Welcome to the get-well swing of the PGA Tour. The official
finish line for the 1997 season is the Oct. 30-Nov. 2 Tour
Championship, but for the stragglers--the players trying to hang
on to their cards and their careers--the end comes a week
earlier, at the Las Vegas Invitational. That's the defining
event on their calendar because it's the last chance to crack
the top 125 on the money list. To these players, frustration has
already turned to panic, and tournaments like last week's CVS
Charity Classic at Pleasant Valley Country Club in Sutton,
Mass., where a weak field (39 of the top 50 money winners took a
pass) is viewed as a strong opportunity, are great places to get
healthy in a hurry. Some did and some didn't at Pleasant Valley.
Loren Roberts did. He won the tournament and a two-year
exemption, although the highlight of his season remains the
Players Championship, in which his third-place finish was worth
$22,000 more than the $216,000 first prize at the CVS. "I played
good at Bay Hill [tied for sixth] and at the Players, and that
was my whole year, basically, until the last two tournaments,"
said Roberts, who came in second in Milwaukee three weeks ago
when Scott Hoch won by chipping in for eagle on the 72nd hole.
That was a disappointment, yes, but the close call reinvigorated
him in a year in which he was never in contention to make the
Ryder Cup team for a second straight time.
"I told my wife after Scott chipped in, 'You know, I think I'm
going to win before the year is out,'" Roberts said. "Obviously
I would have liked to have won a couple before the Ryder Cup,
but I'll take 'em when I can get 'em." His play in Milwaukee
inspired Roberts to add Pleasant Valley to his schedule, a move
that paid off with the fifth victory of his career.
Chip Beck didn't get well. Beck, a 19-year veteran who played in
three straight Ryder Cups from 1989 to '93, missed his 19th
consecutive cut. The Tour's Mr. Positive ranks 259th on the
money list and hasn't cashed a check since the Honda Classic in
Bill Glasson, whose last win came at the 1994 Phoenix Open, is
in the pink again. Out for 10 months after surgery in May 1996
to repair a detached muscle in his right forearm, Glasson didn't
shoot higher than 67 at Pleasant Valley and finished second, one
stroke behind Roberts's 18-under-par 266. It was Glasson's third
straight top 10 finish and moved him to 48th on the money list.
"It was a step forward," he said, "but I'd like to get over the
hump. I won't feel I'm all the way back until I win. I gave
myself a lot of chances, but when it comes down to a great
putter and me, take the great putter."
That would be Roberts, better known as the Boss of the Moss. He
putted only 25 times during his closing 64 and never had more
than 28 putts in any round. Glasson never had less than 28.
"Loren, Brad Faxon and Jim Furyk are probably the three best
putters on our Tour," says Peter Jacobsen, who finished third.
"No one's going to beat Loren on the greens." How magical is
Roberts's touch? After the award ceremony on the 18th green, he
stuck around to help an amateur line up a 10-footer for a
$25,000 prize--half of which went to charity. The amateur made
it. "You think he's going to miss after I read it for him?"
Jacobsen also got well in Massachusetts. He interrupted a
mediocre year--he was 90th in earnings going in and now ranks
68th--by rediscovering the short game that briefly made him the
Tour's hottest player in '95. Jacobsen was eighth in greens in
regulation before Pleasant Valley but 151st in putting. Then he
got a tip from Pat Aiken, a club pro from Portland, who noticed
that Jacobsen's legs were moving during his stroke. Cured,
Jacobsen took only 25 putts in his final-round 65. "Hopefully,
I'm back on track," he says. "All in all, I'm very happy."
Woody Austin is not. The Tour's rookie of the year in 1995, he
made a cut for only the sixth time in 29 starts but left just as
disgusted as when he arrived, muttering something about finding
a new line of work. His closing 79 wiped out a modest but
hard-earned three-under-par total after 54 holes, and he remains
about $60,000 short of what he needs to keep his card for '98.
