It has been a while since Mark Calcavecchia was the fearless man-child who fired at every flagstick knowing any mistake would be erased by a routinely magical up and down. At 34 he may still affect the studied indifference of a too-talented adolescent, but the player whose name means "old shoe" in Italian has been scuffed up pretty good by the humbling game.
At various times in the last five years, during which he has blown a handful of opportunities to win golf tournaments, Calcavecchia has lost his confidence, his short game and his self-esteem. He admits he may never completely recover from the 1991 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island, where he hit arguably the worst-looking pressure shot ever seen on network television—a knee-high, half-shanked two-iron tee shot that dropped into a lake a full 100 yards short of the flag on the 233-yard 17th hole—in the course of losing a 4-up lead with four to play in his final-day singles match against Colin Montgomerie. The collapse left Calcavecchia so distraught that after the match he had to be treated for hyperventilation. It also forever altered Calcavecchia's image as one who thrived on the big moment. He has been perceived ever since as a player for whom total disaster is not out of the question.
But at last week's BellSouth Classic at the Atlanta Country Club, Calcavecchia as battered veteran fit the profile of several of the most recent winners on the PGA Tour. The theme of resurrection among good players gone bad was set in February, when Peter Jacobsen arose to become the hottest player in the world. In the weeks since Jacobsen became a double winner, Mark O'Meara has won at Honda, Bob Tway at Hilton Head and Payne Stewart at Houston. The most recent victory for any of them had come in 1992. So when Calcavecchia birdied three of the last four holes on Sunday for a 66 that gave him a two-stroke victory over Jim Gallagher, he was simply following the example of his peers.
Not that Calcavecchia was feeling anything close to predestined when he arrived at the 71st hole with a one stroke lead. He hadn't won since January '92 and had had no other victories in the '90s after winning three tournaments in 1989, including the British Open. "You begin to doubt you can do it anymore," Calcavecchia said Sunday. "The players are so good, and you start to wonder how many ways you can blow it."
On the tee of the 421-yard par-4 hole, Calcavecchia was very close to considering which way he would choose. After addressing his tee shot, he stepped away and, to save face, asked whoever was jingling change in his pocket to stop. "I just made that up," he said later. "I didn't know if my brain was rattling." When he finally did hit, he produced a weak block that came to rest behind trees in the right rough.
Now faced with 192 yards to a pin tucked tight behind a bunker in the front right corner of the green, Calcavecchia knew he was in a position from which he could make "anything." But instead of letting the shell-shocked warhorse hit the shot, Calcavecchia dug deep and found the same fearless kid who had clinched the British Open by stiffing a five-iron from the right rough at the 18th at Troon.
"I thought I might hit a bad shot in there because I was nervous," said Calcavecchia. "But then I thought, 'Just see the shot.' And I visualized this cut-across four-iron. As soon as I hit it, I started running up, because I knew it was perfect. It was the perfect shot at the perfect time." The ball soared over and around trees, curved hard to the right and landed gently, stopping 12 feet from the hole. Calcavecchia made the putt, then birdied the par-5 18th for his eighth career victory.
Afterward, Calcavecchia was both exhilarated and cautious. "Handling pressure is funny," he said. "Sometimes you are able to do it, and sometimes you aren't. Today I was, and I'm not sure why. I know this puts Kiawah Island farther behind me. I've proved I can hit shots when I have to. I'm a smarter player now. I used to be more aggressive, more fearless, and my short game was better. But the mental side of my game has picked up quite a bit, and I'm more dedicated. I'd like to think I'm back."
Atlanta was a rejuvenating tournament all around. Besides Calcavecchia, Curtis Strange, who is completely winless in the '90s, took another step in the right direction with a final-round 65, which put him in a tie for fourth with Scott Verplank, the former boy wonder who last won in 1988 but in the last two years has steadily come back from injuries to being competitive again.
But the award for most inspirational player of the week had to go to Stephen Keppler, who by finishing alone in third came within three strokes of becoming the first club pro to win on the PGA Tour since Richie Karl did so in the B.C. Open in 1974. The 34-year-old Keppler, an Englishman who walked away from the European tour 10 years ago, held together admirably with a final-round 71 that earned him $88,400 to take back to Summit Chase Country Club in nearby Snellville, where he is head pro.