It has been said that a golfer starts the day with at least 18 enemies, and 14 more if you include the implements he's forced to use to fight the battle. But lately on the PGA Tour, it seems that there are two particularly persistent marauders—one named Expectations and the other a two-headed monster called Illness and Injury.
Expectations is a dirty word among players who have risen to the loftiest levels of the game. It signifies the process by which the public and press apply relentless pressure to a successful or promising player to exceed the best he has ever done. Expectations have left Fred Couples and Davis Love III in their wake, made Greg Norman chronically defensive and appear to be doing a number on the world's current No. 1, Nick Price.
Illness and Injury are more time-honored foes, but they have had a particularly remorseless run in the recent past. Illness nearly ended the career of Paul Azinger, while Injury has slowed down several prominent players, most notably Couples and Norman.
It's not just the high profile players who have been stung. At last week's Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth, two players, Tom Lehman and Scott Verplank, emerged victorious from their respective battles with the forces of evil, and demonstrated for the moment that they are winning the war.
The most obvious victor was Lehman, who pulled off a dramatic stretch run that overtook the leader, Woody Austin, with nine holes to go. Lehman's charge climaxed when he holed birdie putts of 15 and 25 feet on the final two holes to defeat Craig Parry by one stroke.
It was the first victory for Lehman since he overwhelmed the field by five strokes a year ago at another classic site, the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio. Since that time, Lehman has performed consistently, but he has not closed well on Sundays, particularly at the Heritage Classic at Hilton Head Island, S.C., in April. There he was the midway leader by four strokes after opening 67-65, only to finish 75-73 and fall back to 24th.
But it was during that tournament that Lehman sensed that he was inordinately fatigued and that something was physically wrong with him. He went home to Scottsdale, Ariz., and underwent a physical, during which polyps were found in his colon. Because they were discovered at an early stage, they were removed easily at the Mayo Clinic and Lehman was given a clean bill of health. When Lehman returned two weeks ago to the Buick Classic at Westchester (N.Y.) after a four-week break, he was refreshed and, secure in the knowledge that his confidence-sapping performance at Hilton Head was due to his illness, felt freed from the pressure he had been putting on himself. He finished 14th and went to Fort Worth relaxed and eager. As things turned out, Colonial was just what the doctor ordered.
"I felt like I needed a tournament where I made some big putts down the stretch," said Lehman on Sunday night. "This week was the first time all year I felt refreshed and ready to play, and I've learned you have to be energized to compete out here. If I'm on my game, there's nobody out here that I am afraid of."
Though six years younger than Lehman, the 30-year-old Verplank is much more scared due to his prolonged and frequent tussles with the two aforementioned antagonists. For all the veterans in the neighborhood of 40 who have been making midlife comebacks in 1995, none have been through the intense roller coaster that has been Verplank's brief career over the last decade. And speaking of comebacks, none can be considered any more miraculous than Verplank's recent surge.
After taking 18 months off to allow a career-threatening elbow injury to heal, Verplank rejoined the Tour in early 1994 and has shown the steadiest prolonged upward curve of his pro career. Playing last year on a medical extension and sponsors' exemptions, he finished 97th on the money list to regain a full exemption for 1995. This year, though he has played in only 12 events to reduce the strain on his right arm, Verplank has missed just two cuts, had no other finish worse than 36th, and ranks eighth on the Tour in scoring. Most impressive, his 12th place finish at Colonial came on the heels of a tie for fourth at the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta and a tie for fifth at the Byron Nelson, giving him the three highest consecutive finishes of his career.