What was it about last week's Greater Hartford Open at the TPC at River Highlands? Greg Norman left feeling old. Norman, who played in the pro-am with John Rowland, the 39-year-old governor of Connecticut, kept saying that he was 42 even though that birthday is seven months off. Sure enough, after being run out of town over the weekend, the Shark had aged.
Tom Kite, 46, didn't want the feeling he had to go away. He hadn't had this much fun in, what, 17 months? The putts were rolling, and there he was, finally in the hunt again. "Man, I wish I'd committed to [this week's] Western Open," Kite kept repeating after finishing second.
And D.A. Weibring, 43, was feeling healthy, mostly, and that alone was a refreshing change. Weibring lost control of his right eye to Bell's palsy four months ago, yet it was the left one that was causing all the trouble on Sunday. He's not ashamed to show his emotions, but tearing up and succumbing to them might have kept him from winning the tournament. After playing a terrific seven-iron shot from a fairway bunker to within 12 feet of the hole at the 17th to guarantee victory, Weibring instructed his caddie to talk to him, to say anything to take his mind off the tears that were welling in his good eye.
It was a far cry from where he had been on Feb. 26. That was supposed to be the day Weibring ended a seven-week, pneumonia-imposed hiatus from competition. Instead he woke up with the right half of his face paralyzed, then choked on his breakfast cereal. When Weibring's condition was diagnosed as Bell's palsy, a disorder without known cause that is basically untreatable, he was given steroids to bring down the swelling in his face and was told the paralysis would abate in three weeks to six months, with a 20% chance that it would never go away.
During the five weeks in which he had no movement on that side of his head he would enthrall friends of his daughters—Katey, 13, and Allison, eight—with a grotesque half smile, but he could clearly see the fear in the eyes of his 16-year-old son, Matt. Weibring couldn't shave and, to hide his paralyzed features, he wore a hat and sunglasses. Still, his appearance freaked out unwitting passersby. "You don't know how bad you looked," Matt told his dad on Sunday before the final round.
Drop by drop Weibring splashed an ocean onto his unblinking right eye to keep it from drying out, and at night his wife would tape it shut so that he could get the three hours of sleep that now passed for a good night's rest. Bending made him dizzy, and when he tried to play golf he couldn't see the ground clearly. With his vision distorted and his depth perception compromised, Weibring was afraid he would miscalculate the distance between himself and the ball and slam his club into the earth, possibly reinjuring a vulnerable right wrist.
Weibring worried that his Tour career might be over after 19 years. After he began to recover, he worked hard to get his game back in shape, but Hartford was only his seventh start since contracting the palsy, and just the third time he had survived the cut. Weibring still contends with "a flickering feeling" in his right eye and a small degree of unease whenever he gets in front of a camera. "In the pro-am picture they took on the 2nd tee you can see my left eye squinting and my right eye wide open," he said. "It looks like I'd had about 12 beers."
When that picture was taken, Weibring's expectations for the week were low, but by Sunday his biggest problem was keeping in check an overwhelming sense of pride. "I lost it a couple of times out there because the quality of what I was doing was so good," he said. "That's what you practice and play for, to perform in that situation."
During his illness Weibring would work out and dream about winning again, yet even an aerobically charged imagination could not conjure up such a convincing victory so soon. Weibring's 10-under-par 270 left him four strokes clear of Kite and five ahead of Mark Calcavecchia, Dicky Pride and Fuzzy Zoeller.
When Norman went to his gym back home in Hobe Sound, Fla., last weekend, it was to banish any thoughts of River Highlands. Norman vented his anger and frustration during the most punishing exercise session he has put himself through in years. It beat looking at the clock and wondering what might have been in Hartford.