What's Up With Calc? Fighting a slump and coping with a divorce, Mark Calcavecchia is the Belfry's big question mark

September 22, 2002

Don't talk to Mark Calcavecchia about his body: He can see that
derby hat of a gut swelling under his shirt. He can hear his
knees pop and crackle like a bonfire. He has noticed that his
swing has more rattles than a 1986 Yugo. And don't talk to him
about next week's Ryder Cup. He's trying to rediscover the
golfer within who tried so hard to make the team a year ago. In
2001, with a record-setting win in Phoenix plus fourth-place
finishes at the Masters and the PGA Championship, he earned his
first Ryder Cup blazer in a decade. But then the matches were
postponed and both his swing and his putting stroke disappeared,
and now Calcavecchia, 42, finds himself limping into the Cup,
much like Hal Sutton, another struggling holdover who has to
justify his place on the team even though he has deserved it all
along.

"I got some stress involved in all that," Calcavecchia says on a
sunny July day from His Usual Place--the deeply worn section of
the wide leather sofa in the living room of his house in Phoenix.
Surrounded by sports magazines and remote controls, he grunts and
adds, "I need to get my ass in gear and do something about my
weight and the way I look and just feel better about myself. I
haven't kept up with my exercise; I've been lazy. A lot of
weekends off will do that to you, I guess."

Calcavecchia, 10-time Tour winner and the 1989 British Open
champ, is a famously hard fellow to pin down. "The sphinx with a
seven-iron" is what one friend calls him. What he looks like is
a tough old farmer with an unapproachably cynical squint. On the
course his mood swings are legion. One minute he is the
iceman--distant, and emanating a whiff of superiority. The next
he is charming the gallery and cracking up his playing partners
with a salty sense of humor. Then, with the slimmest
provocation, he is a molten slag heap, snapping shafts over his
knee, bending his putter over his head, angrily decapitating
sprinkler heads, producing enough conduct unbecoming to earn a
satchelful of fines from the Tour. Even after all these years,
Calcavecchia's peers struggle to make sense of his contradictions.

"He's pretty mysterious," says 18-year Tour veteran Andrew Magee.
"He doesn't socialize or have dinner with many of the guys. You
never see him on the range. Do you want to know how he hangs out
in transvestite strip clubs? Well, I'm sure he doesn't, but he's
not formal in nature, that's for sure, and he's more emotional
than he looks. He was so miserable there for years."

Ah, the misery. Magee cannot bear to say the words, even if
everyone knows the cause: divorce, the great unmentionable on
Tour. Some players have recovered gallantly from their shattered
marriages, as Robert Allenby and Brad Faxon have in recent
years. History shows that some do not. A nasty divorce helped
shoot down Jodie Mudd's career. Ken Green, Calcavecchia's great
friend since his early days on Tour, essentially folded into
human origami and disappeared when marital headaches took over
his life.

Moments after you walk into Calcavecchia's house, the term
bachelor pad leaps to mind. A four-foot-high tower of videos is
stacked next to the big-screen TV, a half-played chess game is
sprawled on the table and CDs spill from stacks. The music is
good, rowdy boy's stuff like Metallica, The Cult and ZZ Top. His
beloved Fender Stratocaster is close at hand. If his good buddy,
Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist of Rush, calls looking for an
emergency backup for the band, Calcavecchia wants to be ready
and sweaty. In the garage is a ferocious Porsche 911 Twin Turbo
ready for late-night blasts up Interstate 10.

His Usual Place is snug in a comfy room with a kitchen nook on
one side and the TV at the other. Phony magazine covers extol the
hockey exploits of his son, Eric, eight. On a recent morning the
old man looked up suddenly to see his other child, 13-year-old
Britney, ramble through the room, a sleepy-eyed apparition
wearing a rumpled teddy.

"Hey, Brit, good morning," he says fondly. Britney pads into the
kitchen, where she retrieves a bag of potato chips and a can of
Sprite and shuffles back to her room.

