Fresh Start Clark Dennis nearly won the '94 Open. He was a different man at this one

June 24, 2001

One good week can change your life, your professional life,
anyhow. That's what Clark Dennis was thinking last week. Four
good rounds of golf, that's all he needed and all he wanted.

Everything was in his favor. He had grown up playing Colonial
Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, so he felt right at home in
Tulsa's heat and in the frizzy bermuda rough of Southern Hills.
He was playing, as the oilmen he grew up with would say, real
good. On June 4 he was the comedalist in his 36-hole qualifier at
Northwood Club in Dallas, site of the 1952 Open. He plays tough
courses well, and the national championship is his favorite
tournament. He had tied for sixth at the Open in '94, when the
heat and the wicked greens made Oakmont hellish. Dennis reveled
in it, finishing only four shots out of the playoff, which was
won by Ernie Els.

He woke up before dawn last Thursday and headed for the course.
His tee time was 6:40, and he was in the second group of the day.
At that hour the greens would not be trampled, and his group
would never be shackled to a tee for a half hour waiting to play.
His teacher would be following him, as would his Fort Worth
buddies and his mother. His brother would be on the bag. All
good. His wife, Vickie, the center of his universe, would be
there. So would his five-year-old son, Will, the oldest of his
three boys.

Dennis looked at the clubhouse flags. Damn windy for six-forty,
he thought. It was a hook wind, out of the south, on a hooker's
course. Clark's a fader. Not ideal, but no matter. He could have
used a little more sleep, losing an hour to late calls from
well-meaning friends. No matter. The baby, Philip, 16 months old,
was back home with Vickie's mother (along with three-year-old
Thomas) and suffering through an ear infection. A distraction,
but Dennis would block it out. The first tournament of the rest
of his life was about to begin, and he was ready. He striped one,
hit the approach to 20 feet and holed the putt. He opened with a
birdie, the first birdie of the 101st U.S. Open, the first Tour
event of Clark's year. The game was on, and so was he.

"This is the most important tournament of his life," Vance Minter
was saying on Wednesday night. Minter, a friend of the family, is
like a father to Dennis, whose dad, a boom-and-bust oilman, died
12 years ago. Minter made his money in concrete. He knows golf;
he knows Dennis. "If he can have a great week, he can make his
whole year; he can make his whole career," he says. "If he can
get back on Tour, he'll stay there."

Dennis played college golf with John Daly at Arkansas and joined
the Tour in 1990, a 23-year-old engaged to marry the former
Vickie Vargas of Ozona, a tiny west Texas town. He finished in a
tie for third in his third start, the '90 Hawaiian Open, and
earned $52,000. "I didn't even play well," says Dennis. "I
thought, This is going to be easy."

He now knows what every golfer since Walter Hagen has known: Pro
golf is never easy. In his career Dennis has played in 207 Tour
events and made the cut in only 88. He has played in 82
Hogan-Nike-Buy.com tournaments and made the cut in only 49. All
told he has earned $1,348,355. In 2000 he made $16,917. In 2001,
going into the U.S. Open, he has made $2,520, in a Buy.com event.
He's 35 and has no status on any tour. Right now he's playing on
memories, of the '94 Open in particular, the highlight of his
golfing life because it proved to him that he could play with
anybody.

As he made the turn on that Father's Day seven years ago, paired
with Fred Couples, he was smack dab in the middle of the leader
board. Then he missed the 11th fairway by a foot, had to wedge
out and made bogey. He three-jacked the 16th for another bogey.
He stiffed a wedge to inside 10 feet on 17 and missed the birdie
putt, then hit an eight-iron to eight feet on 18--his best shot of
the week--and missed again. Four shots. "That's why I wasn't in
the playoff," he says.

The tape in his head that plays those shots again and again wore
thin years ago. "Back then I wasn't mentally ready to be in that
situation," Dennis says. "I've learned some things."

Especially in the past 16 months. On Feb. 3, 2000, Philip Dennis
was born at Harris Methodist Hospital in downtown Fort Worth.
Vickie's pregnancy and delivery went off without a hitch, and the
Dennis family, now numbering five, was a happy and healthy one.
Yes, there was the matter of Clark's golf game, which had been in
a funk. In 1999 he had played in 33 Tour events, made only 11
cuts and finished 162nd on the money list.

Still, his game would come around. It always had. He realized
that he had been working on the wrong things. Dennis had seen the
ascent of Tiger Woods and changed his swing, trying to find more
length. Now he was returning to his old teacher and his old ways:
short and straight, keep the ball in play, fairways and greens,
Open-style golf. He would gain his distance through fitness and
flexibility, not swing changes.

On the morning of Feb. 4, Clark, Vickie and Philip were in her
hospital room watching Good Morning America when Clark called his
trainer to tell him he wouldn't be coming in that morning so he
could spend time with his wife and baby. Vickie urged him to go.
She felt great. Besides, she said, it's rude to cancel a half
hour before your scheduled workout. She was doing, she says, "the
wife thing." That was about the last thing she remembers from
that day.

