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Bulletproof
Michael Bamberger
September 22, 1997
Scott Hoch has nothing to lose and everything to gain at Valderrama
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September 22, 1997

Bulletproof

Scott Hoch has nothing to lose and everything to gain at Valderrama

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He's awake while his family sleeps. Midnight comes and goes. One a.m. turns into 3 a.m. The black-and-white movies, the SportsCenter highlights, the news updates, they all blur in Scott Hoch's mind after a while. There are three televisions in his office at home, in Orlando, and he watches them all at the same time. This happens often. Sometimes, in the night's smallest hours, the ghosts come out. An ill son in 1986. Can 7 somebody figure out what's wrong with him? A stick-up in a hotel room at the Tucson Open in 1982. Just don't shoot my wife! A missed 30-incher at Augusta, the putt that cost him the Masters in 1989. What I would give to have that one again!

He's 41 and has been playing the Tour for 18 years, and only a few people know him, appreciate what he has been through, understand what he wants. His wife, Sally. (She was tied up in the holdup but unharmed.) His parents and brother. Katie, the Hochs' 11-year-old daughter. Cameron, their 13-year-old son, now fully recovered from a rare bone infection. They know the Scott Hoch you don't. They know that he's loyal, dedicated and honest, that he's kind to dogs and old people, generous to his church and his alma mater and to local hospitals. (After winning the 1989 Las Vegas Invitational, Hoch gave $100,000 to the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women in Orlando and is giving $1 million more.) They see the glee he derives from riding a Jet Ski. To make his living, he must leave his sanctuary in Orlando, board the private jet he owns and confront a hostile world. Hoch departs from home carrying clubs and a briefcase, his face covered by an armored mask.

Next week, at the Ryder Cup at Valderrama, Hoch's interior life will be on display as never before. Hoch will be the oldest Ryder Cup rookie ever, competing in the most widely watched golf event in the world. He goes in unawed. " Corey Pavin says, The Ryder Cup is like nothing you've ever felt before. You're so nervous, you can't even breathe, you can't eat,' " Hoch says. "I can't imagine anything like that. We'll see."

If the U.S. team has a secret weapon, it is Hoch. The man is afraid of nothing. He does not get nervous. In battle he is happy. He could come back from Valderrama an American hero and bury some ghosts along the way. He could return home appreciated in the game for the first time in his life, for he's very possibly the most underrated player in golf today, taking that mantle from Wayne Levi.

Because his competitiveness is so transparent, because there is no filter between his brain and his mouth, he has never had bunches of friends on the Tour. "Scott can make a compliment sound like an insult like no one else," says Lee Janzen, a friend and neighbor of Hoch's. "I was in the locker room on Saturday at the '96 U.S. Open, having sculled a bunker shot to finish on Friday with a triple, and was still feeling pretty hot about it. Scott came over, pulled the sand wedge out of my bag and said, 'You're usually a lot better with this club.' I knew he meant it as a compliment, that I'm a good bunker player, but it wasn't the most comforting thing he could have said."

Hoch is "bitter" about his standing in the game—that's his word—but he doesn't see anything changing, not with the public, not with his fellow Tour players. "It's too late," he says. It's possible, of course, that he's wrong.

On the last day of last month, in Milwaukee, Hoch demonstrated why he might be the most dangerous Ryder Cup player on either team. On the final hole of the Greater Milwaukee Open at Brown Deer Park Golf Course, Hoch, in the third-to-last group, stood over a 60-foot chip for eagle. He was a shot off the lead. Nobody talks about Hoch's chipping. He drives the ball competently: not long, but reasonably straight. His putting is ordinary. His iron play is superb. His finesse game—his wedge play, his chipping—is outstanding. He chipped with an eight-iron on the final green in Milwaukee, and as his ball approached the hole, Hoch's arms shot straight up like a referee's when signaling a touchdown, except that in football they wait for the ball to reach the end zone before making the call.

The ordinary Tour player does not put his arms up in that situation, not before the ball has gone down. That would be tempting fate. If the ball stays out, then you're stuck with your arms in the air looking like an arrogant fool. "If it doesn't drop, so what? I put my hands down," says Hoch. He doesn't worry about the game's tradition of restraint or tempting the golfing gods or any of that ethereal stuff that, for many, is at the core of the sport. His caddie, Greg Rita, says Hoch doesn't have any golfing idiosyncrasies, which is in itself pretty weird. Hoch's ball did a little disappearing act on 18, with everybody watching. Draino. Eagle. One-shot lead.

Fifteen minutes later David Sutherland, in the final twosome, studied a 50-foot eagle putt on the final hole. He needed to make it to tie Hoch for the lead. The putt shared a line with Hoch's chip and seemed to be rolling in a rut left behind by his ball. Sutherland's putt eventually lipped out, but while it was still bound for the hole, Hoch was...smiling. He was grinning. He was loving it. You put your ordinary Tour player in Hoch's place, he cither does a stoic act, for the cameras, or he shakes his head in disbelief. Hoch was in the thick of match play, and he was having the time of his life. "He's making a great putt," Hoch says. "All you can do is smile. Worse thing that happens, sudden death. I like my chances in match play."

This is a boast rooted in fact. In the summer prior to his graduation from Wake Forest, in 1979, Hoch won six matches before losing in the final of the British Amateur to Jay Sigel. At the Walker Cup that year, at Muirfield, Hoch didn't lose a match. In the two Presidents Cups, Hoch has a combined record of 5-2-1. He won matches against Tom Lehman, Mark McCumber, Janzen and Sam Torrance to reach the final of last year's Andersen Consulting world championship. In the final, against Greg Norman, Hoch trailed by five holes at one point, rallied and was able to extend the match to the 36th green before losing.

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