Austin's at zero and holding on the confidence meter. He missed
11 cuts in a row early in the year, going 0 for February, March
and April. "I'm lost," he says. "I'm not shooting 80, that's the
only good thing. My problem is I don't have much time. I've got
only six tournaments left or I'm back to hell, which is where I
don't want to go." To Tour players, hell is the Tour's
qualifying tournament, better known as Q school.
Austin's slide began when his uncle Skip Crawford died the day
after last Christmas. Crawford once played for the Washington
Generals, the designated victims of the Harlem Globetrotters,
and he and Austin were close. "I spent New Year's at a funeral,"
Austin says. "That's a hard way to start the year." Shortly
thereafter, Austin's wife, Shannon, lost one of her best
friends, her grandmother. Austin withdrew from the Hawaiian Open
to attend the funeral. "And all this time I'm playing like a
dog, trying to figure out what's going on," he says. Nine weeks
later, after the Masters, Austin discovered that the glasses he
had worn since the start of the year were the wrong
prescription, which helped explain those six four-putts on the
West Coast and a lot of other bad shots. "My eyes were so bad I
couldn't make a putt from anywhere," says Austin, who's a
below-average putter to begin with. "At first the ground looked
like it was going in six different directions. I'd line up a
putt and ask my caddie, 'I've got it left edge, don't I?' He'd
say, 'No, you got it two feet left of the hole.'" A new
optometrist laughed when she checked Austin's eyes and saw his
prescription. "She said, 'Your depth perception is terrible,'"
says Austin. "'There's no way you could play golf.'"
New specs helped, but Austin's confidence was shot. He has
always been hard on himself, and now he has turned negative. In
the second round at Pleasant Valley, for example, Austin's
approach shot to the 11th green hit the front collar and kicked
well past the pin. "When this year's over, I'm going to
celebrate just because it's over," was his response. Then he
made the 30-footer for birdie anyway. On the next hole Austin
chunked a pitching wedge, left a sand wedge short and scrambled
for an ugly bogey. "Why are you afraid to hit the shot?" he
said, berating himself.
A self-taught player who fought his way onto the Tour after
eight years of odd jobs, including a stint as a bank teller,
Austin has no one to go to for swing help. "Did somebody put
Woody on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED unbeknownst to us?"
asked Tim Mork, Austin's caddie. "We're looking for any excuse.
The most difficult thing is to see so much talent and to solve
the insolvable--what's different?"
Austin's stats, for one thing. The most obvious decline is in
his driving. Last year he ranked eighth in total driving, which
combines distance and accuracy. After Pleasant Valley, he stood
at 146th. On the range Austin still drives it straight, but on
the course he loses control. "It's hard to describe how it feels
to have no strength in your arms, but that's how I feel over
certain shots," he says. "It's still a muscle memory game. If
your muscles die, how are you going to hit a shot? If your arms
feel like limp noodles, try to hit a shot. That's how I feel
under the gun right now."
Whatever mechanical problems Austin developed have long since
turned into mental hazards. Last week he played a solid first
round but shot even-par 71. Distraught, he said he would need a
69 the next day and couldn't imagine how he would do it. Yet he
did, then held together for a third-round 70. On Sunday, though,
Austin made three double-bogeys on the front nine and plunged to
71st place, 23 shots behind Roberts. It's difficult to believe
that he's the same guy who won the Buick Open two years ago,
shared the first-round lead of the '96 U.S. Open and, at the Bob
Hope Chrysler Classic last January, when his ball was up against
a bush, swung a five-iron lefthanded, with the club head upside
down, hitting a 150-yard shot that bounced off the pin and
stopped three inches away. "I laughed all the way to the green,"
Mork says. "I said, 'Woody, do you have any idea how good you
Austin did two years ago, when he wasn't shy about saying that
he felt he was as good a ball striker as anyone in the
world--and he may well have been. "I couldn't imagine all the
things that have gone wrong this year," he says. "For the first
time in my life the game is beating me up so bad that I don't
want to play. It has worn me out."
There is still time for Austin to get well before the season
ends. Come to think of it, there isn't a better time.