If Mark thinks that's an unusual breakfast, he doesn't say so.
He only smiles. It is, after all, the perfect bachelor-pad
breakfast, and one he himself has likely enjoyed.

It's also safe to assume that Britney's mother wouldn't allow
such a breakfast, but she's not here. Sheryl Calcavecchia lives
in a big house over the hill in an adjoining subdivision. Their
divorce, which has yet to be finalized but has been in the works
for years, was a mutual thing, both she and Mark say. The kids
live with her until he gets off the road, then they pile into his
house.

"Being happily married helps everybody," he says, "and I was
happy for--let's see, we were married 14 years--probably nine or
10 before it went south." Grave pause. "She was good for me. She
was a pain in the ass at times, but she was good in the sense of
support, and keeping me in somewhat decent shape, because she
likes to work out. She got me in the gym when I didn't want to
get in there. Now I almost need someone to push me in that same
direction again. I hate working out."

Sheryl, an aerobics instructor when they met in 1987, was a hawk
about watching his consumption of junk food. She even caddied for
him on occasion and did her share of glamorous cheering at Ryder
Cups.

Maybe these memories contribute to his ambivalence about the Cup.
"I got mixed reviews on it right now," says Calcavecchia, who has
missed the cut in eight of 23 starts in a winless 2002 and is a
middling 43rd on the money list. "My swing hasn't been good all
year, and I got to drop some pounds, otherwise my pants ain't
going to fit."

When it's pointed out that only Hale Irwin and Hal Sutton had
gone similar decadelong stretches between Ryder Cups,
Calcavecchia responds with a great, tired sigh. "I still
remember the three teams I was on [1987, '89 and '91, compiling
a 5-5-1 record]," he says. Meaningful pause. "I didn't have a
great time on any of them."

Calcavecchia hit rock bottom during the Sunday singles at Kiawah
Island in '91, when he endured one of the most famous meltdowns
in golf history, losing the final four holes to allow Colin
Montgomerie to steal a halve. Along the way Calcavecchia
uncorked a shot that still haunts him. On the long par-3 17th
hole, Montgomerie dumped his tee ball into the water between the
tee and green, and Calcavecchia, knowing he only had to reach
the green to end the match, responded by top-skating a two-iron
that barely reached the halfway point of the pond before
plunging out of sight. Even though the U.S. kept the Cup, the
image that lingers is hard, flinty Calc, weeping inconsolably
with Sheryl by his side.

"I looked up at the sky," she recalls, "and said, 'God, if this
is how much pressure they have, don't put him in a Ryder Cup
anymore.'" Now she laughs extravagantly about that awful moment:
"I swear, I put a curse on him! He hasn't been in the Ryder Cup
all this time. I told him, 'It's my fault, I asked God to not let
you go through this again!'"

For all of Calcavecchia's world-weary manner, he is actually a
small-town guy, and a shy one, too. He grew up in Laurel, Neb.,
a town of 1,000 with a Dairy Queen, an eight-lane bowling alley
and a nine-hole golf course that was little more than a bunch of
flags stuck in a field. It was there that Calcavecchia
tirelessly taught himself to play on those indifferent grasses
in buffeting prairie winds. His father, John, was the owner and
manager of a gravel pit. When Mark was 13, the family moved to
Palm Beach, Fla. He went from a town of 1,000 to an eighth-grade
class of 1,000. To his mild surprise, Calcavecchia discovered
that he was better than any other 13-year-old golfer in the
Sunshine State.

By 21 the University of Florida dropout would have his Tour card.
Into this world of endless possibilities sauntered the woman who
would be his wife. They met in a bar. The raven-haired,
flashing-eyed Sheryl Timm had fashion tastes that ran to hot
pants and halter tops. Says Calcavecchia's longtime agent, Steve
Loy, "When I saw her, I thought, Oh, no, this is going to be a
train wreck."

