There was no mistaking the buzz in that smoky clubhouse a few weeks back. Nick Price was lingering over a bottled water, and all around him talk of golf's major championships was in the air. The U.S. Open had come and gone, the British was up next, and just after that would be the PGA Championship. But in the midst of all the forecasting and pontificating, one name was strangely absent—Price's. From the sound of things, Price's presence would be little more than ceremonial, like Arnold Palmer's annual appearance at the Masters. It was astonishing, considering that Price, 39, has won three majors in the '90s, more than any other player save Nick Faldo, and two seasons ago was so overpowering that people were comparing him with Ben Hogan. When the oversight was brought to Price's attention, he broke into an impish grin. "That's nice," he said. "Doesn't bother me at all. On the contrary, I like the sound of that." Price paused to take a swig, which seemed only to heat him up. "I'm looking forward to showing them how wrong they are for writing me off."
Price did just that at last week's PGA Championship, shooting 68-71-69-72 to tie for eighth at eight under par, three shots back, of Mark Brooks. It was Price's best showing in a major since he won the '94 PGA, but it was more than that. It was the surest sign yet that the traumas of the last two years—the bad business decision, the bad putting and the bad health—are finally in his rearview mirror. Price has stopped his free fall and is starting another ascent to the game's highest level. "I'll be back—I have no reservations about that," Price said Sunday evening in the Valhalla locker room, between drags on a cigarette. "I'm this close. We have a saying back home: I'm just one hair away from running off some wins. When that happens, the people with the short memories may be surprised, but I won't."
For the better part of four days at Valhalla, Price was long and strong off the tee, precise with penetrating iron shots and clutch with the putter. In short, he looked like the Price of old. From the 1992 PGA to the end of '94, Price won 17 tournaments worldwide (11 on the PGA Tour), including the 1994 British Open. One wouldn't expect someone with that kind of resume to settle for a moral victory, but Price developed a long view during his two seasons of adversity. "You have to be patient," he says. "You can't force wins, they just happen. But I'll tell you, I'm pumped up. I still love the challenge. Being on the leader board didn't make me nervous, it made me excited."
Those closest to Price were equally encouraged. "This was a big stepping-stone," says his caddie, Jeff (Squeeky) Medlen. "He's worked so hard, and it's been such a battle for him to get it back. I think this week has shown that he has."
"This is the best I've seen him play in a long, long time," says David Leadbetter, Price's swing coach. "He is looking very much like his old self."
Price still has the vortex-inducing backswing of years past, and the same aerodynamic haircut. He hasn't lost his clipped accent from growing up in Zimbabwe or the endearingly boyish vulgarity he saves for private conversations, and he remains one of the most popular players in the locker room. But things have changed. Not only is Price overlooked in the premajor predictions, but he also no longer even gets put in the A-list Thursday-Friday pairings, which on Tour are as much a barometer of a player's status as the seating chart at Drai's is for Hollywood types. At the PGA, Corey Pavin played with Greg Norman and Davis Love III, Ernie Els was sent out with Tom Watson and Tom Kite, and Fred Couples was in a threesome with Colin Montgomerie and Fuzzy Zoeller. Price was stuck with Mike Reid, an alternate who didn't even make the field until Wednesday, and Bob Tway. Price has won as many majors as Pavin, Els and Couples combined, but that's what happens when you're about to celebrate the two-year anniversary of your last win.
Price's slump started late in 1994 as a hangover from his intoxicating success that summer and carried over into the 1995 season. Burned out by the demands and intrusions of being the No. 1 player in the world, Price went in search of a multimillion-dollar endorsement contract. Ultimately he signed an ill-fated deal, reportedly for 10 years at $25 million, to design a signature line of irons for Atrigon Golf. The clubs were never made, and only recently has Price extricated himself from the arrangement. At the same time, Price moved his family into a manse on Hobe Sound, Fla. "There was a period there of four or five months when I stopped paying attention to my golf game," he says. "I basically didn't practice, and it showed." By the time Price got interested again, he had lost his edge and was on the way to his first winless season since 1990.
Putting problems began to crop up, and still do. Price rolled the ball well last week at Valhalla, but he never really got hot, and there was no magic like the 50-footer he made on the 71st hole to win the British Open in '94. Even when he was torching the golf world, Price was never a great putter. "The only time I get nervous is on the greens," he says. Adds Leadbetter, "Let's just say that practicing putting is not the love of his life." At the start of this season Price had worked through the problems, and in a span of nine tournaments from March to mid-May had four top-five finishes. Then he was torpedoed by a deviated septum that affected his sinuses, upset his equilibrium and led to chronic fatigue. "The doctor looked up my nose and said, 'It's not good,' " Price says. "Here, listen." He puts his nose near the ear of a reporter, and his breathing produces a noise somewhere between light snore and mufflerless VW Bug. Medication has gotten him back to nearly full strength (he will probably have surgery in December), but Price spent six weeks on the sidelines and withdrew from the U.S. Open. The PGA was his fifth start since the middle of May, and only recently has he had the strength to practice. This rustiness caught up with him at Valhalla, where little mistakes cost him a shot at the championship.
The hardships of a sinus problem are nothing compared with the wrenching news Price got last month. Medlen, his sidekick since 1991, has been found to have leukemia. It has been a solemn time, but player and caddie have soldiered on, finding respite between the ropes and in the overwhelming support from fans and the golf community. "It's not a distraction, it's a comfort having him at my side," Price says. "We've been together so long that it's hard for us to be apart."
Medlen, 42, remained at home in Canal Winchester, Ohio, with his wife, Dianne, instead of traveling to the British Open. Doctors did not want Medlen to go overseas in case he developed a reaction to his medication. (Without him, his boss finished 44th.) Medlen intends to have a bone marrow transplant soon. He is taking pills to keep his white blood cell count in the normal range, though his weight has dropped from 178 pounds to 149. His mother, Jackie, is an 85% match for the transplant, which is acceptable, but his doctors are waiting in hopes of finding a closer fit. "It's like a risk-reward shot in golf," Medlen says. "Chances are, good things might work out, but there is also the chance they won't."