It would be fair to say that Peter Teravainen, in the most
modest of ways, is a cult figure in some golfing circles. He has
been trying to make a living from tournament golf for nearly two
decades, and for all those years people have been drawn to his
singular approach and uncommon devotion to the game. (He'll play
in any tournament offering a purse, and he has only one swing
speed, full throttle.) Teravainen, 41, grew up in Duxbury,
Mass., went to boarding school and Yale on scholarships, lives
in Singapore and has played the European tour since 1982. For
the first half of the '95 season, Teravainen was missing cuts
left and right, 11 in a row during one stretch. Then, in August,
he won the Czech Open and $200,000. In triumph Teravainen said,
"Now I'm up to broke."
He's an expatriate, an American in name only, and he found
himself playing in the U.S. Open last week chiefly because he
won the Japan Open last year. He entered in Japan because his
wife, Veronica, a Singaporean of Chinese descent, agreed to fill
out the necessary 42 pages worth of paperwork. (The
globe-trotting touring pro without an intimate knowledge of
visas, working papers, tax forms, customs requirements, exchange
rates and tipping traditions is lost.) He won the tournament
because the course was extremely long, and Teravainen, in
certain moods, is extremely long. Winning the Japan Open earned
Teravainen an invitation to Jack Nicklaus's tournament, the
Memorial, in Dublin, Ohio. After the Memorial (where he missed
the cut but made a double eagle), Teravainen stayed in the area
for a U.S. Open sectional qualifier. He qualified, then played
his first 36 holes at Congressional in 144 strokes, which earned
him the right to play the third round with another golfer who
was at four over par, Nicklaus.
Teravainen thinks the world of Nicklaus, but the pairing was not
ideal for him. Teravainen walks fast, with his chest out and his
shoulders back, always way ahead of his playing partners, mainly
because he doesn't want to have to talk to anybody. (Teravainen
has an on-course motto: talking=distraction= poor play. Off the
course he doesn't stop talking.) Nicklaus sort of strolls along
the fairways these days, and he's conversational in ways he
never used to be. Teravainen was uncharacteristically
Nicklaus: "How much time do you spend in Singapore, Peter?"
June 22, 1997
Teravainen: "Well, let's see. I play 30 weeks a year, so I'm
home about 22."
Nicklaus: "You sure you're home that much? Seems to me I see
your name playing somewhere every week."
Teravainen: "You're probably right. I guess I play more like 35."
Teravainen comes to the U.S.--with Veronica and their
five-year-old daughter, Taina--once or twice a year, primarily
to visit his parents and three siblings. He has no interest in
playing the PGA Tour. For one thing, the coffee here is not
strong enough for him. Teravainen's game is fueled by caffeine,
and watery American coffee is a problem. (Peter knows that
caffeine hinders putting, but he figures it gives him many extra
yards.) His Friday round at the Open was delayed by
thunderstorms and didn't begin until 5:10 p.m. The weak
Congressional java did not satisfy him, and he was not as revved
up as he likes to be. He did, however, make one of the longest
putts of his life in that second round, a 70-footer for a birdie
on the 9th.
It's not that easy being Peter. Aside from the need for strong
coffee, Teravainen won't play balls stamped with the number 4
(considered bad luck in many Asian cultures), won't change
restaurants if he's playing well (no matter how bad the service)
and won't wear red (unless he's willing to risk something
powerful happening, for good or for bad). He also becomes highly
agitated when people--certain people, anyway--talk to his
airborne golf ball.
Anyone who has caddied for Peter, as Veronica and I have, knows
that this no-talking principle is one of Teravainen's core
beliefs, but if you're rooting for him, it's hard not to talk.
Early last Saturday, as Teravainen was finishing his second
round, Veronica and Peter's mother, sister and brother-in-law
talked to Peter's ball with wild abandon. ("Gentle, now, softly,
gentle, gentle, GENTLE!") Suddenly, Veronica, who speaks English
with lovely precision and a strong Chinese accent, said, "We are
all talking to Peter's golf ball much much too much." (She
pronounces her husband's name PEE-ta.) She thought for a moment.
"But I suppose if Peter cannot hear us, then it is O.K."
Teravainen has played the best golf of his career over the past
two years, and Veronica, a former flight attendant and a student
of Chinese folk medicine, has played a significant role in his
revival. Two years ago, when Teravainen was in the midst of his
streak of missed cuts, he called and asked me if I knew Wally
Uihlein, the Titleist chairman. "I'm looking for a job," he said.
