Atlanta's East Lake Golf Club is a study in contrasts. Flapping
flags punctuate its silky greens, but razor wire tops the fence
at a body shop on nearby Memorial Drive. The Tudor clubhouse,
lovingly restored, is just three blocks from a two-door Pontiac,
stripped and abandoned. The canopy of the urban forest shades
both the attractive ranch houses on the course's western
boundary and the ramshackle bungalows that served as drug houses
when the once frightening neighborhood earned its nickname,
So it was only mildly hallucinatory last week when luxury cars
packed the 'hood and 30 of the world's best golfers showed up to
compete for $4 million in prize money. As the centerpiece of one
of the nation's most unusual urban renewal projects, East Lake
was just serving up its latest miracle.
The Tour Championship is the PGA Tour's richest tournament and,
some would say, its crassest. It started in 1987 as the Nabisco
Championships of Golf, and the Tour's commissioner at the time,
Deane Beman, expected it to achieve the hallowed status of a
major. Instead, his season-ender has become an autumnal rite in
which the pagan traditions of Halloween and Easter are joined in
what amounts to a rich man's Easter-egg hunt. This year's
winner, Hal Sutton, earned $720,000, while the last-place
finisher, Nick Price, collected $64,000--which is roughly $4,000
for every stroke he finished over par.
The Tour Championship has also been the tape stretched across
the finish line for players chasing season honors. At East Lake,
David Duval won the money title, topping Vijay Singh by a score
of $2,591,031 to $2,238,998. John Huston finished first in the
unremunerative and meaningless all-around statistical category,
while Duval squeaked by Tiger Woods for the Vardon Trophy, which
goes to the player with the lowest scoring average. (Woods wore
a Darnell Hillman-style Afro wig when he teed off last Saturday
morning--not wanting to be taken, apparently, for the fellow who
was 11 over par after two rounds. He finished with a pair of
one-under 69s, but Duval shot a 31 on his final nine and won the
Vardon, 69.13 to 69.21.)
November 9, 1998
So ends the Tour Championship as we have come to know it. Next
year it will be a mere warmup for the World Championship Stroke
Play, at Valderrama, in Spain, one of three new megatournaments
being staged jointly by the world's five major tours. The Stroke
Play, scheduled for the week after the Tour Championship, will
pay a million dollars to its winner, and all prize money and
stats will be considered official on the PGA Tour. How fitting,
then, that the Tour plunked this Tour Championship--an event
destined for an identity crisis--into a neighborhood struggling
to reinvent itself.
East Lake's story is the more compelling of the two. The course
was designed in 1913 by the legendary Donald Ross and made famous
in the 1920s through the exploits of its best player, a young
amateur by the name of Bobby Jones. By the early '70s, though,
the club was in decline. A low-income, public-housing project,
East Lake Meadows, went up across the street from the 4th
fairway, and that frightened away the prosperous Atlantans, who
took their golf dollars to the Atlanta Athletic Club, Atlanta
Country Club and other suburban shelters. In the early '90s
embattled East Lake boarded up its clubhouse and sold memberships
for as little as $300 a year.
Enter Tom Cousins, an Atlanta developer with the curious notion
that golf could be an engine for neighborhood revitalization. In
the mid-'90s Cousins acquired the East Lake course and donated
it to the non-profit East Lake Community Foundation. He then
enticed the leaders of 40 U.S. companies to buy $50,000
corporate memberships, using the proceeds and money from his
family's trust to restore the course and clubhouse to their
former glory. In addition, each corporation donated $200,000 to
the foundation to assist with neighborhood revitalization. In
the last two years 75% of the dilapidated Meadows project has
been demolished and replaced by a gated, mixed-income
development called East Lake Villages. The foundation is also
building an 18-hole executive course and a practice facility for
the East Lake Junior Golf Academy, which provides a
five-days-a-week after-school program for neighborhood children.
"As wild as the idea seemed, it appears it's going to work,"
Cousins says. "These kids see a future now, instead of wondering
if they're going to be shot in a drug raid."
The Tour's involvement was fortuitous, but timely. East Lake
caught the eye of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem through his
work with The First Tee, a World Golf Foundation program that
takes the game to youngsters from low-income and minority
families. Finchem made Cousins a stunning offer: to hold the '98
Tour Championship at East Lake with The First Tee and the East
Lake foundation splitting the profits.
