No Ordinary Joe After years of anonymity, Joe Durant was someone special at the Western Open

July 05, 1998

Golf's grimmest reality is that a player's next slump might be
the one that never ends. For examples, see Ian Baker-Finch, the
1991 British Open champ who is out of golf seven years later, or
Corey Pavin, the winner of the '95 U.S. Open who turned into a
nonfactor shortly thereafter, or Chip Beck, the hero of the '93
Ryder Cup who hasn't made a cut in his last 40 starts.

Slumps are beatable, of course, and most survivors come back
with a fuller understanding of their swing and a better
attitude. For example, see Joe Durant, the winner of last week's
Motorola Western Open who quit the game six years ago, or Steve
Stricker, the 1996 Western winner who lost his formula for
success in '97 but showed in the last two weeks that he has
found it again.

Last Saturday a suburban Chicago newspaper was the first to ask
the most obvious question about Durant when it ran the headline
JOE WHO? after he had taken the 36-hole lead at Cog Hill Golf
and Country Club. Durant, who hunted down a copy for a souvenir,
was not offended. "They got it right," he said, grinning.
"Nobody knew who I was, and probably won't know a week from now

Durant wasn't quite right. He had drawn attention a week earlier
by flirting with the early lead in the U.S. Open at Olympic, but
he dropped out of sight with a pair of 76s on the weekend. Last
week he showed more staying power, opening 68-67, putting up a
70 on Saturday and then leaving Vijay Singh, U.S. Open champion
Lee Janzen and Greg Kraft in his rearview mirror with a
nine-birdie 66 in the final round. That left him at 17-under-par
271 and holding a $396,000 check for his first PGA Tour victory,
as well as spots in this month's British Open and next year's
Masters. His name will be engraved alongside those of Walter
Hagen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Tom
Watson on the Western's venerable J.K. Wadley trophy, which
lists all the winners since the tournament, the oldest regular
Tour event, began in 1899.

Joe Who, 34, is a late-blooming Nike tour grad playing his
second full year on the big Tour. He grew up in Pensacola, Fla.,
and was a member of the NAIA Huntingdon (Ala.) College team from
1982 to '87. After graduating, Durant played the mini-tours
before qualifying for the Hogan (now Nike) tour in 1991. He
entered 27 events that year and made 16 cuts but won only
$16,095. That fall he lost a seven-man playoff to advance to the
final stage of Q school.

Frustrated by his lack of success and needing to support a wife,
Tracey, and a baby boy, Connor, who had been born that summer,
Durant quit playing and took a gofer job at a golf-equipment
retail house, filling orders and stacking boxes. He also earned
an insurance license, although he never put it to use. Durant's
foray into the real world rekindled his desire to play, and
Tracey urged him to give golf another try--only this time with a
more positive attitude. He had been out of the game for only six
months, "but it seemed like an eternity," Durant says.

He started at the bottom, sometimes with Tracey as his caddie,
and played his way up the ladder, reaching the Nike tour again
in 1994. In '96 he won his first tournament, the Nike
Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic, and finished the season with a
ticket to the big time by placing third on the Nike money list.

Durant is not likely to escape further notice. He ranks among
the most accurate drivers on Tour, which explains his success at
Olympic and Cog Hill, tough tracks with substantial rough. His
ball striking was also masterly at the Western. He hit 65 of the
72 greens in regulation, four short of the Tour record set in
1995 at Pebble Beach by Peter Jacobsen. But it was Durant's
decision last March to concentrate on his short game, especially
his putting, that has made the biggest difference. He worked
with a friend, Tommy Jennette, who took one look at Durant's
tense, death-grip technique and asked, "How in the world did you
finish 100th on the money list [in '97] with that short game?
You should've finished 200th."

At Cog Hill, Durant put the pieces together. "Putting makes all
the difference," he said. "Maybe I've only gone from 175th to
130th [actually from 117th to 68th] in the putting stats, but
for me that's significant. Now I can say I did it once, that I
beat the best players in the world. This is a dream come true."

Durant shared a hotel room at the Western with Skip Kendall,
whom he met on the mini-tours. "Joe is one of the best ball
strikers on Tour," says Kendall. "The U.S. Open gave him

Now the sky's the limit. Durant recently began taking flying
lessons. He pointed out a fancy corporate jet to Kendall last
week and joked, "Just play a little bit better, Skip, buy one of
those and I'll fly you around." On Sunday evening Kendall waited
at the scorer's tent to congratulate Durant after the finish and
give him the needle. "Give me a call when your head gets a
little less swollen," Kendall told his roomie.

