Scott Free Scott Hoch can live with the incongruity of being described as both a cantankerous boor and a refreshing truth-teller. What bugs him is that after all these years, his game gets no respect

March 25, 2002

Scott Hoch is a graceful fellow who favors patterned polo shirts
and pleated slacks. He smiles a lot. His face is vaguely Roman,
lifted from the bust of some forgotten Caesar, and his curly
brown hair has thinned, leaving a bald spot. He's on the
Christmas-card list of chiropractors and orthopedic surgeons but
fit enough, at 46, to play with anybody on the PGA Tour. He has
a son and a daughter in high school, a big house on a lake in
Orlando and a garage full of golf clubs. Check out the framed
photograph in the foyer--that's Hoch at a pro-am with Bob Hope
and former presidents Ford, Bush and Clinton.

There's more to Hoch, of course, than first impressions can
convey. "You need to see this man on the dance floor," says
Sally, his wife of 21 years. "Then you'd see why I fell in love
with him." He gets equally high marks from his father, Art, a
retired physical-education instructor and minor league baseball
manager. "Scott never missed a day of school until 10th grade,"
Art said last week at the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando. "He
never smoked, he never drank, he had a paper route. He stayed at
Wake Forest and got his degree. How many do that?"

Hoch's pro-am partners find he's a lot more fun than they'd
expected. "He's an absolute gentleman," says Baltimore sports
attorney Lonnie Ritzer, who played with Hoch on March 12 at Bay
Hill Club and Lodge. "He doesn't stay in his own little world.
He reads your putts, he roots for the team, he makes it fun for
you." Hoch's business associates, on the other hand, say he is a
lot more serious than they'd expected. "Scott does everything in
a professional manner," says Tour vice president Sid Wilson,
"and no one is more generous to charities and to good causes."

Back at the Hoch house, where three generations of the family
hover around the food preparation island in a kitchen redolent of
garlic bread and lasagna, a golden retriever named Maggie nuzzles
Scott's thigh, and a pair of Yorkshire terriers named Cody and
Snoop scamper around his ankles. Houseguest and Tour veteran
Kenny Perry says, "Scott's an amazing guy. He's so sharp, and he
has such a good heart."

It's a wonderful life, all right. Throw in the implausible fact
that Hoch began the year in fifth place on the Tour's career
money list--behind Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson
and David Duval--and there's the full picture: family bliss,
lifetime achievement and financial security.

Well, not quite the full picture. Ask the man himself if there's
anything he hasn't achieved in golf, and he answers in a
heartbeat, "Yeah. Respect."

It's a jarring answer but not a surprising one. For more than a
decade Hoch has been reading that he is a loose-lipped boor and
an Ugly American because he often skips the British Open to play
Tour events in places like Milwaukee and the Quad Cities. He has
also had to endure 13 years of Hoch as in Choke, the tag hung on
him when he missed a 30-inch putt that would have won the 1989
Masters. Take those two burdens and multiply them by all the
lesser slights that Hoch perceives--including his failure to be
picked by three Ryder Cup captains when he was on the
bubble--and you understand why his sly grin sometimes gives way
to an expression of pain and bewilderment.

"I wouldn't be so concerned about what other people think of me
if it weren't for my family," Hoch says. "They can't understand
why I'm never on TV unless I'm winning the tournament. They don't
get it when the companies I endorse don't use me in their ads."

Or maybe they do get it. Maybe Hoch's family understands that
advertisers are leery of a guy who doesn't stick to the script,
who says whatever comes to mind. Maybe they understand that TV
can't sell beer by showing a decent, generous man who has won 10
Tour events in 23 years yet hits his drives 35 yards shorter than
Woods's. "My game, even when it's good, is boring," Hoch
concedes. "What guy who's short to average off the tee and hasn't
won a major has gotten a lot of recognition?"

In the next breath Hoch makes a U-turn and starts a rant about
the Ryder Cup, calling it "the most overrated thing I know of. I
played with Lee Janzen when I made the team in 1997, and after
eight holes I thought, 'Is this all it is?' I'd heard stories
that players couldn't breathe because of the pressure, but I
didn't feel it."