The result was last week's meeting of pros and program. "It's
fabulous," said Fred Couples, dazzled by East Lake's fast greens,
white-sand bunkers and thick bermuda rough. "It's inspiring,"
echoed Steve Stricker, referring to more than the golf course.
"It shows the world what this area has done and what other cities
With so much talk of renewal and reinvention, it figured that
some player would offer himself as poster boy for the cause.
That someone turned out to be Hal Sutton, a 40-year-old,
square-jawed Louisianan with a rebuilt swing, a revamped psyche,
and a marriage jones (he is on his fourth). The 1980 U.S.
Amateur champion, Sutton found instant success as a pro, winning
a PGA Championship and six other Tour events between 1982 and
'86, leading the money list in '83 and playing on two Ryder Cup
teams. His game then took a dive that saw him go eight years
without a win. "I went through a situation where I was not
living up to everybody else's expectations," he says. "So I
started to make changes."
Sutton changed swing coaches. He changed swings. He changed
wives. If you had asked him to, he would have changed shirts
with you. "Anybody that had a comment, I listened to it," he says.
He hit what he calls rock bottom in 1992, when he finished out of
the money in 21 of 29 tournaments and was 185th on the money
list. There were times when he struck the ball so poorly he was
afraid to practice with the other pros.
Sutton's comeback began, strangely enough, about the time Cousins
started restoring East Lake. Working again with Floyd Horgen, his
old coach, Sutton rebuilt his swing from the spikes up. In 1994
he cracked the top 25 in 15 tournaments and boosted his official
earnings from $75,000 the previous year to more than half a
million. Sutton broke his victory drought in '95, and as recently
as September he won again, at the Texas Open.
At East Lake, though, Sutton wasn't thinking of victory. For one
thing, he thought the course favored a high-trajectory shot, and
he keeps the ball low. For another, he didn't think he could
catch Singh, who shot a course-record 63 in the opening round.
Singh held the lead after each of first three days of
competition, but by Saturday night Sutton and Jim Furyk had
moved within one stroke.
Sunday's final round was not short on drama. Sutton took the
lead when Singh made some early bogeys. Then Furyk, the Ryder
Cupper with the swing by Salvador Dali, holed a fairway wedge on
the 9th to tie Sutton at five under. But it came down to just
the two, Singh and Sutton, and the difficult 18th, a 240-yard
par-3. Sutton, trailing by a stroke, hit four-wood and found a
bunker, while Singh covered the flag with his three-iron.
Singh's ball, though, skipped into the thick collar grass behind
the green. Sutton saved his par from the sand, and Singh
bogeyed, forcing a playoff.
Same hole, same clubs, but this time it was Sutton's four-wood
that flew true, landing on the upslope and rolling to a halt five
feet behind the hole. Sutton made the putt to win the playoff,
feeling, no doubt, the way many East Lake residents felt when the
bulldozers finally smashed the yellow-brick walls of the Meadows
project: renewed. "Are you back?" someone asked him later.
"When I stand on the tee and look down the fairway, I see the
fairway," Sutton said, sounding like a Zen master. "I don't see
the rough. When I was down at rock bottom, all I saw was the
It was left to Finchem to stretch Sutton's analogy over time and
ocean. Asked what will happen to the Tour Championship next
year, once it is stripped of its season-ending sizzle, the
commissioner professed to see nothing but fairway ahead. "It's
just a change from a one-week wrap-up to a two-week wrap-up," he
said. "One of the troubles we have in the fall is getting fans
to identify with our season. We think having two blockbusters,
back- to-back, will grab their attention."
Maybe. A better guess is that Finchem will have to reinvent the
Tour Championship, linking it permanently to The First Tee and
similar not-for-profit foundations. He hinted at this on Sunday
when he announced that the Tour Championship will return to East
Lake in 2000. "Part of our strategy," Cousins says, "is to
provide a blueprint to others."
Today a blueprint, tomorrow a scorecard. Late on Saturday
afternoon, as the last of the tournament traffic whooshed past
what remains of the East Lake Meadows housing project, a teenage
boy and a young man hit golf balls across an empty field. Between
shots, they paused to compare grips and talk--teacher and student
sharing the secrets of the game.
In a landscape of despair, a foundation was being laid.
"[East Lake] is inspiring," says Stricker. "It shows the world
what this area has done and what other cities can do."