It was just as well that most of the world's best players were
either too exhausted or too unnerved by the Masters to come to
Greensboro, N.C., last week for one of the PGA Tour's
tradition-rich events. The Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic
would not have helped them sleep any easier.
The ferocious rough at Forest Oaks Country Club--at least four
inches longer than the tallest blade at Augusta
National--wouldn't have kept them awake nights. They saw
gnarlier stuff at last year's PGA Championship at Winged Foot
and expect it at every U.S. Open. No, the scariest thing about
the 60th Greater Greensboro Classic was the way it reminded
everyone that pro golf, like real life, is bereft of sure
things. You want a guarantee? Try a muffler repair shop.
Look and learn, David Duval, Ernie Els, Justin Leonard, Phil
Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods, et al. The lesson of
Greensboro was that today's hot commodity is often tomorrow's
Take Hal Sutton. Bottled under the Next Nicklaus label after he
won the 1983 PGA at age 25, he has had one victory in the past
12 years. Still the owner of one of the sweetest swings on the
Tour, Sutton was looking like a contender for two rounds last
week. Then he began to putt like a high-mileage 40-year-old and
stumbled to a closing 75 despite an ace on the 12th hole. "That
was about the only thing I did right all day," he grumbled.
Well, almost right. If Sutton had waited and aced the 17th hole,
he would have won a car.
May 3, 1998
Then there was 33-year-old Scott Verplank, the once-mighty 1984
U.S. Amateur champ. The first amateur to win a Tour event in 31
years when he beat Jim Thorpe in a playoff in the '85 Western
Open, Verplank was beset by injuries a few years after he turned
pro. Struggling to come back, he at one point missed 22
consecutive cuts. Last week Verplank provided the tournament's
most dramatic moment, holing a must-make 35-foot birdie putt on
the 72nd green to force a playoff, which he then lost. "It was
pretty cool making all those people yell and spill their
Budweisers," said Verplank, whose only win as a pro came at the
1988 Buick Open, unless you count December's Q school, which he
won by four strokes while taking advantage of the Casey Martin
rule and riding a cart.
Don't overlook Trevor Dodds, the man who beat Verplank to win in
Greensboro. A native of Namibia, which was known as Southwest
Africa when he was born there in 1959, Dodds began his pro
career in 1985 but despite several successful trips to Q school
could never crack the top 125 on the PGA Tour. He had fallen all
the way to the Canadian tour by last season when, in June, he
earned a spot in the Nike Miami (Ohio) Valley Open. He won and
then discovered that he had testicular cancer.
Dodds underwent surgery and followed up with radiation
treatments. Despite not touching a club for six weeks, he put up
eight more top 10 finishes to place fifth on the Nike money list
and win a spot on the big Tour this year. When he beat Verplank
with an anticlimactic par on the first playoff hole, Dodds
ensured that he would retain his Tour card for only the second
time in 10 years.
Bob Estes, 32, used to be somebody too. The winner of the 1988
Fred Haskins Award as the top collegiate player, Estes left
Texas and hit the Tour running in '89. A perfectionist in the
style of Ben Hogan, he steadily climbed the money list and
peaked in 1994, when he won the Texas Open. Then, in '96, he hit
the wall and fell to 149th in earnings. Earlier this year he
began to change practically everything about his game--his
swing, his equipment, his approach. A win last week would have
been a crowning achievement, and all he had to do was par the
final two holes. Instead, he bogeyed them both to fall a stroke
short of the playoff.
Greensboro loomed as a $2.2 million opportunity for the Tour's B
list of players. The weeks following the Masters are normally a
dead zone for the marquee names, many of whom take vacation time
before gearing up again later this month for a run at the U.S.
Open. Last week others, like Leonard and Davis Love III, took
time off so they would be fresh to collect fat appearance fees
for teeing it up this week in Japan. Only three of the world's
top 20 players--and none of the top seven--played in Greensboro.
For that matter, only 19 golfers who competed in the Masters
showed up, and just five of those were among the top 25 at
Augusta. Mark O'Meara, the guy with the newest green jacket,
gets a gold star for honoring his commitment to Greensboro. He
refused to plead fatigue despite having played the week before
at Harbour Town and dutifully wore out his autograph pen before
narrowly missing the cut at Forest Oaks.
