Twenty-four hours with Bob Estes, the least known three-time
winner on Tour, begins at his home base, Austin Country Club.
It's a sunny but chilly, almost-spring day in Texas, and the
plan is to meet at noon, but the 36-year-old Estes calls to say
he has forgotten a dental appointment. He's a serious, orderly
man. Forgetting the appointment was bad enough; missing his
semiannual cleaning would be a step toward chaos. He apologizes
and insists that I go ahead and have lunch without him. He'll
meet me at 2:30 for golf.
A life-sized statue of Harvey Penick, the legendary teaching pro
at Austin Country Club, instructing Tom Kite, one of Penick's
prized pupils, stands sentinel over the club's practice green,
where I'm warming up when Estes arrives. I nod toward the
figures. "Where's your statue?" I ask. Estes finds that amusing
and says he's pretty sure there's a photo of him somewhere in
the clubhouse. He strokes a few putts, and then we're off to the
1st tee--no carts, no caddies. We walk and carry our own bags.
Estes travels light. He has a Sunday bag and only a half set of
irons, the odd-numbered ones. It's a few days after the
Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa, in Carlsbad,
Calif., and Estes, who lost to Paul Azinger in the
quarterfinals, says, "I've still got match play in my blood." He
suggests we go head-to-head from the tips. He'll spot me a
measly two a side. I had been alerted by Mike Biggs, one of
Estes's agents, that "whatever you do, don't beat Bob. He
doesn't like that." (Who does?) But two a side against a Tour
pro? I accept the sucker bet.
"What do we play for?" Estes wants to know.
Money? Nah, that'd be crass. We both wear contact lenses. "How
about laser surgery?" I suggest. He laughs, and the match is on.
The first thing I notice about Estes's driver is how short it
is. He says he had it reduced to 43 1/2 inches--standard length
two decades ago--for improved accuracy. Nowadays 45 inches is
the normal length of a Tour player's driver, and 46 inches isn't
uncommon. Being different is normal for the enigmatic Estes. He
leads the league in tinkering with his equipment and with his
swing. In the early 1990s he played with irons that were two
inches longer than standard. In 2000, after playing for five
years with a metal driver, he switched to persimmon, becoming
the last player on Tour to be seen with a wooden driver.
In 2001 Estes went back to metal, embarked on an Olympic-style
training program, switched to a baseball grip, hooked up with a
new swing coach (Craig Koy), hired a new caddie (Chuck Mohr) and
had the best season of his career, winning twice (the FedEx St.
Jude Classic in Memphis and the Invensys Classic at Las Vegas)
and earning $2.8 million, good for ninth on the money list. Yet
Estes continues to tweak. Last fall he shortened his irons to a
quarter-inch short of standard, but last month, in New Orleans,
he reversed himself and added a half inch. Now he's positive he
has found the right length. "But that's today," he says,
allowing a small joke at his own expense. At last week's
MasterCard Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, in which he finished
25th, 12 shots behind winner Nick Price, Estes used a mallet
putter and a markedly upright stance for the first time. Why
mess with success? "I've spent 14 years in R and D," he says.
"Last year was good, but I'm looking for great."
Some people say all the changes have hurt Estes's career; he
says they were, and still are, necessary. Estes was the college
player of the year in 1988, his senior season at Texas, but was
never much of a ball striker. He lived and died with his short
game, even in high school, when he led Cooper High in Abilene to
three straight Texas titles. "Bob's swing wasn't good. It wasn't
repeatable," says Koy. "He's amazingly tough mentally, and he's
a great putter. That's how he's survived 13 years on Tour."
Estes's lack of a classic swing explains why he's one of the
Tour's hardest workers--he has to be just to get by. When he was
in the sixth grade, he wrote a paper outlining exactly what he
planned to do with his life: play golf in high school, in
college and on the PGA Tour. In high school he practiced every
morning and knew precisely how long it took to jump into his car
and make it to class before the first bell. At Texas he was
rarely seen anywhere but on the practice range after classes. "I
think he went out on some dates in college, but not many," says
Bob's father, Tommy, who coached the Cooper High team.
Playing the Tour was Estes's dream, but only part of it. He
wants to win majors too. Until last year he didn't feel he had
the game to do so. Now he thinks he's closer. Estes is
lanky--6'1" and 180 pounds--and his right clavicle is longer
than his left, which makes it impossible for him to set up
squarely to the target. "Other teachers told him it's no big
deal," says Koy, "but it is a big deal. I told Bob, 'You can't
swing the club like everybody else because it doesn't fit your
body. Let's figure out what works for you.'" Their solution is
unorthodox. Koy has Estes play the ball back in his stance. His
feet are aimed dead right, his swing path is turning inside out,
and he has more knee flex than normal. "From that position he
can play. Before, no way," says Koy. "I'd never tell another
student to swing like him, even if Bob were to win five majors,
but it works for him. Bob told me that he never really hit a
solid shot until last August. That's mind-boggling."
