Sand doesn't usually scare Tour pros. They look at the stuff as a nuisance, something that can get under their contact lenses or in their shoes. Today's uniformly groomed bunkers have made the neatly nipped explosion shot golf's equivalent of the free throw. But at last week's Doral-Ryder Open in Miami, the bunkers played like what the Rules of Golf say they are—hazards. Raymond Floyd, hired to restore the Blue Monster to something resembling the course that scared the bejesus out of him when he was a 20-year-old rookie in 1963, rebuilt, enlarged and added enough bunkers to make what had been a relatively roomy layout as tight as any U.S. Open track. Floyd topped off his work with thousands of tons of fluffy white sand, and because it hadn't had time to settle and was therefore inconsistent, the pros played as if Gene Sarazen had never invented the sand wedge.
All week the powdery stuff from the 117 bunkers—18 of which are new—blew through the air as golfers, used to landing in maybe three or four bunkers a round, played out of half a dozen or more. And many balls settled into awkward lies or were buried completely. Even normally easy shots were riddles. Balls were fluffed or bladed, spun too much or too little, and hit too long or too short. A common sight last week was a frustrated player slamming his club into a wall of sand. "I never raked so much in my life, and we won," said an exhausted Joe (Gypsy) Grillo, who caddied for Steve Elkington. Elkington emerged from the Doral desert with a 13-under-par 275, two strokes better than Nick Price and Larry Nelson, who will be eligible to join the Senior tour in September.
The capriciousness of the sand was best illustrated in the third round. First Price sank a 38-yard bunker shot on the 4th hole; then at the 13th, faced with another of about the same length, he skulled it 100 yards over the green. "Probably the best and worst shots of my life," said Price. Behind him last Saturday, Greg Norman, who was making his 1997 U.S. debut, came to the fearsome 18th contending for the lead, but he hit a fat four-iron shot from a fairway bunker into the lake to the left of the green and made double bogey. He ultimately finished ninth. On Sunday third-round leader David Duval, still looking for his first Tour win, was done in when he barely moved a 20-foot bunker shot at the 15th hole. Fie wound up fourth. Even Elkington failed to get up and down after he hit into greenside bunkers twice over the a final six holes.
When all the exploding, head shaking and sand raking were over, Elkington, a 34-year-old Australian, had his seventh Tour victory and his first since the '95 PGA Championship. His plan of attack was not the all-out assault on par used by Norman in '93, when he won with a score of 23 under. Elkington's approach was the kind of play usually reserved for the majors, when par is a good score. Yes, Elkington used his syrupy swing to hole a 150-yard six-iron shot for eagle on the 3rd hole in the final round, but he cautiously played the last eight holes in two over, confident that the exacting, windswept course would not surrender a low score. Among the top eight finishers, only Elkington broke 70 on Sunday, and no one shot lower than 68. Compared with the glorious closing 62 and eagle chip-in in the ensuing playoff that highlighted Norman's win at Doral in 1990, Elkington won ugly. He bogeyed the 13th and 14th holes after hitting into greenside bunkers and was fortunate to par the 72nd after driving into another bunker and hitting his third shot from 135 yards.
As far as Floyd was concerned, he had accomplished his mission. To bring Doral up to its former standard, Floyd had to ignore the fact that the Blue Monster is a resort course with a hefty greens fee of $220 for 51 weeks of the year. "It's a nightmare for the average guy," says Elkington. To make the course challenging to Tour pros, Floyd added 186 yards to Dick Wilson's original design, stretching the Blue Monster to 7,125 yards, and moved several greens closer to water. Floyd also shaved the area around the greens so that a shot that missed the putting surface had a good chance of running into the drink. And, of course, Floyd did his sand work, building nearly all of his bunkers with steep banks, to complete the White Monster.
The hole that caused the most commotion was the 435-yard 18th, already considered one of the hardest on the Tour. Floyd added six bunkers that pinched the landing zone for drives to less than 20 yards wide. Although Floyd said that the players were almost unanimous in their praise for the renovation, the 18th, which played to an average of 4.40 strokes, making it the toughest hole of the week, was not popular in the locker room. Fellow architect Jack Nicklaus was diplomatic, saying, "Raymond said he wanted to make it tougher, and he sure did that."
But Elkington, one of the Tour's more outspoken players, was more direct. "I think it's overdone, to be honest," he said. "I think the consensus is that the 18th is too severe." Those who wished a pox on the house of Floyd had to be smiling when Raymond made a bogey at the 18th on Saturday, and his son Robert, a junior at Florida, finished his tournament on Sunday with a quadruple-bogey 8.
Such a finish would've ruined Elkington's revival, and considering his recent luck, it wouldn't have been all that surprising. After overcoming serious allergy problems to have his best year in 1995, Elkington was primed for '96. However, his favorite set of clubs was stolen out of his car in January. After a six-month search for suitable replacements, Elkington finished third in his defense of the PGA. During the off-season Elkington dropped 20 pounds and got himself into the best physical condition of his life. But after coming in 15th at Pebble Beach, his replacement clubs were stolen en route to a tournament in Thailand. This time, however, Elkington had made provisions for a satisfactory backup set. When he appeared at Doral after a three-week break during which his second child was born, the swing many of his peers rate as the best in the game was dialed in, and his putting stroke, generally rated as mediocre, was responding to the extra attention he has been giving it. "When you've got your game and it's your turn, you've got to go for it," said Elkington. The eagle, which made up a two-stroke deficit with Duval, was all it took to convince Elkington that Sunday was his turn.
That's the kind of carpe diem that pays off on demanding courses like the revived Blue Monster. Floyd's changes may have been jarring, but the winning score and the quality of the winner are proof that they were neither extreme nor unwarranted.
If anything, this year's tournament proved that to slow down the scoring on Tour, design changes need to be drastic enough to raise hackles. And they've got to be scary.