There's nothing wrong with Hoch's view of the Ryder
Cup--especially if you don't bury his comment that "spending all
that time with your teammates is what makes it so much fun"--but
you only have to listen to him spout off for a few minutes to
comprehend how Hoch can turn glib into glub-glub. "He's very
honest," says his father, "but he says the wrong damn thing
sometimes, and he won't get off it."

Last week, for example, a neighbor dropped by to give Hoch a bag
of just-picked grapefruit, prompting Hoch to volunteer that his
family didn't eat grapefruit because it was too acid.

"Honey, that was rude," Sally said when he told her about it
later.

Scott looked perplexed. "I was just being honest," he said. "Pop
can't eat it because it makes his bottom itchy."

Scenes like that, ripped from the scripts of Everybody Loves
Raymond, reveal Hoch to be tactless but funny, abrasive yet
guileless. "He's a misunderstood guy," says Perry, who has been
friends with Hoch since Arnold Palmer paired them at the 1996
Presidents Cup. "He's really a softie."

Last year Hoch won the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic
without his regular caddie, Damon Green, because Hoch had
dithered until the week of the tournament before entering. As
consolation, Hoch took Green on a four-day, guys-only trip to the
Bahamas. "We drank and played golf and tried to fish," says
Green, a former touring pro with dozens of mini-tour victories.
"Scott's a good boss. People just take him the wrong way."

Hoch accepts some of the blame--"I've said some things I
shouldn't have said"--but in his heart he knows who's at fault:
the media. It was CBS producer Frank Chirkinian, after all, who
stared at a camera shot of Hoch during the 1989 Masters and
growled to no one in particular, "I can't believe I'm directing
a Masters that Scott Hoch is going to win." It was the golf
writers who pounced on Hoch's criticism of the Old Course at St.
Andrews some years ago and made it sound as if he had called for
a quarantine of Great Britain and the dissolution of NATO. It
was writers, again, who typed the argument that Hoch didn't
deserve his 1986 Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average
because he hadn't won a Tour event that year and had avoided
some testing courses. It was a newspaper, the now defunct Dallas
Times Herald, that in 1988 named Hoch Least Popular Golfer,
citing a locker-room poll of about 50 players.

"Don't bring that up!" Sally cries, causing heads to turn in an
Orlando seafood joint.

Scott couldn't help himself. "It's out there, honey," he says.
"Everybody knows about it. Once something is written...." He
squirms in the restaurant booth, his frustration still palpable
after 14 years. Two minutes later, having vented on the
unscientific nature of the old poll and questioned the
motivation for what he regarded as a mean-spirited question, he
finally sags, recognizing the futility of argument. "You can't
unring a bell," he says.

Nor can you win pissing contests with people whose bladders
bulge with high Nielsen ratings. Hoch says he once confronted
Chirkinian in the locker room after finishing a distant third to
Robert Wrenn in the 1987 Buick Open. "He said, 'Look, before you
get started, nobody cares. Nobody wanted to see you. You weren't
the story.'"

That much Hoch could accept, but some weeks he was the story and
still didn't get his due, and he couldn't fathom why the media
cited the Times Herald poll year after year, as if it were an
item on a criminal rap sheet. He wondered, too, why columnists
who translated his St. Andrews comments into a distaste for
overseas travel hadn't bothered to check his itinerary. (Hoch
has won twice in South Korea, three times in Japan and once on
the European tour.) He has gotten so frustrated at times that he
has stopped talking to the media altogether. "Scott doesn't like
guys who kiss other people's fannies to get ahead," his dad
says. "Those kinds of guys are pitiful. They run out of friends
after a while."

Actually, the perceptions of Hoch have long been better than he
believed they were. Writers and players alike were impressed
when he bounced back from his Masters heartache to win the Las
Vegas Invitational three weeks later, beating Wrenn in a
playoff. They were even more impressed when he donated $100,000
of his winnings to the Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital in
Orlando. Did he continue to say things that made scribes cackle
over their laptops? Sure, but Hoch set a standard for class at
the 1990 Monte Carlo Open, returning half of his appearance fee
when he missed the cut. "I thought I owed the organizers that,"
he says. "For me to play that badly was embarrassing."

