Steve Elkington's house takes a visitor by surprise. Set amid a suburban Houston neighborhood of handsome but somewhat stolid brick structures, it is a sprawling, white plantation house with forest green shutters and an airy veranda. The place conveys a feeling of languid days spent in low, cool light, all the more because the main building and a guest cottage are connected by a wide expanse of lawn, lush foliage and a canopy of majestic trees. It's a finely detailed home with character and style, and the surprise is that it rose from the vision of a 33-year-old professional athlete.
A closer look at the garden reveals trimming tight enough to suit a boutique buzz cut. It turns out that during those periods when he isn't gracing the Tour with the most aesthetically pleasing and technically flawless swing in golf, Elkington can often be found out in this megayard, black earth caked on his elbows, a big man manicuring his zoysia grass and lovingly tending to his carefully segregated sections of roses, camellias and bonsai. Actually, Elkington will tell you that there are more than 100 species of flora that live on the acre he shares with his wife, Lisa, and their nine-month-old daughter, Annie.
Elkington grew up greening his thumbs in a more modest English-style garden as the son of a middle-class banker in Wagga Wagga, a small town on the eastern edge of Australia's outback more than 200 miles from Sydney. Despite allergies to grass that require daily doses of antihistamines, and skin so fair that doctors have recommended that he check for melanoma every three months, he has never lost his love for horticulture. A round at his home course, Houston's Champions Golf Club, will find him leaving the fairway to study some flora in the same automatic way that Arnold Palmer's head jerks up when he hears the engine of a plane.
"It's in me," explains Elkington in a rapidly direct Aussie delivery that seems too forceful when the subject is roses. "Anywhere I go in the world, I study gardens. I'll go to seminars and listen to scientists. I don't get bored." Adds Robert McKinney, the architect of Elkington's house, a three-time club champion at Champions but a high-handicap gardener, "Steve is one of those people whom plants respond to. He's got this great nurturing patience. Eventually, everything he touches seems to flourish."
It turns out, not surprisingly, that Elkington has cultivated his career with the same kind of inexorable care. After sprouting from a land with a rich history of champions, Elkington instinctively set about establishing a root system of wise mentors and sound fundamentals to go with a relentless desire to improve. Nature has taken its course, and as the 1996 season begins, Elkington is in the midst of a bloom that could be as powerful and sustained as any the sport has seen in some time.
It began in earnest at this time last year when Elkington opened with a victory at the Mercedes Championships. He then embarked on a solid and perhaps foreshadowing performance in the four majors, in which his total strokes among those players who made the cut in all four was four less than the next closest player, countryman Greg Norman. Although Elkington tied for fifth at the Masters and sixth at the British Open, he let late opportunities slip away in both with tentative play down the stretch. "It was there, and then it was gone," is his haunting memory of St. Andrews, where he lost by two after a bogey on the Road Hole. So when Elkington got into position after three rounds of the PGA Championship at Riviera, the lessons he learned bore fruit. Playing what he would call the round of his life, Elkington put his game into overdrive, shot at every pin and never stopped. His 64 finished off the lowest 72-hole score in a major championship—267—and he closed the deal with a 25-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death to defeat Colin Montgomerie.
Elkington was playing at such a high level that what passed for his postmajor letdown included runner-up finishes at the World Match Play, where he lost in the final to Ernie Els; the Tour Championship; and the Grand Slam of Golf, where his do-or-die explosion from 70 feet on the final hole just barely missed topping Ben Crenshaw's pin-rattling hole-out from 80 yards. And, oh, yes, Elkington also won the Vardon Trophy for lowest stroke average on Tour.
"I've played good before, but this was great," says Elkington. "What's interesting is how little difference there is between the two."
To the casual fan the difference was drastic. Part of the perception that Elkington came out of nowhere was due to his having spent much of 1993 and 1994 severely hindered by allergy and sinus problems that eventually required surgery. But it is also true that until last year, Elkington generally had trouble asserting himself when in contention. He had won four Tour events, including the 1991 Players Championship with a spectacular birdie on the final hole, but more often Elkington was the guy who didn't hole big putts, who bogeyed the 18th, who failed to step up in the major. The kind of player the British golf press calls a "nearly man."
"I'd be up in the booth announcing," says his close friend Gary McCord, "and while other guys were going crazy on Sunday holing 30-footers, Elk was always the guy who kept hitting it to 15 feet and just missing the putt."