Micheel, Gossett and Akins are connected in many ways
Posted: Friday May 28, 2004 12:32PM; Updated: Friday May 28, 2004 5:42PM
Like the title character in the old Orson Welles movie, The Third Man won't appear until halfway through these proceedings. For now, we'll focus on our first two.
Unfortunately for Shaun Micheel, he hasn't had much success since winning last year's PGA Championship.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
At first glance, they seem to have lived parallel lives. Both attended Memphis' Christian Brothers High School. Their fathers both flew cargo planes for Federal Express. Both have won major championships. (Well, kind of.) And both are off to wretched starts at this week's FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn.
Their career trajectories, however, couldn't be more different. Shaun Micheel, 35, spent more than a decade laboring in obscurity before claiming his first Tour win, which just so happened to be a Major -- last year's PGA Championship. Since then, he's played solid if unspectacular golf, missing only two cuts since last August, his best finish being a T9 at this year's Players Championship.
David Gossett, 25, on the other hand, made his mark early, winning the 1999 U.S. Amateur between his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Texas. (There's that "kind of" major.) In 2001 he won the John Deere Classic in only his 12th professional PGA Tour start.
Now Gossett is in the midst of a conspicuous nosedive. He's only shot one round in the 60s all year, and has missed 10 of 12 cuts. Retooling, he skipped the Byron Nelson and Colonial Texas two-step, and might well have bypassed this week's event if it hadn't been a hometown event.
The race isn't over, but already the tortoise has passed the hare.
Micheel's return to Memphis has been pleasant enough. But nothing, of course, could cap the kind of receptions he got in the months immediately following his win at the PGA.
Early this basketball season, he was invited to a Grizzlies game, and was plunked down in owner Michael Heisley's courtside seats. He was awarded a personalized jersey at halftime, but it didn't take quite that long for Micheel to be reminded of his elevated status in the world.
"I'm sitting there in the front row," Micheel remembers, "and there's a guy right behind me giving this one ref a hard time. Nothing really bad -- just yelling stuff like, 'How about giving us a call every once in a while?' But the ref never says anything back.
"So finally, during a timeout, the guy says, 'Why aren't you going to answer my questions?' The ref says, 'I only answer intelligent questions.' Two minutes later there's another timeout. They guy yells out, "OK, what's the meaning of life?" The ref just stares a him, then stares at me, and says, 'The meaning of life is hitting a seven-iron to two inches to win the PGA Championship.' And then he shakes my hand. Right in the middle of a game!"
To illustrate another thing Micheel and Gossett have in common, we turn to the Third Man, Rob Akins.
Akins, a native Louisianan who played junior golf with David Toms (and is now Toms' instructor) is currently based in Memphis, and teaches out of Ridgeway CC. His week has been more like a square dance than a Tennessee waltz. With a half-dozen pupils in the field, he's constantly being passed, do-si-do, from partner to partner on the range. First Toms, then Loren Roberts, then Gossett, then on to some of the lesser-known local boys in the field. Forget trying to see all of them actually play a few holes. "I'm kind of torn," he says. "I care about all of them, but I can't watch everybody."
(A quick detour for two Toms notes: First, Akins' most famous pupil hasn't been quite right since the offseason surgery that removed bone spurs in his left wrist. He played well at a few early-season events but has missed five of seven cuts. Last week at Colonial, says Akins, they made a significant change, with Toms focusing on keeping the wrist bowed rather than cupped through impact. So far, both have been pleased with the results.
Second: According to Akins, Toms returned to tournament golf a week earlier than planned, and for the oddest of reasons. Toms, one of four player-members on the PGA Tour policy board, was obliged to go to Los Angeles for the Nissan Open for a meeting that week. He wasn't planning on playing until he found out that the range would be open only to tournament participants. "He only entered the tournament," Akins says, "so he would be allowed to use the driving range.")
Akins' connection to Micheel? Micheel was the first tour player Akins ever worked with. In recent years, Micheel has taken most of his counsel from Sam Carmichael, Micheel's coach when he attended Indiana University. But he and Akins have always remained friends, and see each other often, as Micheel practices at Ridgeway.
His take on Micheel's post-PGA prospects: "I really think you're going to see Shaun win some more tournaments." Like many close to Micheel, Akins believes his ballstriking is a constant, and that his result on any given week is contingent on the flatstick. "It's just a putter thing with him," Akins says.
Although neither has expressed the intention, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Micheel and Akins working together again -- especially when you consider that Carmichael, 64, stopped coaching the IU men's golf team some time ago, and earlier this month retired altogether, leaving behind his duties as the IU women's coach.
Gossett was only 12 when he first started working with Akins, but soon supplemented those lessons with instruction from higher-profile teachers. After his sophomore year at Christian Brothers, Gossett began splitting his academic years between Orlando and Memphis, spending fall semesters at the David Leadbetter Academy, and spring semesters at Memphis' Germantown High School. During his first semester at Leadbetter's he worked with Gary Gilchrist, now Michelle Wie's instructor; during his second he moved onto Jonathan Yarwood, who has tutored players as diverse as Aree and Naree Song (nee Wonglukiet) and the European Tour's Michael Campbell.
Akins and Yarwood tandem-taught for more than five years. Then, 14 months ago, Gossett left Akins to work exclusively with Yarwood, even taking a place down in Orlando to be nearer the Leadbetter Academy.
"I'm never going to say anything negative about another teacher," Akins says. "He just tried to make some changes in an effort to get better." It didn't work. In a word, those changes made Gossett's golf swing excessively handsy, leaving him unable to control his ball-flight. Two weeks ago -- following the Wachovia Championship, Gossett's last start -- he parted ways with Yarwood and Leadbetter and returned to Akins.
(For the record, Gossett also recently rejoined forces with caddie Andy Martinez. Gossett and Martinez -- a 30-year veteran who put in long, successful stints with Johnny Miller and Tom Lehman, and first caddied for Gossett during his 1999 U.S. Amateur win at Pebble Beach -- rehitched their wagons at Wachovia. This was just after Martinez's failed Aaron Baddeley experiment. At the time, Martinez joked that he and Baddeley were "a match made in heaven," since both are devout Christians. Didn't turn out that way.)
Will Akins get Gossett back on track? Will he wind up reunited with Micheel, and steer him back into the winner's circle? I don't remember how that old Orson Welles movie ended. But I think the Third Man turned out to be a hero, not a villain.