As soon as Clark hung up his cell phone, Vickie's body went
berserk. She turned blue, started foaming at the mouth and cried
hysterically. Her head throbbed with pain so intense, Vickie
says, that had she had a handgun, she would have used it on
herself. (Before that she had no understanding of what would
drive a person to suicide. At that moment she understood
exactly.) Clark was screaming for nurses and doctors when
Vickie's body suddenly went stiff. Her blood pressure shot up to
244 over 122. She went into a coma. A half-dozen doctors
surrounded her, their purpose to keep her alive. It was an
extreme and bizarre case of toxemia, they concluded, unlike
anything they had ever seen. They were mystified.

After about a week she came out of her coma and was sent home,
heavily medicated. Within 12 hours she was stricken again. Clark
never left her side, didn't sleep, didn't eat, as Vickie remained
mostly comatose. Her mother, Veva Vargas, joined the vigil.
Vargas's ancestry is a mishmash--Spanish, Mexican, Native
American--and she blends various cultures in her spiritual life.
In the hospital she took a raw egg and held it to her daughter's
head, an Indian custom, and prayed in Spanish. Curar de ojo, a
healing eye, that was what the egg was. The mother concluded the
ceremony by breaking the egg and emptying it into a glass of
water.

After five days, with the same mystery with which the illness
arrived, it departed. Vickie awoke to hear her husband sobbing in
despair. Her first words were "Where's my baby?" Then Clark began
sobbing with happiness. His wife, the mother of his boys, was
alive. The illness and the recovery remain largely unexplained.
Clark and Vickie have been living with changed lives and changed
attitudes ever since.

Last Thursday morning Vickie and Clark's mother walked Southern
Hills together. They didn't always get along, but now they do.
Vickie was barefoot, carrying her sandals in her hands. Her
mother-in-law, Miss Daisy, was bejeweled, blonde and skinny as a
schoolgirl. Daisy Dennis and Vickie Dennis could not be more
different. The daughter-in-law has a master's degree in bilingual
education; she wrote her thesis in Spanish. The mother-in-law
once sang under the name Daisy Dean. She was featured with the
Ted Straeter Orchestra when it was the house band at the Plaza
Hotel in New York City a half century ago. L.W. (Dub) Dennis,
heard her sing at a Houston nightspot, the Cork Club, and asked
for her hand in marriage that night.

"Now I'm a sportswoman," Daisy said early in their marriage.
"What's your favorite sport?"

"Golf," the oilman said.

"Then golf will be our family sport," she replied.

They had five boys, all golfers. They kept up their membership at
Colonial during good times and bad, and there were plenty of the
latter. Everything Dub made he put back into the ground, a
gambling oilman. The fourth boy, Clark, took the opposite tack.
He has about every dollar he ever made, or near enough. The other
day at Southern Hills he was having lunch with an old friend,
Jesper Parnevik. "How do you live?" the high-living Swede
wondered.

"We just do," Clark answered. They live in a five-bedroom house,
5,000 square feet, with a pool in the back, two trucks in the
driveway, a Little League field 15 minutes away. Will's team, the
Yankees of the West Side Lions Little League, went 9-3. Clark was
the dugout assistant.

At Southern Hills last Thursday, Clark followed his birdie with a
bogey, then another after that, then a double. "Clark hates to
start with a birdie," Miss Daisy said, inventing theories to
explain poor results, as mothers do. "He thinks it brings him bad
luck." He shot 79 for the opening round. Most of the problem was
with his driving--he was trying to hit fades into the hook wind.
Of the 66 golfers who completed their rounds in the high winds
that day, only six shot higher scores.

Dennis returned to Southern Hills for Friday's second round,
grinding his way around the lethal track, clinging to his dream
of going low, making the cut, having a good weekend, making a
good check. The day was gorgeous, but his game wasn't. He shot 77
and missed the cut by 10 strokes.

Minter had it partially correct. The Open at Southern Hills would
have been the most important tournament in Dennis's golfing
life--if he had played well. When he didn't, the tournament didn't
mean a thing. When Clark got back to the hotel, he went swimming
with his boy and played catch with him. He didn't look like a pro
golfer who had just shot a 156. He looked like a happy man.

"When you've been through what we've been through, your
priorities change," Dennis says. "In '94, at Oakmont, I thought I
needed to win tournaments to be a contented man. Now I realize
that I am a contented man. But I still need golf."

That's why he knows his game will come back. Not in a day, not in
a week, but it will come back. Whether it does or does not, he
also knows this: It's not a matter of life or death.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Perfect match The seizure changed Clark and Vickie's outlook on life, making his success as a pro golfer less of a priority. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SIMON BRUTY Even though Clark missed the cut, he's still a big hit with his son Will.

Vickie's body suddenly went berserk. She turned blue, started
foaming at the mouth and cried hysterically.

"In '94 I thought I needed to win to be a contented man,"
says Dennis. "Now I realize I am a contented man."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)