Maybe it has something to do with being in a boom-town where zoning once meant clucking at skyscrapers that abutted more than two used car lots, but for professional golfers, Houston has always been a good place to start something big.
Prior to this year, the last five times the PGA Tour stopped in the nation's oil mecca a player earned his first career victory. Houston hosted the first wins of such illustrious names as Bobby Locke (in 1947), Hubert Green (1971) and Corey Pavin (1984). In 1952, when Jack Burke became the only player other than Byron Nelson to win four consecutive Tour events, one of them was Houston. The same was true in 1978, when Gary Player became the last person to win three straight tournaments. And last Sunday at the Shell Houston Open, Payne Stewart finally ended a winless streak that stretched all the way back to the 1991 U.S. Open.
Stewart won a tournament that on Sunday morning figured to be the biggest yawner of the year but instead turned into the most dramatic nonmajor of the season. He negotiated the firm, windy and watery Tournament Players Course at The Woodlands with the control and poise that have helped him win two major championships and, now, seven other Tour events. On the final hole of regulation play Stewart rapped in one of the most important birdie putts of his life, a 16-footer to close out a four-under-par 68 that helped him make up seven strokes on his Orlando neighbor Scott Hoch. And then in sudden death, Stewart made a solid par that was good enough to beat the mistake-prone Hoch.
The 38-year-old Stewart's ninth career victory was a testimony to a late-blooming maturity built on the basic realization that hard work and focus are essential to championship golf, while self-pity is not. "You know, you have to want it, and this year I'm making the effort," Stewart said on Sunday. "I've been more honest with myself. I'm the one who controls my destiny."
It wasn't quite that simple at Houston. In order to win, Stewart needed to dodge the customary potential first-time winners who pepper the leader board—players such as Charlie Rymer, Paul Stankowski and Tray Tyner. Rymer, a 6'4", 240-pound rookie of 27 who provided comic relief with an overeating shtick worthy of George Foreman, hung the toughest among the neophytes, making a bogey on the 71st hole to fall into third place. That earned him the princely sum of $95,200, five times his previous earnings for the year, which nearly insures that he will retain his exempt status for next season. "That's awesome," Rymer said afterward. "American Express has got a hit squad looking for me. Now I can pay 'em off."
But more than anything, Stewart got a Mother Teresa-caliber assist from the tragic Hoch. A 39-year-old winner of five tournaments, Hoch started the day with a five-shot lead and, with two early birdies, built it to seven with 13 holes to go. But from that point on, Hoch leaked so much oil he could have been leaving product samples on behalf of the title sponsor. He bogeyed the 12th, 14th and 16th holes. And then, with his lead down to one on the 383-yard 17th hole and the swing that had been nearly flawless for three days now clearly out of sync, an off-balance Hoch pushed a seven-iron from 148 yards into the lake fronting the green. The resulting double bogey put Hoch one stroke behind.
If ever a player was whipped, busted and disgusted, it had to be Hoch. So what did he do? He drove well on the 445-yard 18th and steered his approach 40 feet left of the pin. When he got to the green, Hoch made a playful black-magic gesture toward Stewart, who smiled, shrugged and said, "Knock it in."
"I just thought he'd make it," Stewart said later. "I was prepared for him to do it." Which, somehow, Hoch did.
Seeing the ball dive into the hole must have sent a jolt through Stewart's system to rival the shock he received when another of his friends, Paul Azinger, holed out a sand shot on the 72nd hole to beat him at the 1993 Memorial. But rather than bemoan his fate, Stewart took a long walk up the fairway to the 18th tee, where the playoff would begin, and gathered his faculties. He reminded himself that even though his lifetime record in playoffs was 2-5, he was undefeated in the 1990s, having most recently beaten Scott Simpson in an 18-hole U.S. Open playoff at Hazeltine in 1991.
Stewart, with the honor, drove well and then watched as Hoch made two more mistakes. First he hooked his three-wood off the tee into some trees, and then he pulled his six-iron approach from the rough over the green and against the steep back slope of a bunker. Hoch's stance was so awkward—his left foot was in the bunker, and he was kneeling with his right knee behind him on the fringe—that he actually lost his balance and fell on his back while trying to set up. The symbolism of that collapse was almost cruel, though Hoch was able to force a game smile. He finally blasted past the pin and left a 20-footer coming back just short. After missing a 15-foot putt for birdie, Stewart had one of the most mentally challenging four-footers he had ever had to make. Although he contended afterward that he had been "shaking like a leaf," he drilled the putt in the middle of the cup. Stewart was finally a winner again, and Hoch, who has suffered a disproportionate number of painful defeats in the last decade, was once again a loser.