Back on the 1st tee Estes and I both take a mulligan. (Estes
hadn't had a chance to warm up.) After I hook two balls into the
rough, Estes insists that I hit a third with his minidriver. The
club feels like a fairway wood, and sure enough I pipe one down
the middle. (You know which ball I play.) I can't help but think
that Estes is on to something.
Estes doesn't do a lot of talking on the front nine. "Bob has
his friends on Tour, but he's pretty quiet," Mohr tells me
later. "I don't think a lot of people know the real Bob. He's
somewhat of a mystery man. He treats me with respect, and that's
something. He's one of the few players who actually returns
phone calls. It doesn't matter who you are, Bob will call you
Estes suddenly gets vocal when he drains a 20-footer for birdie
at the par-3 8th to tie the match after being 2 down through the
first five holes. As his putt rolls toward the cup, he says,
"Oh, no, don't do that!" Which means he knew the putt was in the
moment he hit it. I get another "Oh, no!" at the 13th, and he
closes me out, 3 and 1, with a birdie at 17.
After a drink in the clubhouse it's on to Estes's condo, walking
distance away. We're barely in the door when he says, "You've
got to see this," and hauls out before-and-after photos of his
three-bedroom, three-bath, 2,200-square-foot bachelor pad. The
photos are hilarious, not dorky-deadly as I had feared. The
previous residents had a thing for padded wallpaper and hideous
black, pink and green floral patterns. Estes's girlfriend, Tracy
Hagemann, a model, helped him redecorate. (Mystery man dates
gorgeous model? It's true. They were an item for several years,
split up, then got back together last Christmas.) The dining
room is now a muted red and furnished with an antique table and
chairs, a tasteful blend of old and new. The obligatory
large-screen TV dominates the living room, which also has a
leather sofa and chairs. Outside, Estes's balcony overlooks a
marina and offers a superb view of Lake Austin as well as the
Estes has made a dinner reservation at Sullivan's, a popular
downtown steak house. We're joined there by another of Estes's
agents, David Winkle, and Estes's trainer, Scott Hennig, who was
the 1998 U.S. indoor pole vault champ. When the waiter asks
about drinks, Hennig orders a Shiner (a beer brewed in Shiner,
Texas), but Estes hesitates. He and Hennig quickly run through
Estes's upcoming training schedule and decide that one beer
won't hurt, so it's Shinerbocks all around.
"I train Bob like an explosive athlete," Hennig says, and I get
a firsthand look the next morning at eight. Sunlight streams
through the health club's floor-length windows as Estes finishes
stretching and warming up on a treadmill. In shorts and a
T-shirt, he looks nothing like the string bean all-district
basketball player he was at Cooper High. He's ripped.
It's no wonder. In this session Estes goes at it hard for an
hour, hitting weight stations and forcefully flinging a medicine
ball as Hennig puts him through his paces. At last year's Tour
Championship, Hennig noticed that Estes's upper body was too
loose, so he had him throw a medicine ball in the parking lot
before the third round. Estes shot a 65 that day. "Bob is the
most dedicated person I've ever met," Hennig says, pausing for
effect. "I mean, the most dedicated."
I get confirmation of that a few weeks later at the Players
Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. I ask sports
psychologist Bob Rotella, who has worked with Estes, to describe
Estes's personality in a single word. Rotella thinks for a
moment, then says, "Discipline."
Brandel Chamblee, a fellow Texas alumnus who sees a lot of
Estes on Tour, agrees. "His personality is almost like a
Swede's, like a Bjorn Borg," says Chamblee. "Bob isn't a
gregarious guy. He's not in the in-crowd, but that doesn't
bother him. He's too busy thinking about any conceivable thing
that might make him a better player. He saves his yardage books
and draws the break of every putt he's ever hit on every green.
He can tell you he had a putt in 1994 that broke this way or
that way. He sends out Christmas cards every year, with a
handwritten note and a handwritten address on the envelope. What
single guy [on the Tour] does that?"
After the workout Estes showers back at his condo. Then it's on
to the club for lunch and a meeting with another member of Team
Estes, Bob Meyer, a chiropractic sports specialist. Dr. Bob--as
everyone calls Meyer--works with many University of Texas and
Olympic-caliber athletes. Estes sees him twice a week and
receives various treatments, including acupuncture. "Several
other golfers have asked me, 'What about Bob? What's he doing?'"
Meyer says. "They see him looking more powerful, with a skip in
his step, and they want the scoop. I just chuckle. Everybody
wants an edge."
When we get back to Estes's place, we talk about his plan to
play the regular Tour well into his 50s, about his win in Vegas
and the stunning par he made from out of a bush in the final
round there, about his new hairstyle (highlights on top) and
about his mom, Bobbie, who handles his travel arrangements and
mail, and how he bought her a new Lexus last year.
Then it's 3:45, and my 24 hours are up. It's time to go.
What about Bob? He has another workout with Hennig at five
o'clock. Trust me, he won't be late.
Estes's caddie. "He's somewhat of a mystery man."