Hoch's reputation continued to improve, but he didn't know how
much until the winter of 1997, when Washington Post writer Len
Shapiro approached him at the Los Angeles Open with a bit of
unexpected news: American golf writers had chosen Hoch to
receive their Charles Bartlett Award for "unselfish
contributions to the betterment of society." Remembering the
encounter, Shapiro laughs and says, "He didn't stop walking. He
blew me off."

Hoch looks flustered when asked about the award, which he
accepted that spring at the annual golf writers' dinner in
Augusta. "I was totally surprised," he says. "I mean, I wasn't
even talking to them at the time."

These days it's not hard to imagine someone starting a Hoch fan
club. "I'd love to be Scott's partner anywhere, anytime," says
nine-year Tour pro Len Mattiace, who met Hoch in the early 1990s
at a Wake Forest alumni pro-am. "He's a straight shooter, and
he's very, very kind." Hoch's breezy manner, which annoyed some
players when he was young and cocky, is now viewed as harmlessly
sardonic. At the 2000 Match Play Championship, for example, Hoch
learned that his next opponent would be the sartorially
eccentric Jesper Parnevik. "Hey, Jesper," Hoch shouted across
the locker room, "what are you going to wear tomorrow?"

"That'll have to be a surprise," Parnevik said with a smile.

Hoch said, "I wanted to make sure we didn't wear the same thing."

Not to be overlooked amid this bonhomie are Hoch's
accomplishments as a player. Since joining the Tour in 1980, he
has finished among the top 40 on the money list every year
except '92, when shoulder surgery limited him to 16 tournaments.
Last year, at an age when even the best pros feel lucky simply
to have a Tour card, Hoch won in Greensboro and Chicago, ranked
seventh on the money list and guaranteed himself a spot on the
U.S. Ryder Cup team. "He's paced himself well," says David
Leadbetter, Hoch's coach since the early '90s. "He's a guy who's
never gotten burned out."

Last week Leadbetter followed Hoch for five holes of a practice
round at Bay Hill and then suggested ... very little. "Scott's
not a technical player, so we try to keep it simple," Leadbetter
said. "When he has the feel, he simply likes to go with it."
Hoch practices minimally and rarely plays when he's in Orlando,
but last week he knocked off the winter rust and felt his way
around the Bay Hill course well enough to tie for ninth, seven
strokes behind Woods. "A mechanical player like Nick Faldo can
get in a groove and reach great heights," Hoch says, "but when
he loses it, he's really lost. When you're a feel player like I
am, you're not so grooved and you probably won't reach the
highs, but you won't hit the lows either."

The real lows of Tour life have little to do with swing
mechanics. Hoch is painfully aware that his son, Cameron, 17,
will head off to college (hopefully, Florida State) next fall,
while daughter Katie, 15, has only two years left at Dr.
Phillips High. "You look back at all the stuff you've missed
with your family, all the sacrifices they've made for you, and
you wonder," he says. "I could retire and not miss golf that
much." He quickly adds, "I won't retire. I still have the need
to prove myself."

Something in his eyes makes you wonder if he was talking about
golf. Who among us doesn't wonder, from time to time, if he's
liked, respected, loved? Consider this exchange at last week's
pro-am. A couple dozen spectators were following Hoch and his
amateur partners as they walked between holes. "Hey!" shouted
Tour veteran Fred Funk from the 11th tee. "I didn't know you had
so many friends."

"They're not with me," Hoch said cheerily. "They're with the
amateurs."

If Hoch had looked more closely, he might have seen that most of
them were, indeed, with him.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL Warhorse Hoch, 46, remains a force--he won twice in 2001 and tied for ninth last week at Bay Hill--as others his age fade away. COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Then and now When Hoch was young (above, in 1987), his breezy manner annoyed some peers, but now they know he's harmless. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK Big fan Hoch grew up around sports--his dad was a P.E. instructor--and he never misses a chance to catch the hometown Magic. COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK Still sweet Married for 21 years, Sally and Scott are dreading the day their two teenage children leave the nest.

Hoch rationalizes his lack of stature this way: "What guy who's
short to average off the tee and hasn't won a major has gotten a
lot of recognition?"

"Scott doesn't like guys who kiss other people's fannies to get
ahead," says his dad, Art. "Those kind of guys are pitiful."

"I was totally surprised," Hoch says about being honored by the
writers. "I mean, I wasn't even talking to them at the time."

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)