The world series of golf used to signal the end of the PGA Tour season, and in some ways it still does. The World Series, surfing in the wake of the PGA Championship, is the last time many of the top players compete while their games are in peak condition.
When the Greater Milwaukee Open, a sincere little event trolling behind the World Series, finally rolls around, the big names are long gone. Last week, for example, only five of the top 50 players in the world showed up at Brown Deer Park Golf Course—not that anyone noticed. The tournament had all the heroes it needed.
Let's start with Scott Hoch, who is bad news...for Europe. Yes, the Ryder Cup is still three weeks away, and it's how you're playing during those three heart-pounding days in Spain, not now, that matters. But Hoch made an already formidable U.S. team look even stronger when he dramatically chipped in for eagle on the final hole, to win at Milwaukee for the second time in three years.
Three of the four players who won this year's majors—Tiger Woods (Masters), Justin Leonard (British Open) and Davis Love III ( PGA)—are on the U.S. team, as are seven of the top 12 players in the World Ranking. Hoch, at 14, is not among that group, but look at what he has done in match play. After winning the U.S. portion of the Andersen Consulting World Championship last year, he took Greg Norman to the 36th green before losing the final. He has also played a key role on the two winning U.S. Presidents Cup teams. If Hoch is playing close to his best later this month at Valderrama, captain Tom Kite's only problem will be finding four guys to sit out for the four-ball and foursomes matches. "Scott is really an underrated player," says Loren Roberts, a member of the '95 Ryder Cup team who, along with David Sutherland, tied for second in Milwaukee, a stroke behind Hoch. "He's scrappy and a good iron player. He never backs down. Nobody seems to bother him."
Hoch, the only Ryder Cupper to play in Milwaukee, came to the 557-yard, par-5 finishing hole needing a birdie to tie Roberts. After an A-plus drive Hoch hit a three-wood that carried into the deep fringe behind the left side of the green, leaving him a slick downhill-sidehill shot from 60 feet. "It was a shot in the dark under those circumstances," said Hoch. As his eight-iron chip rolled to within five feet of the cup, Hoch raised his arms in anticipation. He knew the ball was going to go in. "Good thing I didn't have a four-footer, it might have been a different story," Hoch said, making a joking reference to his well-known struggles with short putts. "This was just my range." He finished 16 under par after opening with a 70 and then firing three 66s.
Though he keeps the media at arm's length these days due to past slights, both perceived and real, Hoch's honest opinions and self-deprecating humor can be ingratiating. He was poking fun at himself on Sunday when he said that something was missing from this victory, the eighth of his 18-year career on Tour. "I didn't screw up a few weeks earlier," he said. "That seems to be my M.O. I usually give away something and then have to battle back." In 1989 Hoch missed a short putt on the first playoff hole and lost the Masters but came back three weeks later to win in Las Vegas. In 1995 he coughed up a seven-stroke lead on the final 13 holes of the Houston Open, then rebounded to win his first Greater Milwaukee Open.
Hoch had never before held on to a spot on the Ryder Cup team. At 41 he is the oldest rookie in the history of the event and the senior man on the U.S. team. "I've been burned by not being on the team once or twice," he says. "I've had the chance to make the team on my own and didn't do it, but there have been times when I thought I should've been picked."
Roberts and Sutherland nearly picked off Hoch on Sunday. Roberts, the quiet defending champion, has struggled with his game since overcoming back problems earlier in the year. On Aug. 26 he received a quick lesson from the Harvey Penick of Wisconsin, Manuel de la Torre of Milwaukee Country Club, and despite a bad cold, shot no worse than 69 on the 6,739-yard, par-71 Brown Deer course. When Sutherland, who had opened a three-shot lead going to the final nine, faltered on the way in, Roberts took the lead with a tap-in birdie at the 371-yard, par-4 16th. At the 18th, however, he hooked his three-wood approach and after a free drop near the bleachers slipped his sand wedge under his ball, leaving it short of the green. Although he got up and down, the par on the easy birdie hole was his undoing. "My destiny was in my own hands, and I didn't make birdie at 18," Roberts said. "You don't think Scott is going to chip in, but I knew my not making birdie left the door open."
Sutherland, 31, a native of Roseville, Calif., with a uniquely s-l-o-w takeaway, nearly matched Hoch's theatrics. Sutherland had chipped in for eagle at the 4th hole on Sunday to help build his lead, but it was gone by the time he reached the 18th, and he needed another eagle to force a playoff with Hoch. He hit a three-wood to the back edge of the green in two, 50 feet away on almost the same line as Hoch's chip. Sutherland's putt looked good all the way but curled around the right side of the cup and stayed out. Stunned, Sutherland fell to his hands and knees. Hoch, watching from behind the green, also bent over in nervous disbelief at how close Sutherland's ball had come to going in. "I'd like to play the round over, but I wouldn't play the 18th again," Sutherland said. "I hit as good a putt as I could've."
Sutherland has been playing well of late. Before Milwaukee, his three previous finishes were a 23rd at the Sprint International, a 15th at the Buick Open and a tie for sixth at the Greater Vancouver Open. The $114,400 he earned for tying Roberts means that he'll join his older brother, 33-year-old Kevin, as an exempt player in 1998. "My goal was to win," David said. "I've had a lot of seconds and thirds as a pro, but I've never won anything important." A history buff who finds the Civil War particularly interesting, Sutherland was asked which battle his final round most resembled. "Probably Gettysburg," he said. "It started off well, then went real bad at the end—for the Confederates."