A Team Effort
Predictions of a U.S. rout in the Presidents Cup were put to rest at the PGA
by Gary Van Sickle
Posted: Wed August 18, 1998
The men's golf season didn't end with the PGA Championship; it only seems that way on the U.S. Tour. The one blip left on the screen is the Dec. 11-13 Presidents Cup in Australia, which is a very big deal to a winless (0-2) International team. The good news for the Internationals last week at Sahalee was that their crippled and beleaguered squad claimed three of the top four places, showing that they could very well make it a contest at Royal Melbourne Golf Course against the heavily favored U.S.
That prospect didn't seem likely a few weeks ago. In the first three majors, the 10 highest-ranked International players had only two top 10 finishesNick Price of Zimbabwe was fourth and Australia's Stuart Appleby 10th in the U.S. Open. Of the eight Internationals who played in the Masters, only Ernie Els (16th) and Steve Elkington (30th) made the cut. At the British Open, Robert Allenby and Vijay Singh tied for 19th while no other International finished better than 29th. That record looked even worse when compared with the top 10 Americans on the qualifying list for the Presidents Cup. They had won all three championships and totaled 13 top 10 finishes.
Even while Price was winning the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, he was lamenting the sorry state of the International team. "It seems strange to me," Price said, "but if you look at it on paper, the Americans would almost whitewash us. They've got Fred Couples, David Duval, Mark O'Meara and Tiger Woods, who are all playing well. Look at us. Ernie isn't playing well [due to a bad back], and Greg Norman isn't playing at all. I've been playing O.K., but Vijay hasn't played worth a darn. Same with Elkie and Frank Nobilo. The Americans have certainly outplayed us the first six months. We're going to have to pull our socks up."
They took the first tug at the PGA. Singh won his first major by finally getting a grip, literally, on a career-long putting problem. He switched to a cross-handed grip in June at the Motorola Western Open, started to hole putts and began to gain confidence. He finished second at the Western, shot a final-round 62 the next week at Hartford, tied for 19th in the British Open and was eighth at the Buick Opena nice stretch considering that he hadn't had a top 20 finish since March.
Singh has always had trouble on the greens. He almost won the 1996 PGA at Valhalla while using a long-shafted putter. He tried three putters during this year's Kemper Open. "Every day was a different putter; every day was a different style," Singh said last week, wincing at the memory. "It's been bothering me so long. It was almost trial and error. Since I changed at the Western Open, I've felt comfortable on the greens. I'm thinking about making every putt now."
Perhaps more heartening was the revival of Elkington, who is one of the top players in the world when he's healthy, which is hardly ever. Since last August the 1995 PGA champ has had a strained rotator cuff, a hip injury, a foot inflammation, seven sinus infections that led to a second sinus operation, and a second case of viral meningitishe first came down with the disease in 1986. In July he had to withdraw from the British Open because of a pinched nerve. "It's been a frustrating year," Elkington said. "I would have been fine if I'd only had sinus problems, but I forgot how hard it is to come back from meningitis. I'm just now getting over it."
Elkington, who finished three strokes behind Singh, in third, at Sahalee, was the only player to shoot subpar scores in every round (69-69-69-67). "It was good to feel nervous for once this year," Elkington said. "I've been out of it for a while. I wouldn't say I'm satisfied, but I think I'm over the hump. I'm making a comeback. Mentally, I was very sharp. Physically, I could have won this tournament easily. I definitely had all the tools this week. I've always played well when I'm healthy. I don't do any good when I'm wounded. I'm close to 100 percent."
Price's victory in Memphis signaled that he's close to the form that made him the game's best in 1993 and '94. If he could putt as proficiently as he did then, he would be dangerous. At Sahalee, Price tied for fourth thanks to a course-record-tying 65 on Sunday. The difference between winning and losing? Sixty-four putts during the first two days. "Putting is such a fickle thing," he said. "It's a science, a game within a game."
Singh, Elkington and Price weren't the only candidates for the International team who made a good showing at Sahalee. Allenby, of Australia, came in 13th, while Els, the two-time U.S. Open winner from South Africa, was 21st after rallying with a 66 in the final round. "I wish I could have played this way at the beginning of the week," he said. "I felt comfortable with my game for the first time in a long time." Carlos Franco of Paraguay popped up on the leader board in the second round, although he had drifted to 40th by tournament's end.
Two wild cards come December could be the success of Norman's rehabilitation and the strength of the emotional bond created among the Internationals by the tragic death of Stuart Appleby's wife, Renay, who was killed in a traffic accident in London in July.
Norman hasn't played since the Masters, after which he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder. Recently, though, he has begun to putt and chip at home. He says that his recovery is ahead of schedule and that he should be ready for the Presidents Cup.
Appleby, a 27-year-old Aussie who has won twice on the PGA Tour, rode a roller coaster of feelings at Sahalee, where he was making his first start since his wife's death. Determined to get on with his life, he patiently answered questions from reporters and welcomed the condolences of friends. "There's not an hour that goes by that I don't think of Renay," said Appleby. "The toughest times are when you wish things were different." That sentence contained many tearful pauses and Appleby was barely able to finish it.
Although he missed the cut at Sahalee, where he shot 77-73, Appleby's a lock to make the Presidents Cup team and could serve as a rallying point in Melbourne, something the far-flung Internationals have lacked in the past. In June, Appleby established himself as a rising star by outdueling Scott Hoch to win the Kemper Open. Last year he won the Honda Classic and was second at Bay Hill and in the Sprint International.
Appleby said he played last week because Renay would have wanted him to. The galleries gave him a warm reception. "It was pretty emotional when he started off," said Singh, who along with Phil Blackmar played with Appleby in the first two rounds. "He got applause at every green."
Appleby struggled with his game and the added attention. "It feels weird when you walk on a green when you're putting for double bogey and people are clapping," he said. "It was hard for me to concentrate on one thought. It might take time."
The Internationals have three months, but one week has already made a huge difference in Price's outlook. "We're looking good now," he says. "It shows you how quickly momentum can change in this game. With a swing like Elkie's, all you've got to do is stand on your feet and you're going to do well. If Greg [Norman] comes back, the Presidents Cup is going to be exciting."
Issue date: August 24, 1998
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