One day nearly six years ago, Jack Nicklaus asked Brad Faxon how he was doing. "O.K.," Faxon said, "but I need to learn how to play well after playing well." Faxon had won the Buick Open two weeks earlier and was experiencing a postvictory letdown. "I thought Jack would tell me something profound," Faxon remembers, "so I was really waiting for his answer. Instead he says, 'Join the club.' "
But on Sunday, after winning the Freeport-MeDermott Classic in New Orleans by three strokes—his first win on Tour since the 1992 International—Faxon was less concerned about postvictory syndrome interfering with his performance in the Masters than he was about all the putting lessons he'll be asked to give this week in Augusta. Colin Montgomerie was the first to sign up, having spent an exasperating two rounds at the recent Players Championship watching Faxon bail himself out of trouble by holing putt after putt.
"A lot of people out here are so into ball striking, it's almost as if they'd rather play a tournament on the driving range than go to the course and have to make putts," says Faxon, who led the Tour in putting last year as well as last week at English Turn Golf & Country Club. "And it's almost as if you're 'lucky' if you're a good putter. Very few people come up to me on the range and ask me what I'm working on or thinking about, but I help almost everyone with putting."
Jesper Parnevik, who last week finished second (along with Bill Glasson) for the third time this year, is another player envious of Faxon's stroke. "Players like Ben Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson are great putters," Parnevik says, "but they don't putt as consistently well as Brad does."
Even Tiger Woods has approached Faxon looking for help. In December at the JCPenney Classic, Woods asked Faxon for a putting lesson. "Yeah, you need a lesson," Faxon told him. "You're only beating everyone by 20 shots."
Earlier this year Faxon realized that he had gotten away from what he does best. After finishing eighth on the money list in 1996—and, on the strength of four second-place finishes, setting the record for most money won without a victory—Faxon scrutinized the driving stats and decided that because he ranked 170th in distance, 142nd in accuracy and 188th overall, he needed to shore up that area of his game. While focusing on his tee shots, he missed three cuts in his first six starts this year. Then he says he was straightened out by sports psychologist Bob Rotella, who suggested at the Players Championship that Faxon go back to his old game. He finished fourth at the TPC at Saw-grass. "When I start trying to be like Nick Faldo and hit every shot down the middle and get mad when I don't," says Faxon, "I'm in trouble and it affects my ability to score. I do a good job at staying confident when I have to get up and down, which is when so many other people get mad. That's my game, and I've got to realize it."
Faxon clearly lacked Faldoesque accuracy on Sunday, but he reasoned that since he was playing well enough to be in contention, he could also hold the lead, which by the 11th hole had grown to four strokes. It was only on the final hole, a difficult par-4 of 471 yards, that Faxon's mind conjured up some dark images. "I thought about all the stupid things I could do," he said. "I thought about how I could make a 9 on the last hole. Instead of trying to hit it down the middle, I thought, O.K., just start this over land. So I hit it into the bunker. And then I thought, If I skull it under the lip, I might be here forever. I'd take a drop and the ball would be plugged and I wouldn't be able to get it out—an endless story. I think of stupid stuff like that sometimes, which is only O.K. if I don't do it while I'm pulling the trigger." Faxon survived, reaching the green in three and two-putting for a bogey 5, and still shot a tournament-record score of 16-under-par 272, which came on weather-interrupted rounds of 68, 69, 66 and 69. The previous record of 274 was set by Davis Love III and Mike Heinen in 1995, when Love won in a playoff.
The Freeport-McDermott was the last chance for many of the players to qualify for the Masters, but Faxon was already in, as were five other top-10 finishers at English Turn—Parnevik, Scott McCarron (tie for fourth), Russ Cochran (sixth) and Yoshinori Kaneko and Tommy Tolles (tie for seventh). All of them insisted they were ready for the Masters, and several noted the correlation between success at English Turn and success at Augusta National, though no one has ever won the two tournaments back-to-back. Players such as Love, Greg Norman, Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal and Ian Woosnam have had wins or high finishes on both courses in recent years. Parnevik, who will be playing in his first Masters this week, said that the best advice he has received about Augusta came from Steve Elkington and Norman, who both told him that if he could maintain a sense of humor about everything weird that will happen to his golf ball, he'll be fine. Japan's Kaneko, also an Augusta rookie, said that only God knew whether or not he could do as well in the Masters as he did at English Turn. He then conceded that divine intervention might be required.
Glasson, who came closest to snagging the last ticket to Augusta, would probably have had to turn it down. Playing on a medical exemption following an operation last May to repair a detached muscle in his right forearm—the 11th surgery of his 14-year career Glasson says that he can't play two tournaments in a row and may not be able to do so for another month.
Glasson's second-place finish in only his second start of the year would have seemed more impressive had it not been played in the shadow of a far more celebrated comeback. Because thunderstorms delayed play last Saturday, Olaz�bal had to go 27 holes on Sunday, the most holes he has played in one day since severe foot pain forced him to give up competitive golf 19 months ago. Olaz�bal finished six strokes behind Faxon, though he was within a stroke of the lead at one point on Sunday morning.