Among those Durant left behind during the final round was
Stricker, who erased any lingering doubts about his own
comeback. Stricker's tie for fifth, with Kraft, was his fourth
top 10 finish in his last five starts.

Stricker, with his blond hair and powerful swing, looked like
the next Greg Norman in '96, when Stricker won twice, ranked
fourth on the money list and won a key singles match in the
Presidents Cup. Last year he never contended and quietly slipped
to 130th in earnings. "I had lost all confidence," says
Stricker, a soft-spoken 31-year-old from Edgerton, Wis. "What
goes through your mind is, Maybe I should give it up if this
continues. But then you say no and work harder."

What happened? A busy off-season spent cashing in on new
opportunities might've left Stricker fatigued and unprepared for
a new year, or maybe it was simply his driver. That was the club
he had struggled with until he found a driver that always seemed
to put him in the fairway in '96. With success, though, came a
big-money endorsement deal from another company, which demanded
that he switch drivers. Bad move. After he started slumping,
Stricker tried to go back to his old club, but the magic was
gone. "I went through a period when I struggled to find
something I was comfortable with," he says. "I'm not saying it
was the equipment. It was probably something in my head."

Whatever the root of the problem, it was deep enough that
Stricker took off the last two months of the '97 season. He came
back this year refreshed and with a new titanium driver. He had
some good moments--an opening 64 in Phoenix, a tie for seventh
in Hawaii and a solid joint sixth at Bay Hill. But a closing 81
in Greensboro, where he continually drove into the rough, had
him worried. "I told my caddie, 'The same stuff is happening
this year. I feel like I'm heading down that same alley,'"
Stricker says. "Something had to change."

That would be the driver, again. Stricker went to an older,
small-headed model in May in Atlanta. The results were
immediate. He was fifth the following week at the Nelson, tied
for eighth at the Kemper Open and for fifth in consecutive weeks
at the U.S. Open and the Western. "My bad drive with titanium
went left, and I really wasn't accurate with it," Stricker says.
"When I started hitting this club, my bad shot was a little bit
to the right, where I'd rather miss it."

By the time he got to Cog Hill, Stricker was riding a wave of
confidence. "I'm excited to be on the tee again," he says. "It
changes my whole outlook. This is what I remember about '96, the
way I played then. I have the ability to take a rip at it again.
I hit better shots, swing a little more freely, and that has
funneled down to all my clubs."

At Olympic he tied Lee Westwood for the most fairways hit, which
explains why Stricker, paired with eventual winner Lee Janzen,
was a contender until midway through the final round. "It
surprised me that I remained consistent off the tee there,"
Stricker says. "I always figured the Open would be one of the
hardest tournaments for me to win. I don't see myself as an
Open-type player."

Another factor in his turnaround has been the change in his
personal life. Stricker is excited that his wife, Nicki, who's
also his former caddie, is due to give birth to their first
child at the end of August. Veteran Tour caddie Jim Walker
replaced Nicki on Steve's bag, yielding an unexpected bonus.
"We're a lot happier off the course now," Stricker says. "We
never had any problems before, and if our relationship was going
to be tested at all, it was last year. But now when I get off
the course, we go to the mall and we're really happy to be
around each other. I know she's disappointed that she's not out
here. She says, 'Oh, you don't want me to caddie anymore, do
you?'" Stricker laughs. "I'd like to have her out here again,
but now I know how good it is for us off the course."

Nicki missed the action at sweltering Cog Hill, where
temperatures peaked in the high 90s, so that she could attend
her sister's wedding in Wisconsin. The event was carefully
scheduled so as not to conflict with the Western, but someone
had the wrong dates for the one tournament that, as a past
champion, Stricker absolutely had to enter. "I felt bad that I
missed the wedding, so I wanted to make playing here worth my
while," he said. "I did, I guess. It turned out pretty well. I
think I've got everything right where I want it."

So does Durant. Both players plan to tee it up in two weeks at
Royal Birkdale, where hitting the fairway is always critical.
Sounds perfect for these two now that they're back on track.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER RARE SIGHT Deadly accurate all week, Durant threatened the Tour record for greens in regulation by hitting 65 of 72 at Cog Hill. [Joe Durant chipping ball in tournament] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT Once Stricker finally figured out how to keep his tee shots in the fairway, the rest of his game came around, too. [Steve Stricker swinging golf club]

"What goes through your mind is, Maybe I should give it up,"
says Stricker.