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On Strange Turf
Michael Bamberger
June 23, 1997
Peter Teravainen, an American who plays abroad, felt like a foreigner at his country's Open
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June 23, 1997

On Strange Turf

Peter Teravainen, an American who plays abroad, felt like a foreigner at his country's Open

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It would be fair to say that Peter Teravainen, in the most modest of ways, is a cult figure in some golfing circles. He has been trying to make a living from tournament golf for nearly two decades, and for all those years people have been drawn to his singular approach and uncommon devotion to the game. (He'll play in any tournament offering a purse, and he has only one swing speed, full throttle.) Teravainen, 41, grew up in Duxbury. Mass., went to boarding school and Yale on scholarships, lives in Singapore and has played the European tour since 1982. For the first half of the '95 season, Teravainen was missing cuts left and right, 11 in a row during one stretch. Then, in August, he won the Czech Open and $200,000. In triumph Teravainen said, "Now I'm up to broke."

He's an expatriate, an American in name only, and he found himself playing in the U.S. Open last week chiefly because he won the Japan Open last year. He entered in Japan because his wife, Veronica, a Singaporean of Chinese descent, agreed to fill out the necessary 42 pages worth of paperwork. (The globe-trotting touring pro without an intimate knowledge of visas, working papers, tax forms, customs requirements, exchange rates and tipping traditions is lost.) He won the tournament because the course was extremely long, and Teravainen, in certain moods, is extremely long. Winning the Japan Open earned Teravainen an invitation to Jack Nicklaus's tournament, the Memorial, in Dublin, Ohio. After the Memorial (where he missed the cut but made a double eagle), Teravainen stayed in the area for a U.S. Open sectional qualifier. He qualified, then played his first 36 holes at Congressional in 144 strokes, which earned him the right to play the third round with another golfer who was at four over par, Nicklaus.

Teravainen thinks the world of Nicklaus, but the pairing was not ideal for him. Teravainen walks fast, with his chest out and his shoulders back, always way ahead of his playing partners, mainly because he doesn't want to have to talk to anybody. (Teravainen has an on-course motto: talking = distraction = poor play. Off the course he doesn't stop talking.) Nicklaus sort of strolls along the fairways these days, and he's conversational in ways he never used to be. Teravainen was uncharacteristically accommodating.

Nicklaus: "How much time do you spend in Singapore, Peter?"

Teravainen: "Well, let's see. I play 30 weeks a year; so I'm home about 22."

Nicklaus: "You sure you're home that much? Seems to me I see your name playing somewhere every week."

Teravainen: "You're probably right. I guess I play more like 35."

Teravainen comes to the U.S.—with Veronica and their five-year-old daughter, Taina—once or twice a year, primarily to visit his parents and three siblings. He has no interest in playing the PGA Tour. For one thing, the coffee here is not strong enough for him. Teravainen's game is fueled by caffeine, and watery American coffee is a problem. (Peter knows that caffeine hinders putting, but he figures it gives him many extra yards.) His Friday round at the Open was delayed In thunderstorms and didn't begin until 5:10 p.m. The weak Congressional Java did not satisfy him, and he was not as revved up as he likes to be. He did, however, make one of the longest putts of his life in that second round, a 70-footer for a birdie on the 9th.

It's not that easy being Peter. Aside from the need for strong coffee, Teravainen won't play balls stamped with the number 4 (considered bad luck in many Asian cultures), won't change restaurants if he's playing well (no matter how bad the service) and won't wear red (unless he's willing to risk something powerful happening, for good or for bad). He also becomes highly agitated when people—certain people, anyway—talk to his airborne golf ball.

Anyone who has caddied for Peter, as Veronica and I have, knows that this no-talking principle is one of Teravainen's core beliefs, but if you're rooting for him, it's hard not to talk. Early last Saturday, as Teravainen was finishing his second round, Veronica and Peter's mother, sister and brother-in-law talked to Peter's ball with wild abandon. ("Gentle, now, softly, gentle, gentle, GENTLE!") Suddenly, Veronica, who speaks English with lovely precision and a strong Chinese accent, said, "We are all talking to Peter's golf ball much much too much." (She pronounces her husband's name PEE-ta.) She thought for a moment. "But I suppose if Peter cannot hear us, then it is O.K."

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