You want to be a somebody on the PGA Tour? Go to the Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich., where everyone's a star—club pros, hog farmers, you name it. But really, how does a bank teller with a bum knee, Woody Austin, outshine the Tour's bright lights down the stretch and then dust another guy you never heard of, Mike Brisky, in sudden death to win for the first time? There's no accounting, unless Austin was in the wrong line of work all those years at the credit union in Tampa.
Players don't exactly go to the Buick for the cuisine, unless they're into cheese cubes. They don't go thereto hobnob with prestigious corporate sponsors like Flint Boxmakers and Bristol Steel and Conveyor, or to luxuriate at the Holiday Inn Holidome off Route 23. They go there to take shameless advantage of Warwick Hills, a feel-good par-72 where you too can look like a highly skilled professional. Memo to all tournament directors: If you want a strong field and a crazy finish, forget the courtesy cars and free condos with kitchenettes. Get a pushover like Warwick Hills.
Put Jeff Sluman, Ernie Els, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart near the top of the leader board in the late innings of a $1.2 million tournament, and you don't expect a guy named Woody to win. Here's a 31-year-old rookie with Coke bottle glasses and baggy khakis bunched around his knees and ankles who says repertoire when he means rapport. No, Woody couldn't talk the talk, but while all of the name brands bogeyed instead of birdied, Austin walked the walk by beating Brisky on the second hole of overtime with a routine par. Brisky had knocked his eight-iron approach to the par-4 10th into a bunker, where it buried. Austin two-putted, then two-stepped into the arms of his caddie, Tim Mork.
What those who follow the Tour closely are coming to realize is that beneath Austin's frumpy exterior is a fine and crazily determined player. After spending years in Tampa making change and rehabilitating the torn ligaments in his left knee, Austin has emerged to finish in the top 15 nine times in his inaugural season. Now 19th on the money list with over a half million in earnings, Austin would have been big news months ago if another rookie, David Duval, hadn't been hogging the headlines. And don't let the looks fool you: Austin has burned deeply for this kind of success. In fact, he has been known to smack himself in the face, hard, for hitting a bad shot. "I have a weird temper," he says. "I don't throw my clubs. I know it's not the club's fault. It's mine."
From the beginning, when Austin shot a 63 to hold the first-round lead, this Buick was a triumph for the struggling every-man, for the Tom Byrums and Bruce Vaughans and Jim Furyks who kept popping up like moles all over Warwick Hills. And for Brisky, a 30-year-old journeyman from Brownsville, Texas, who has been through Q school twice and is a good buddy of Austin's going back to their days on the Florida mini-tours. As they stood on the 18th tee to begin the playoff, they slapped each other on the back. "I guess we were a couple of unknowns," Austin said later. "I've played with Mike so much, I was kind of at ease."
That was pretty much how everyone felt during the course of the week. Rain had softened Warwick Hills' 7,105 user-friendly yards, and as usual, the game was how low can you go? In fact, by week's end Warwick Hills ranked as the third-easiest course on Tour this year among those on which four rounds were played (behind Tucson National and Torrey Pines). The pros averaged 70.658 strokes, to be exact, which was not a surprise at a place where the doglegs barely dog, the shallow bunkers look like good spots to stretch out a towel and catch some rays, and there is no water to speak of other than one largely ornamental pond on the 13th hole. Coppices, menacing at first glance, turn out to be spacious and forgiving, affording clear lines of exit to the greens. "A lot of the holes give you an out," Sluman said. It was a beautifully manicured course. It was an inoffensive course. It was a good course for the Elks Lodge scramble.
It's always a bad sign when players like a golf course too much. That usually means they are about to devour it. A five-hour rain delay on Thursday and the invocation of the lift, clean and place rule made the already untaxing course totally defenseless. "It feels like you could shoot 59," Stewart said. Uh-oh. He proceeded to shoot 65-65 for the second-round lead.
Anybody and everybody took advantage. Vaughan, a 38-year-old from Hutchinson, Kans., who has explored alternative careers as a fireman and a pig farmer, was one of four players to shoot opening 65s and tie for second behind Austin. Another was J.L. Lewis, a club pro from Austin. That was just for openers. Furyk, the 25-year-old with the funky swing, set a course record of 62 in the second round with 10 birdies and no bogeys.
After two rounds, 13 of Warwick Hills' holes averaged under par, including seven on the back nine. There were 1,150 birdies the first two days, and the cut fell at four under, just one off the Tour record.
Players like Nick Faldo, who thrive on getting around difficult courses with a minimum of mistakes, got lost in all the red numbers. Faldo has never been a scorcher. He used the Buick to prep for this week's PGA Championship and was clearly irritated by this shoot-out. "On a course like this, the way it's playing, you feel like you have to hit it stiff every single time," Faldo said, rolling his eyes.