Many veterans are playing a heavier early-season schedule simply because it is getting more difficult to be among each year's top 125 money winners, the measure by which a nonwinner on the Tour can remain exempt for the next year. In 1994 the cutoff in official earnings was $138,000, the highest ever and up nearly $20,000 from 1993.
"I try not to think about it that way, but it's definitely very competitive," says Howard Twitty, who finished 130th on the money list last season and is in the final year of a two-year exemption from his 1993 Hawaiian Open victory. "If you skirl the year out strong, it can save you a lot of anxiety." Twitty has already played in six events but has made less than $15,000.
Amid all the scrambling for early position there were plenty of noteworthy developments on the West Coast. The popularity of cross-handed putting has so changed attitudes about the best way to get the ball into the hole that Mike Hubert's new one-handed method has drawn thoughtful assessments rather than derision. Nicklaus's finish at Pebble Beach promises the kind of year that might set the stage for a career exit appropriate to the greatest golfer of all time. With his victory at Tucson, Mickelson became the youngest player since Nicklaus to win five times. Jacobsen's victory at Pebble Beach was accomplished by hitting an incredible 69 out of 72 greens in regulation, the most ever in a four-round tournament since the Tour began keeping that statistic in 1980. The 40-year-old followed that with a solid victory the next week at Torrey Pines.
The most surprising figure has been Perry, a 34-year-old pro who after his victory at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic two weeks ago could hardly believe he has three career victories on the PGA Tour. In fact, Perry could have had that many this year alone, as he has thrice led going into the final round this season—by three at Pebble Beach, by one at the Hope and by one at L.A. Perry has always been thought of by his peers as someone who could play, but the biggest reason why this amiable Kentuckian is suddenly playing the best golf of his nine-year career may lie in the mantra from Field of Dreams: "Build it, and they will come."
Perry's dream was to build a public course in the small town of Franklin, where he grew up and still resides, and where Country Creek Golf Club will open this spring. Perry eventually hopes to devote his days to heading the operation of Country Creek, teaching youngsters golf and coaching the local high school golf team. The catch is that to make the dream come true Perry and his brother-in-law had to borrow $1.5 million.
"When you borrow a million and a half dollars from the bank, that will get you real focused in a hurry," he says. "All my checks go straight to the bank."
So far this year his deposits have come from $430,927 in winnings. Perry is playing so well that he might want to alter his plan to retire in three or four years. "I've done more than I ever thought I would," he says. "That will mean something someday when I'm working with the kids."
It's unlikely that he will teach them to swing in his own image. Perry's backswing comes in about four pieces. But after it's assembled at the top, his swing stays solid. "It's ugly going back, but from the top down I'm as good as anyone," says Perry, long regarded as one of the best drivers on the Tour.
If Perry's play has been a surprise, so too has Faldo's, though not such a pleasant one. In four events Faldo has won the modest sum of $48,703 to rank 64th on the money list, all the while demonstrating his trademark consistency by only once shooting over par in his 14 rounds. But the 6'3" Faldo has also proved to be a surprisingly short hitter, averaging only 252.5 yards in driving distance.
He didn't play in the Bob Hope or in Los Angeles, where dry conditions might have helped his average go up, but it's still clear that compared to the players he is trying to surpass—most notably Price, Norman, Couples and Els—the Englishman lacks pop. Playing week in, week out in America, where both the weather and the length of the golf courses encourage taking a healthy whack, should help Faldo gain some distance off the tee, but so far it hasn't.