The sun popped out on Sunday evening as Ernie Els loped up the 18th fairway at Westchester Country Club in suburban New York City, two shots clear of Jeff Maggert and a mile ahead of the rest of the golf world. The timing couldn't have been better, since Els's coronation as the game's new golden boy deserved the biggest spotlight going. With his frighteningly easy wire-to-wire victory, Els successfully defended his title at the Buick Classic, which, coupled with his victory two weeks ago in the U.S. Open, propelled him to the No. 1 spot in the World Ranking.
Els's luminous play was all the more well received because it put a shine on what had been a dark week. On June 16, Jeff (Squeeky) Medlen died of leukemia in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and the news hit Westchester with as much force as the thunderstorm that halted the final round for two hours. Squeeky had not caddied for his longtime partner, Nick Price, since last October's Tour Championship, but his presence was felt at every tournament since—and not just because of the green ribbons that players and caddies took to wearing on their hats in tribute. As the somber news spread across the grounds during last Tuesday's practice round, those ribbons were shrouded with a black band and the flags at the club were lowered to half-mast, where they stayed throughout the tournament. "It's been an emotional week for me and for everybody," Els said in the Sunday twilight after wrapping up his 16-under-par 268, on rounds of 64, 68, 67 and 69.
Els seized control late in the afternoon of the first round, but the leader for much of the day was Paul Azinger, in with an early 67. Azinger hasn't won since undergoing debilitating treatment for lymphoma in his right shoulder in 1993-94, and his presence atop the leader board added more poignancy to what was already an overwrought situation. In fact, the normally amiable Azinger demonstrated how frayed emotions were during his postround press conference, when questions turned to his recovery from cancer. "I was wondering how long it would be before someone asked if I was all the way back," Azinger said sharply. "Let's see, that's one...two...three questions. The over-under was 3½."
Later he was more reflective. "I realize how lucky I am that what I had was treatable," said Azinger. "I said a long time ago that when I open my eyes in the morning, I thank God that I can tumble out of bed, and I still feel that way."
Three weeks before the Buick, during the Memorial, Azinger had visited Squeeky in Columbus. "He was real hoarse and dry and couldn't talk," said Azinger. "I held his hand. I wanted to give him some hope. I even talked to him about God a little bit. I think he was at peace, and he's better off now. He's a lot better off, no doubt. He was suffering, he was absolutely suffering."
The storybook ending that everyone was hoping for—an Azinger victory—was not to be. After a second-round 69 moved him into a tie for third, four strokes behind Els, Azinger was disqualified for failing to sign his scorecard. As big a development as that was in the tournament picture, it got lost as the focus turned to the journey that caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan made to Squeeky's funeral, which was held last Friday. Fluff also lives in Columbus and visited Squeeky on his off days. Cowan attended the services with the blessing of his boss, Tiger Woods, who asked Tim Boardman to fill in for the day. (This didn't seem to affect Woods's golf—he shot 72, which was sandwiched between an opening 72 and a 71-72 on the weekend, leaving him in 43rd place. Eleven of his last 12 rounds have been in the 70s.)
Cowan hadn't planned to speak at Squeeky's funeral, but he says, "I was moved to do it. I felt a little nudge. It was like Squeek was saying, 'Fluff, you never keep your mouth shut, so get up there.' "
Leaning against a fence in the Westchester parking lot after Woods's final round, Cowan sparked a Marlboro, took two trembling drags and turned philosophical, which seemed to happen to a lot of people last week. "Death sucks," he said, "but it's only the end here on earth. I firmly believe that Squeeky is in a better place." Whether it was coincidence or a sign from above is hard to say, but Cowan had no sooner finished ruminating on the hereafter than the Westchester grounds were rocked by tremendous claps of thunder and the skies came alive with lightning.
The ensuing suspension of play could not have come at a more interesting time, for Els's supremacy was finally being threatened. The 27-year-old South African had so overpowered the tight, twisty layout—not to mention the rest of the field—that when he stepped to the 13th tee last Saturday he was 16 under par and eight shots in front. A couple of sloppy bogeys down the stretch and some inspired play by Maggert trimmed the lead to three strokes heading into Sunday, but no one, save Maggert and his immediate family, felt Els was in trouble, considering his comfort level on the 6,722-yard, par-71 course. Els had finished second, tied for fourth and first in three starts at Westchester. Last year he also led start to finish, winning by eight shots.
Els and Maggert, paired together, played four holes before the rain came, and Els's bogey at the 3rd and Maggert's birdie at the 4th cut the lead to one lone stroke, giving Els two hours to stew. When their match resumed on the 565-yard, par-5 5th, Els unleashed his power and considerable chutzpah, going driver-driver just short of the green and then chipping to five feet for an easy birdie. That pushed the lead back to two shots. On the back nine Els ground out eight straight merciless pars before matching Maggert's birdie on the easy par-5 18th. As they walked off the final green, Maggert engaged Els in a friendly tussle. "I was trying to push him into the green and smash him," Maggert said, and you could hardly blame him. A seven-year vet with only one Tour win, Maggert had played the foil for Els for two straight weeks, having finished fourth at the Open after being tied for the lead with eight holes to play.