Calcavecchia liked the gaming tables, and Sheryl liked jewelry
shops. They bought spreads in Phoenix and Florida, among other
things. "One day in '89, when he was just starting to make
money," Sheryl says, "we went out car shopping, wearing T-shirts
and cutoff jeans and looking like complete bums, and wound up
with two cars. The BMW was for me, but he ended up getting a
Porsche, too. They said, 'O.K., how do you want to finance
this?' He said, 'Finance? How about cash!'"

Sheryl did not try to fit the mold of the chipper,
regulation-issue Tour wife. She retained strong feelings about
her own worth. Remembers one prominent swing coach, "At the '89
Tour Championship at Harbour Town, we witnessed Sheryl going up
to him after he made a bogey on the 11th green and literally
twisting his ear like a grade school P.E. teacher, saying, 'Wake
up and get your head into the game.' Which he did, actually,
with a couple of birdies immediately thereafter."

"I'd get on him pretty hard sometimes," she says. "Just to
practice, just to get out there. I saw all the talent that Mark
has. I always believed he could have taken it a step further and
been a lot better."

Focus has never been Calcavecchia's strength. Give him a number
or an address, and he'll remember it forever; make an
appointment, and he'll forget it within minutes. Lately he has
been getting some favorable press--actually, for the first time
in his career--because his hulking, workingman's gruffness
stands out in welcome contrast to the young smoothies rising up
on Tour like a phalanx of overeager bellhops. Calcavecchia may
have gotten the favorable notices sooner were it not for his
habit of blowing off appointments for whatever reason occurred
to him at the moment.

"I do listen," he says plaintively, "but my mind's always going.
I'm not comprehending. It goes in one ear and out the other." In
life, as in golf. "Everything is sort of streaky with me," he
says, "and I'm not that stable now. My emotions go up and down.
I've always had too nasty a temper, and sometimes I get too
excited when things start going good."

Much of this unsteadiness can be traced to the lingering
aftermath of the divorce, which Calcavecchia still struggles to
explain. "We grew apart," he says. "She kind of lost interest in
the Tour and traveling all the time. That's understandable for a
lady with two young kids. Then you stop communicating. One thing
leads to another, and that's it.

"In '99 I was a complete disaster. [Agent] David Yates said that
might have been one of my best golfing performances ever, somehow
finishing 59th on the money list and making 730 grand, feeling
the way I felt all year."

Calcavecchia is once again struggling on the course, but he has
found a measure of happiness away from it. Last year, at the
Memorial, he met Brenda Nardecchia--a 33-year-old CPA and 5'9"
blonde with an athletic bent--and a romance was kindled. Now he
finds himself torn between missing Brenda in Columbus, Ohio, and
seeing his kids in Phoenix.

"By going through these things, he has become a better person,"
says Green, who has spent many a late night commiserating with
his friend. "You come through with a better understanding of
people. Over the years he might have become sidetracked a tad--he
might have gotten spoiled. But in the end this has helped him."

Calcavecchia has turned into such a weary old soul it is
impossible not to ask him what the key to survival is during the
inevitable ups and downs that accompany a long career in the
spotlight.

"Hell if I know," he says. Then he thinks for a long while.
"Perseverance."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK RYDER READY? Calcavecchia will need to find his swing before next week's Cup, his first since a famous meltdown in 1991. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN (2) TOUGH LOVE Sheryl forced Mark to stay in shape and made cameos as a caddie. Now Calc relies on old buddy Green (below, right) for a friendly ear. COLOR PHOTO: JOEY TERRILL STIR CRAZY When he's not on Tour, Calcavecchia enjoys playing Mr. Mom for (from left) Eric, 8, Britney, 13, and D.J.

"Being happily married helps everybody," Calc says. "Sheryl was
a pain in the ass, but she was good for me."

"Everything is sort of streaky with me, and I'm not that stable
now," Calc says. "My emotions go up and down."

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)