"You can print it now, that's why Hoch rhymes with choke" said Hoch, in a heartbreakingly obvious joke. "I couldn't have had an easier tournament to win. It's just pitiful. It was so easy early, that's what the problem was. Then I made a bogey and started protecting instead of just going out and playing golf. No matter what you write, its going to hurt less than what I feel right now."
Hoch is no stranger to pain. At the PGA Championship in 1987, he finished early on Sunday, but a three-putt from six feet on 18 ultimately caused him to miss a playoff by one. Two years later at the 1989 Masters, Hoch had to make only a 22-inch par putt on the first hole of sudden death to defeat Nick Faldo. Sickeningly, he missed it, and then watched Faldo birdie the next hole to take his first green jacket.
Hoch was candid and accessible after those losses, but Sunday's collapse seemed almost too much for him. He uncharacteristically declined to go into the press room, submitting only to a rushed and disjointed question-and-answer session in the parking lot before driving away. When Stewart heard that Hoch had used the word choke, he was saddened. "I hate that word," Stewart said. "I'm sorry to hear him use it. It's a nasty, hard word."
Stewart has been the beneficiary of collapses before—most notably in the 1989 PGA Championship, where, after Stewart finished with birdies on four of the final five holes, Mike Reid had a bogey on 16 and a double bogey on 17 to lose by one. And in that Open at Hazeltine, Stewart tied Simpson in regulation because Simpson bogeyed two of the final three holes. Stewart won the playoff when Simpson played those holes in three over par.
Recently, though, his luck had been going the other way. In 1993 Stewart finished second in four events and third another three times. That series was particularly painful to Stewart because he was struggling to right himself after handling his victory at the Open poorly. He had been in big demand in '92 and had run himself ragged, but with that year behind him, he had raised his expectations for '93. When he failed to come up with a win, Stewart had no juice left for 1994. He finished 123rd on the money list, his worst performance since his rookie year of 1981, and never contended for a victory. By the end of the year he realized that he had lost control of his career. He had allowed the building of his 13,000-square-foot house in Orlando to consume too much of his attention, he was having withdrawal symptoms while struggling to give up chewing tobacco, and he had placed much of the blame for his bad play on the new clubs and balls he was playing after signing a multimillion-dollar contract with Spalding.
Stewart finally decided enough was enough. He gave up tobacco for good, he moved his wife and two children into the new house, and he got Spalding to adapt his irons to his liking. He also began working harder on staying in good physical condition and practicing more diligently.
The new approach has paid off. In January, Stewart tied for fourth in the Phoenix Open and finished fifth at Pebble Beach, and in March he tied for third at the Players Championship. With his victory Sunday, he jumped to fourth on the money list with $561,157. "You just can't be out here and have things pull from your energies if you're going to compete and challenge to win golf tournaments," Stewart said last week. "You can get by and make cuts and make checks, but to get in the heat of the battle and to thrive on it, you have to have everything here. I came out this year with everything here. Last year I didn't have anything here."
As he has grown happier with himself, Stewart has also been friendlier to others. A measure of his maturity was displayed in his concern for Hoch—a kind of sympathy he failed to show for either Reid or Simpson. "Scott is a hell of a player," Stewart said Sunday evening. "The hardest thing to do in golf is on a tough day hold on to the lead. You have to figure out a game to play with yourself to allow you to be aggressive and make birdies. It's hurting him how he finished. He'll bounce back."
Stewart already has. He was clearly proud of his effort. He called his six-iron shot to the 72nd hole, which left him a 16-footer for birdie, a "quality shot" and the ensuing putt, a "quality, quality putt."
Of the last gut check he endured when he ran his 25-footer a scary four feet past the hole in sudden death, he said, "That putt was too long, but I stood up there and said, Look, this is time to be a champion again. You have to stand up there and make this putt. I didn't look at it. I just held my head steady and hit it solid." Reminded that it went in the heart of the cup, Stewart smiled.