By the time the tournament reached the climactic final nine
holes, the spotlight was focused on former college rivals Dodds
(Lamar), Estes (Texas) and Verplank (Oklahoma State). "This is
the way it should've been--or like we feel it should've been--a
lot sooner," Estes said. "This is the way we dreamed it would be
when we were winning tournaments in college and amateur golf,
although Verplank won most of them."
Verplank was can't-miss all the way. An accurate driver and a
gifted putter, he was the Man when he added the '86 NCAA title
to his Amateur and Western victories. "Verplank might've been
one of the top 10 players in the world his last year of
college," Estes says. "He would've done what Tiger has done if
he had been able to stay healthy."
Verplank was still on track in '88 when he won the Buick, and
continued to put up solid numbers through the 1990 season,
although by then he had already spent time on the sidelines
because of a diabetic condition that he was forced to treat as
seriously as his golf. The crash came in '91, when his
degenerative left elbow had to be surgically repaired by Dr.
Frank Jobe. The condition cost Verplank three seasons. He
returned to the Tour in 1994 and started to play well late in
the '95 season, only to discover a few months later that his
other elbow needed surgery, a setback that he had difficulty
dealing with. "You lose confidence in your body," Verplank says.
"I was in a bad mood for eight or 10 months. I didn't want to
get a real job. I wanted to keep playing golf. I knew if I could
stay healthy, I had a good 10 years to raise my game. When I
started a long time ago, I didn't think I was going to dominate
like Tiger Woods has a chance to do, but I thought I could win.
When you're a kid and you play like I did, you feel bulletproof.
You think you're going to knock it dead for 25 years. Well, it
turned out that wasn't the case."
Based on Verplank's play last week, we probably haven't seen the
last of him. He tied for first in putting and ranked third in
driving accuracy. He got into the hunt midway through the third
round when he backed a wedge shot into the cup for an eagle at
the 9th hole. He gamely hung in there on Sunday even after
fluffing a risky flop shot that led to a costly bogey at the
par-5 15th. By the time he got to the 18th tee, Verplank was a
stroke behind Dodds, who was in at 12 under par after a
superlative 69. Verplank left his approach about 35 feet short
of the hole, but something about the way he stalked the putt
gave you the feeling he expected to make it. "He just rammed it
in. It was awesome," said Skip Kendall, who got into the final
pairing with Verplank after a third-round 63, then struggled
home with a 78 in Sunday's gusty winds.
The tournament had appeared to belong to Estes, whom CBS
commentator Gary McCord used to call Robo-Pro because of his
meticulous, mechanical preparation. When Estes holed a 25-foot
par-saving putt from the fringe at the 14th to maintain a
two-stroke lead, it looked like the shot of the day, but he
missed the green to bogey the par-3 17th and three-putted from
30 feet for another bogey at 18. "Coming to those last four
holes, I didn't doubt I was going to win," Estes said. "I was
hitting it too good and putting pretty good. I thought for sure
it was mine, but golf is a game of fractions of inches."
The playoff was brief. Verplank's drive at the par-4 18th hole
found the heavy rough. His lie was so bad that he couldn't reach
the green in two. Dodds, who had birdied the 426-yard hole all
four rounds, put his tee shot in the fairway a dozen feet from
the spot that he had hit from earlier in the day. He stuck his
approach within 10 feet of the hole. After Verplank pitched on
and missed his par putt, Dodds two-putted for the win.
Considering where these two players have been, they both seemed
like winners. "I haven't been a great second-place finisher in
the past," Verplank said, "but at this point I'm happy I held it
together and played good enough to win. I was just a whisker
The victory opened a world of opportunities for Dodds, not the
least of which is the chance to make good on a promise he made
to himself years ago. He pledged to turn down all offers to play
Augusta National until he qualified for the Masters.
The money, and the man who handed it over, were also pretty
cool. The $396,000 first-prize check and the newly renamed
trophy, the Sam Snead Cup, were presented by Slammin' Sammy
himself, an eight-time winner of this event. Earlier in the week
the 85-year-old Snead was seen hitting putts at a nearby course.
Naturally, a crowd gathered to watch, and before long a news
photographer showed up. "When I go to hell, there'll be a
f------ camera waiting," Snead growled.
Maybe there's a sure thing in golf after all.
"This is the way we dreamed it would be when we were in
college," Estes said.
"When you're a kid and you play like I did, you feel
bulletproof," Verplank says.