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IN FULL Bloom
Jaime Diaz
January 15, 1996
Steve Elkington has nourished his career as carefully as he has tended his garden
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January 15, 1996

In Full Bloom

Steve Elkington has nourished his career as carefully as he has tended his garden

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That image, and his own aversion to hype and self-promotion, have left Elkington with a rather low profile that even winning the PGA hasn't overcome. Both Golf World and Golf magazines somehow neglected to include his 64 at Riviera on their lists of best rounds of the year. "I'm used to that, but if Jack Nicklaus had won like I did, they would have put up a damn statue behind the 18th green," says Elkington. On the other hand he suffers no such shortage of recognition among students of the game. "Steve's got more tools than anybody," says Norman, who regularly receives the same accolade. "As far as technique and physical ability, Elk is the best in the game," says Tom Weiskopf. "He's a beautiful player," says Crenshaw, "but not in any kind of superficial way. What's really impressive about Elk is that everything is built to last."

Doing things the enduring way, the quality way, the right way, is the guiding principle in Elkington's life. Add a strong aesthetic sense (he was talented enough to have been offered an art scholarship to the University of Sydney), and it is easy to understand why Elkington is drawn to things built carefully over time, that have a classical bent, that are, frankly, old.

Elkington's house, for example, was designed on the model of a 1791 Baton Rouge plantation called Magnolia Mound. It took two years to build, largely because Elkington's desire for complete authenticity required a search for century-old doors of cypress and floors made of longleaf red pine.

Considered one of the classiest dressers in golf, Elkington favors custom-tailored clothing in fine fabrics (he has pants that are 1% mink), flowing lines, subtle patterns and muted colors that were the trademark of great players like Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Tommy Bolt. "I wish the players would start dressing like they did on the Tour in the '50s," he says. "Those clothes made you look like a better player."

Of course, Elkington's signature—his golf swing—is the ultimate reflection of classical tastes. The action was shaped early by the example and instruction of Alex Mercer, the former professional at Royal Sydney and Australia's longtime national coach who began giving Elkington lessons after he qualified for the New South Wales junior team at age 14. Each Friday after school, Steve and his older brother, Robert, would take the 14-hour train ride from Wagga Wagga to Sydney to spend the weekend with Mercer, returning in time for school on Monday. Steve was a model student who worked tirelessly to incorporate Mercer's guiding principles of balance, rhythm and tempo. "He is the master of those three areas," says Mercer—who at 61 remains Elkington's primary teacher—by telephone from his home in Sydney. "He never questioned me, was a tireless worker and never got swept up in being a teenager."

Everything about Elkington's play is pleasing to the eye. Besides possessing an athletic grace, he is a brisk player who, once he picks a club, moves with streamlined efficiency. Over the ball he eschews a waggle and moves smoothly into a textbook backswing. His forward swing is devoid of any rerouting of the club or ungainly leg action. Instead, with an economical rotation of his weight toward the target, he sweeps his long arms and heavy shoulders through the ball with unrushed yet palpably powerful force. Perhaps the most classic element of Elkington's action is a finish that presents a pose so striking it might inspire Madonna to take up the game. "I'm a seminervous person," explains Elkington, "but I never feel nervous during my swing." Since devoting himself to heavy-resistance workouts over the last four years (he can leg-press 500 pounds 15 times), the 6'2" Elkington has gained consistency as he has grown from 190 pounds to a broad-backed 214. The strength and thickness have given him a more stable base and further reduced unnecessary movement in his swing. Whereas he used to lack tremendous length, Elkington now has an extra 20 yards at the ready.

"Elk swings more like Sam Snead than anyone else I can think of," says Weiskopf. "He doesn't have the lower-body slide and curve in the back that Nicklaus and Miller and I had. He's been influenced by Faldo and Strange, but he has a cleaner motion. I think of him as a modern classic, kind of a throwback to a golden era." Elkington likes the idea of being a throwback, so much so that he has fitted his life into a kind of time tunnel. Although he mixes easily on the practice tee and in the locker room, he is close to very few players his own age. Elkington's confidants are older.

He calls Mercer twice a week to talk about golf or life in general. Elkington and the 51-year-old Weiskopf are tight—Elkington has often been a guest at Weiskopf's Paradise Valley, Ariz., home, and he describes his favorite day ever in golf as a round with Weiskopf at Loch Lomond in Scotland that was followed by a whisky-fueled bull session. "Steve has got a million questions," says Weiskopf. "He wants to know all about the guys I played with: about Bolt and Hogan and Nicklaus. He wants to know how to hit shots. He just loves the traditions of golf, and he wants to fill his life with the best parts of the game."

Explains Elkington, "My dad taught me when I was little, young doesn't learn from young. Young learns from old. Period. I've never learned anything from young people in my life." Elkington's best friend and closest confidant is 72-year-old Jack Burke, the former Masters and PGA champion who along with Jimmy Demaret founded Champions. Elkington first met Burke shortly after arriving in the U.S. in 1981 to attend Houston on a golf scholarship. After turning pro, Elkington paid his own way to join Champions and was soon absorbing knowledge as a regular guest at Burke's breakfast table.

Elkington calls Burke "my secret weapon." Although Burke professes a disdain for golf's so-called gurus, he is in fact a guru in the truest sense to Elkington, a kind of philosopher-king imparting wisdom with a witty turn of phrase and a captivating delivery. Burke warns against the perils of "the money pot," the pursuit of wealth before improvement, and against "confetti," which is shorthand for the cardinal sin of celebrating before the last putt is holed. Most of all, he believes that no matter what a player accomplishes, he must always "tiptoe in on the game," Burke's way of saying the traditions of golf should remain sacred and larger than any individual.

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