Ladies and gentlemen, Corey Pavin has reentered the building.
The evidence suggests that the 2 1/2-year slump that has dogged
Pavin, the 1995 U.S. Open champion and the heart and soul of the
1993 and '95 Ryder Cup teams, may be ending.
Exhibit A: Two weeks ago, in the first round of the Byron Nelson
Classic, in which he would finish 18th, Pavin shot the quietest
63 in memory. His score went unnoticed because Tiger Woods had a
61 and superstar-in-waiting Sergio Garcia a 62 on the same day.
"On the [490-yard] 3rd hole we outdrove Corey by a hundred
yards," says Brandel Chamblee, who along with Billy Ray Brown
was playing with Pavin. "He hit four-wood, and we hit
seven-irons. We barely hit the green, and Corey hit it to two
feet. I guess that's how you win U.S. Opens."
Shades of Shinnecock Hills and the most memorable shot of any
Open played in the '90s, the pin-seeking four-wood from the 72nd
fairway, a frozen rope that bounced onto the green, cozied up to
the hole and clinched the tournament.
Exhibit B: Pavin held the lead after 36 holes last week at the
MasterCard Colonial in Fort Worth thanks to a second-round 64.
He was pretty sure that was the first time he had been in the
lead in a Tour event since winning the '96 Colonial, after which
his slump began. Despite a tepid 74 in last Saturday's third
round, when his putter--yes, his putter--failed him, Pavin
stayed within striking distance on Sunday. He shot a 68, which
left him in 11th place at five under par, only three strokes
behind winner Olin Browne, who celebrated his 40th birthday by
sinking a par-saving eight-footer on the final green to win by a
May 30, 1999
There were a lot of bodies between Browne, who put up a pair of
66s on the weekend, and Pavin, but only three shots? That isn't
much. "He sounded a little tired and disappointed," said Gary
Smith, Pavin's Orlando-based teacher, after taking a phone call
from him. "It's different when you're disappointed because you
didn't win than when you're disappointed because you're missing
cuts. It's nice to see his hard work paying off. I think Corey
is ready." Pavin had called Smith to confirm that he was flying
in for a practice session the next day.
Exhibit C: Pavin's game was starting to rise at the end of the
'98 season. In November in Brisbane, Australia, he lost a
playoff for the ANZ Players Championship to Aussie Stephen
Leaney, who one-putted 10 of the last 11 holes he played. "He
didn't like that very much, but he was very diplomatic," Leaney
says. "I'm sure he's holed a few putts on other people during
Exhibit D: Pavin's numbers are up this year. He has five top 25
finishes, one more than in the last two years combined, and two
top 10s--a fifth in the MCI Classic and a seventh in the Tucson
Open. He has already won $52,920 more than he totaled during the
two slump years. The numbers also show that Pavin is striking
the ball well. He tied Joe Durant for first in fairways hit at
Colonial and tied for sixth in greens in regulation. Pavin was
an uncharacteristic 51st in putting, which suggests that if he'd
had even an average week with the putter, he would have been the
one trying on one of those lovely plaid jackets they give the
Colonial winner. "He's hitting those old Corey Pavin shots,"
says CBS analyst David Feherty, who walked all 18 holes on
Saturday with Pavin and John Cook, the final twosome. "On some
tee shots the highest they got was when they were on the tee."
Pavin used to be a one-man highlight film, the master of
recovery. Remember the '91 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island when,
wearing a camouflage hat during his singles match, he charged
out of a greenside bunker at the 17th hole like Teddy Roosevelt
at San Juan Hill and chased his ball toward the hole? Or the
shot he holed from the fairway en route to a front-nine 30 while
partnering Jim Gallagher in four-ball at the '93 Ryder Cup at
the Belfry? Or the chip-in at the 18th green to stun Bernhard
Langer and Nick Faldo at Oak Hill in '95? These are enduring
At the moment, though, Pavin is working on the most important
recovery of his career. He had been among the Tour's top 20
money winners in 10 of 13 years from 1984 to '96, and in 1995
was ranked as high as No. 5 in the world. Then, almost
overnight, the bottom fell out. From the middle of the '96
season until last fall, he was invisible, missing 23 cuts, more
than he had missed in the previous 6 1/2 years. Even now,
Pavin's not sure what went wrong. "It's a mystery," he says. "I
still don't know what happened with my swing. By the time I
figured out there was a problem, it was a huge problem. I
remember finishing in the top 10 at the '96 World Series, and it
was not pretty. I hit it horrible. I got up and down from
everywhere. I thought it was just a phase and that my swing
would come back. I was wrong." He allows himself a wry smile,
then says, "First time ever."
Tour pros fear slumps because they know that the next one may be
fatal. "I hate to compare it to cancer," Pavin says, "but if you
don't catch cancer early, it spreads, and pretty soon you're in a
lot of trouble."
When Pavin's swing started going south, he got by on his short
game. Then he landed a new equipment deal in '97, and as his
game continued to deteriorate, some observers concluded that his
problem was the new clubs. As the season wore on, his goal
became making the Ryder Cup team. The only way he could do that
was as a wild-card pick, and his last chance to impress captain
Tom Kite came at the PGA Championship at Winged Foot.
Pavin figured he had to win the tournament and actually felt
good about his chances, but he never teed it up. His father,
Jack, died two days before the opening round, so Pavin withdrew
and rushed home. "That put the Ryder Cup into perspective in a
hurry," Pavin says.
A month later, as the matches were being played in Spain, Pavin
began working with Smith at the B.C. Open in upstate New York.
Smith saw that Pavin's downswing was too steep, that his club
face was too open at the top of the backswing and that his left
wrist was too cupped. As a result he either hit weak shots to
the right or flipped over his hands and pulled the ball. "I was
swinging so poorly for so long, my bad swings became
comfortable," Pavin says. "A good swing felt uncomfortable. It's
very difficult to hit shots confidently with a swing that
doesn't feel right."
Smith says Pavin's swing was back on track by the '98 Masters,
but his confidence level was still low. Getting him to believe
in himself took the rest of the year. Now, at 39, Pavin is again
a player with something to prove. "I feel as if I have lots of
golf left," he says. "I can definitely feel a rise in my game
since December. I've taken a few big steps in the last couple of
weeks. I want to make sure my expectations stay where they
That would be somewhere in the vicinity of those of Greg Kraft,
who tied the Colonial course record last week with a 61 in the
third round and eventually tied for second with four other
players, and Browne, who eagled both of Colonial's par-5s during
his final round. Browne's first Tour victory came at Hartford
less than a year ago. Win number 2 might have a ticket into next
month's U.S. Open at Pinehurst attached, as well as a lifetime
pass to the Colonial. Browne was tickled. "As my old man would
say, I just backed my butt into a tub of butter," he said.
"I still don't know what happened... I thought it was a phase
and that my swing would come back," says Pavin. "I was wrong."