't even catch a piece
of the cup. "I did not hit a good putt," said a red-eyed Wiebe,
whose last victory was the 1986 Hardee's Classic. "I don't know
what to say."
Just say that this is how the U.S. Open usually ends. (See
Oakland Hills: Love III, Davis; Lehman, Tom.) Just say that
Wiebe was playing under some unusual circumstances. Not only was
he in the middle of a swing change, but he also was six weeks
into a yearlong program of allergy shots. Years of recurring
sinus infections, wooziness and lack of energy sent him,
grudgingly, to a doctor who discovered that Wiebe is allergic to
grass and trees. The weekly shots make his hands shake, a
condition he overcame during the first three rounds, but on
Sunday he had 35 putts, including four three-jacks.
As much as Wiebe lost the tournament, Leonard, who stiffed three
approach shots on the final nine, won it. He came from five
strokes behind, and his closing 67 tied for the day's low round.
The victory was the second in two years for Leonard, a native of
Dallas whose idea of a great 13th-birthday present was a round
of golf at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. "There are guys
who have never won, guys who have won one tournament, and there
are multiple winners," said Leonard, who broke through at last
August's Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich. "I guess I'm in a new
category. The first win was probably the hardest to get, but
this one is just as sweet."
It should be. In addition to surviving Open conditions, Leonard
beat a major championship pack of contenders. Nick Faldo, Greg
Norman and Nick Price shared third with Mike Springer. Norman's
late charge, a final-nine 31, should put everyone on alert this
week. He finished only three shots behind Leonard despite a
bizarre third-round 73.
Last Saturday, as Norman was introduced on the 1st tee, the
announcer made a joke that angered Norman, who bogeyed three of
the first four holes. Later, on the 12th hole, he made a triple
bogey by hitting two balls into a water hazard. The offending
remark was made by Bill McGuire, a member at Congressional who
has been introducing the golfers to the fans at the Kemper for
11 years. McGuire called Norman the No. 1 player in the world
but then added this ham-handed reference to President Clinton's
ill-fated visit to Norman's house in March: "If he invites you
over to his house to see all his trophies, I'd advise you to
respectfully decline." The quip hit a nerve. Norman glared at
McGuire, teed off, then called him into the scorer's tent.
"Where do you get off saying that?" Norman said. "Did you ever
have anyone injured in your home?" McGuire apologized, and
Norman stormed off.
"It upset Greg," said Lehman, who played with Norman on Saturday
and again on Sunday. "Getting off to the start that he did
didn't help matters." This much is certain: There won't be any
lame jokes on the 1st tee at Congressional. Norman looms as a
serious challenger for the Open. Never mind that some critics
want to write him off because he's 42, hasn't won a Tour event
since Doral in '96, fell out with his instructor, Butch Harmon,
still hasn't recovered from last year's Masters collapse and is
thought to be too busy expanding his many businesses.
The reality is something much different. Besides the fact that
he has won two Kemper Opens at Congressional and loves the
course, Norman has put himself into position to make a strong
run for the remainder of the season. There are many reasons, but
one stands out: His focus is back on golf. He recently
reorganized his company, Great White Shark Enterprises, and its
43 employees, delegating authority so that he would have less of
a burden. "I was one beer away from shutting the whole lot
down," Norman says. "I could've easily retired and been happy,
but I didn't want to step away from the game. I enjoy golf too
much. It was a matter of balancing things right."
The big business decisions will still land on Norman's desk, but
the rest, he told his staff, are up to them. "I won't do the
day-to-day tick, tick, tick," Norman says. "It was very
difficult for me to let go. I'm very much a hands-on guy. But I
told myself, You've got to do this for your sanity and for your
The eight-hour days in the office are over. Now they've been
reduced to one or two hours, which means more time for golf and
family. "It's made a huge difference not having to cram 28 hours
into a 24-hour day," Norman says.
The decision to cut back makes it clear that Norman is still
driven by the challenge of the game. "He doesn't have to be out
here," says Price, Norman's friend and neighbor in Hobe Sound,
Fla. "The guy has made $70 million or $80 million in the last
five years, and he still comes out here and tries his tail off
and practices hard. That shows me he loves the game."
Other parts of the picture are coming into focus for Norman.
Yes, he split with Harmon, but he found David Leadbetter.
"Greg's swing is better than I've seen it for a long time,"
Price says. "I'm partisan because I work with David, but Greg's
swing plane looks better, and his swing looks more efficient."
No one on Tour is more fit than Norman, whose strict workout
regimen has his back feeling better than it has in years. Plus,
Tiger Woods has taken away some of the spotlight. "I feel like a
weight is off me," Norman says. "When other people expect you to
win and heap that little bit more on, you feel it all the time,
and you get tired. Tiger is seeing that now."
Norman is back on top of the World Ranking after being replaced
for one week by Lehman, who reported this conversation with his
seven-year-old daughter, Rachael, before the Kemper:
"Daddy, are you still the best player in the world?" she asked.
"Gosh, I was the best player for only a week, Rachael."
"Well, could you be the best player again?" Rachael wondered.
"I guess I can," Lehman said.
"Who's the best player now, Daddy?"
"Greg Norman," Lehman said.
"Oh, you're taking turns?"
Something like that, Rachael. Woods will probably get in line
too, but don't forget, it's still Norman's turn. With the Open
at Congressional, it may stay that way for a while.