What was 1995 in golf?
The mind flashes back to Ben Crenshaw and Corey Pavin on the 72nd holes at Augusta and Shinnecock Hills, respectively, each doubled over with his head bowed from the force of the emotional tidal waves that struck them at the Masters and the U.S. Open. An accompanying image is of Costantino Rocca, who let the psychological tsunami resulting from his 65-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole at St. Andrews pitch him face first into the Valley of Sin. Then there's a montage that includes the numbed expressions of America's Ryder Cup team sitting next to the 18th green at Oak Hill, Mark McCumber putting his thumb and forefinger on the 7th green at Firestone and Ben Wright getting caught in a wringer.
But unless you were one of the rare citizens who could actually get the Golf Channel, much of the rest of the season has become a blur. A few will remember that it started with a temporarily healthy Fred Couples winning two tournaments overseas in January, while Peter Jacobsen took the first two PGA Tour events in February. On the LPGA tour, long hitters Laura Davies and Michelle McGann each scored two victories, and Betsy King finally got her 30th career win to get into the most exclusive Hall of Fame in sports. Before the season ended, Lee Janzen had won his third tournament of the year, and Colin Montgomerie, who lost the PGA Championship in sudden death to Steve Elkington, had taken his third straight European Order of Merit. The results rolled in with metronomic regularity, the consequence of a worldwide schedule crammed full. By the time the Silly Season got cranked up in November, Billy Mayfair's two wins and $1,543,192 in earnings seemed as forgettable as the golf played by the most prominent player of the previous two years, Nick Price.
Upon reflection, 1995 was rich with extraordinary achievements by players who already have become the focal points of 1996. Those who stepped up the tallest were Greg Norman, who proved himself golf's most unrelenting force; Pavin, John Daly, Annika Sorenstam and Tiger Woods, all of whom carved their names deeper into history; and Curtis Strange, who demonstrated the most difficult, yet most basic, way to be a champion.
Norman was everywhere in 1995. He began the year as the point man in a bungled attempt to establish a World Tour and ended it as the unyielding accuser of McCumber, who Norman insists illegally flattened a spike mark along his putting line at the World Series of Golf. It was in between those two episodes that the Shark made his most indelible mark. On the field of battle Norman was clearly the outstanding male player of the year.
In just 16 PGA Tour events, Norman had three victories—his most ever in 13 seasons on the U.S. Tour—and finished out of the top 20 only once. For those who say that Norman has not won enough to be considered an important player, his 15 career victories on the PGA Tour are more than any exempt player under the age of 50 except Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins, Hubert Green, Crenshaw and Strange, all of whom have played the Tour longer. This season Norman earned $1,654,959 in official money, a record, and passed Kite in alltime earnings, with $9,592,829. His stroke average of 69.06 was more than half a stroke better than next-best Elkington's. He proved he is more consistent in all aspects of his game, and as his victories at Memorial, Hartford and the World Series showed, he is able to win even when he isn't hitting on all cylinders. It was a season that lent credence to the notion that at 40, the man who did not take up golf seriously until he was 17 still has his best years ahead of him.
It was by no means a perfect year. At Augusta, where he tied for third, and at Shinnecock, where he was second by two strokes, Norman provided more ammunition to those who say he still lacks the sophisticated skills and judgment needed to win majors. But by the sheer weight of his record, and the persistence with which he has striven to improve, Norman has finally gained the overwhelming respect of his peers. Many of them once suspected him of being largely a marketing creation who was suspect down the stretch, but Norman has proved to be far more than a pretty boy. He endured a difficult swing transition, trained ferociously to make himself one of the fittest players in the game and rebounded from devastating defeats with his spirit intact. "There were a lot of questions about Greg, particularly his ability to finish," said Strange. "But there's no way you can't respect what he's achieved, and I think he will continue to get better."
Yet as the year ended, there was an unsettling air about Norman. He and Butch Harmon, the architect of the flatter, more rotational swing that in 1993 was the key to Norman's revival from a two-year slump, may be parting company. Having left IMG two years ago, Norman is now regularly accompanied by his business manager, Frank Williams, who encouraged Norman to push for the World Tour. His fellow competitors note that Norman has stopped being an agreeable playing partner and that off the course he generally seems rushed and tense. Norman's strained relationship with his peers is evident as he speaks about his hope that they vote him PGA Tour Player of the Year for the first time. "But I don't expect to get it," he said. "I don't think these guys will vote for me."
While Norman engenders a wide spectrum of opinions, Pavin's performance in 1995 leaves little room for ambivalence. He is universally regarded as the best pressure player in the game. Pavin has been gaining this reputation gradually over the years. The mitigating factor was his inability to win in the most pressure-packed events of all, the majors. But when Pavin pulled off a flawless final round of 68 at Shinnecock, outmanaging a bunch at the top that included Norman and coming up with his epic four-wood from 228 uphill yards on the 72nd for, the perfect closer,' he officially became golf's Mr. Clutch.
Pavin added to his aura at the Ryder Cup, where he was a quietly intense leader by example. First in an alternate shot match against Nick Faldo and Montgomerie, then in better ball against Faldo and Bernhard Langer, he rose at the crucial moment. When he chipped in from the fringe at the 18th hole to win the latter match, Pavin reacted with a look of eerie calm. "I just enjoyed watching my teammates react, but I wasn't that excited," said Pavin. "It was one of those times when I had put all my energy into playing the actual shot, just the shot I had to hit then and there, and even after it went in, I was still kind of in a zone."