I was shocked because the only thing Teravainen had ever wanted
to do--despite his economics degree and his analytic mind--was
play tournament golf. Moreover, and Teravainen knows this, he is
ill-suited to working for anybody but himself. He is
independently owned and operated. But a man has to make a
living. "I can't play tournament golf anymore," he said.
He and Uihlein talked about a job at the 1995 British Open. At
about the same time, Veronica encouraged Peter to wear special
Chinese medicinal bandages, soaked in various herbal extracts,
while he played. Immediately, Peter's aching legs and feet--worn
down by years of waiting for standby flights with a suitcase in
each hand and a golf bag over his right shoulder (Teravainen is
known to be the ultimate bargain traveler)--felt youthful and
alive again. Several weeks later he won in Czechoslovakia. Aside
from the bandages, his therapy these days includes walking on
rounded rocks (or golf balls when rounded rocks are unavailable)
to massage his feet and wearing a necklace of magnets to cure
him of other bodily pains. Now he's way ahead of broke. He
earned $220,000 for winning the Japan Open last September and
another $148,000 when he won again on the Japanese tour in
April, at the Descente Classic Munsingwear Cup in Ibaragi,
Japan. Along the way he has gained respect from his touring
brethren, too. Awhile back, Colin Montgomerie asked Teravainen
what he was thinking about down the stretch when he was trying
to win for the first time on the European tour, in Czechoslovakia.
"I told him, 'I tried to pretend that it was Friday, and I was
playing to make the cut,'" Teravainen recalls. "'Make a birdie
coming in, you make the cut. Don't, no big deal, you've missed
plenty of cuts.' He looked disappointed. It wasn't relevant to
him, but he still listened to me."
Teravainen plans to give up the European tour and play in Japan
full time. He has his reasons. First, because of his Japan Open
victory, he has a 10-year exemption on the Japanese tour.
Second, Japan is about four hours by plane from Singapore, while
Europe is a half day. But the most significant reason,
Teravainen says, is that for the first time in his professional
life he is being treated with respect. He has a lucrative
contract with Japan-based Dunlop, and the company has assigned a
manager to help him get around the country. He writes stories
for Japanese golf magazines, not about his game but about his
life. (One magazine ran a picture of Teravainen eating noodles
with chopsticks.) In Japan, Teravainen says, "I'm sort of a star."
In the U.S., he's not a star, but he has his followers. On
Friday, Teravainen found a two-page single-spaced letter in his
locker from a retired foreign service officer, Richard G.
Johnson, Yale '44, inviting Teravainen to call if he needed a
native's counsel. "If you are still saving as well as
accumulating money, I'll provide you with a few restaurant tips
where the quality exceeds the cost," Johnson wrote.
"Beautiful," Teravainen said after reading the letter. "A man
Often, in America, Teravainen feels lost. Singapore is his true
home, and he plies his profession wherever shot-making is valued
more than putting, and that's everywhere in the world except the
U.S. Living and working overseas for the past decade and a half
has changed the way he speaks. He'll ask, "Do you have a draw
sheet for tomorrow?" (Instead of, "You got tomorrow's tee
times?") He'll say, "Tonight, I want a proper meal." Playing at
Congressional, there were moments of culture shock for Peter,
and for Veronica, too. Peter was amazed at how much noise Open
spectators made. Veronica was amazed at how much trash they left
behind. "This is a golf tournament," she said, "but it looks
like a rock concert."
Still, they savored the experience. Teravainen, with his brother
Chuck silently on the bag, shot rounds of 71, 73, 74 and 75 for
52nd place, earning $7,138. For Peter's benefit, that's the
equivalent of 820,825 yen, or 4,362 pounds sterling. The longer
the course, the tighter the fairways, the higher the rough, the
better for Teravainen. "The way Congressional is set up, this is
what it's like every week in Japan, except in Japan the fairways
are narrower," Teravainen said. He was grinning maniacally now,
and you could see his teeth in back of his curling lips. His
eyes, behind his glasses, were squinting, and the skin across
his face was taut. By ancestry, Teravainen is Finnish on his
father's side (he's a retired gym teacher) and English on his
mother's (she's a nurse). But to me, in some indeterminate way,
Teravainen has always looked more Asian than anything else. "The
USGA would love to do what the Japanese tour does [narrow the
fairways even more], except the players here would scream," he
said. "In Japan the players don't scream. They respect authority."
He was on the veranda at Congressional, stretched out, taking in
the sights and the smells like a traveler abroad. "I feel good,"
he said. He was playing in the U.S. Open, and he was going to
make a check. He threw back his shoulders and stuck out his
chest and, in his chair, did an odd little dance. "I feel good,
and I feel young!"