Local schools were closed last Thursday and Friday during the Tucson Chrysler Classic. So the kids could go to the tournament? No, because the rodeo was in town. The third round wasn't shown live locally. So fans would come out to Tucson National instead of staying home and watching on TV? No, because the Arizona- Oregon basketball game was on at the same time, relegating the golf to a tape-delayed, 11:05 p.m. start.
At least the Classic had a good winner in David Duval, who has won four of the last nine events in which he has played and can look forward to defending his title in Tucson in 1999, right? Sorry, the PGA Tour has filled Tucson's spot on next year's schedule with the new World Match Play Championship featuring the top 64 players and a $4 million purse. Duval, understandably, will tee it up in that event at La Costa and not with the leftovers who will turn the Tucson tournament into golf's version of the NIT. "Everybody has been digging our grave and writing our obituary," says Steve Christy, the Classic's tournament chairman. "It's a disappointment, but not the end of the world. There are only so many weekends for so many events. Somebody has to be opposite somebody. It happens to be us."
Welcome to Tucson, home of the underdog. The city is overshadowed by Phoenix, the sprawling megalopolis with all the pro teams 100 miles to the northwest, just as the Classic is dwarfed by the Phoenix Open and its massive crowds and star-studded fields. Whereas the Open attracts a hip young crowd of party animals, the Classic pulls in their parents. It's a nice little tournament that's proud of its heritage. Inaugurated in 1945 after Leo Diegel, a local pro, had convinced the PGA that his hometown could support a Tour stop, the event has a tradition of producing first-time winners who go on to bigger and better things. In all, eight players can say they won for the first time in Tucson, and the list includes such bright lights as J.C. Snead (1971), Bruce Lietzke (1977), Phil Mickelson (1991) and Lee Janzen (1992). That element was missing this year. Instead, the natives were dazzled by star power and a dramatic final act.
Duval had seemingly iced the tournament with a second-round 62 that gave him a seven-stroke lead. On the front nine he twice holed shots from the fairway for eagles and shot a 28. A 68 last Saturday put him 20 under par and within striking distance of the Tour's scoring record of 28 under, which John Huston had set the previous week in Hawaii. Duval, though, wasn't thinking about the record. "I can't fathom shooting 28 under par, really," he said.
Twenty under seemed unfathomable, too, considering how Duval had prepared for Tucson. After playing in five straight tournaments, he spent eight days skiing and snowboarding in—like, awesome, dude—Sun Valley, Idaho. What's a native of Florida doing on a snowboard, besides falling down? "Kind of weird, huh?" Duval says. Not as weird as he appeared in all the padding he wore while taking snowboarding lessons. "I looked like a hockey goalkeeper," he says.
Riding the lift one day, Duval saw a novice get slammed in the head by her boyfriend's board after she wiped out in front of him. "I told my instructor, 'Man, I'm going to go buy a helmet this afternoon,' " Duval says. "It was the best $100 I ever spent." That's because on his last day on the mountain, he went to the top to try snowboarding in powder. "Idiot me," he says. "I'd snowboarded for a total of 3� hours and I go to the top of Dollar Mountain. If I hadn't worn that helmet, I might have really knocked something loose. I slammed my head pretty good twice."
Stiff and sore, Duval arrived in Tucson on Tuesday and was able to hit only about 20 practice balls before rain washed out the day. The whacks upside the head seemed to do wonders for his short game. Duval needed only 41 putts during the first two rounds and finished the tournament with 98, five off Kenny Knox's Tour record.
So there stood Duval on Sunday, with a 62 in his pocket, a seven-shot lead and the confidence that he could close the deal, just as he had three straight times at the end of last season. Oops. A couple of bogeys on the front nine interrupted his final-round cruise, and then, surprisingly, he hooked his tee shot out-of-bounds at the par-4 13th hole. "That's probably the only hook you'll see me hit all year," said Duval, who plays a fade exclusively. A marshal initially signaled that Duval's ball was inbounds, but as he and playing partner Justin Leonard walked off the tee, the marshal indicated that the ball was out. Forced to reload, Duval made a triple-bogey 7, three-putting from the back fringe. At the same time, Leonard holed a 10-foot putt for birdie, and the stunning four-shot swing cut Duval's lead to one.
That was gone when Duval bogeyed the next hole. Duval and Leonard stayed even until 16, but there Duval showed his mettle. He and Leonard were both just off the green to the left. Leonard ran his ball five feet past the hole. Duval chipped in, and then Leonard blinked, missing his comebacker. At the 18th he was reduced to the role of a cheerleader when Duval ran in a 40-footer for another birdie. The man has learned how to finish. "When I started [the round], I was in unfamiliar territory," Duval said. "With four holes to play, I was in very familiar territory. Mad I not won last year, I probably wouldn't have won today. I wish it hadn't been so exciting, but the result was what I was looking for."
Jeff Kern, a 40-year-old amateur, could say the same. Filling in for a no-show at the Monday qualifier, Kern, a Tucson resident, earned one of the four at-large spots available by shooting a 66. What made his story so compelling was that in 1978, two days after he had won the Tucson city amateur, Kern lost the ring and little fingers on his right hand—and nearly his life—when the chute on a cement truck swung loose and knocked a masonry wall on top of him. A year later Kern, who had been a college golfer at Azusa Pacific, was able to compete again. "If you're going to lose two fingers and still play golf," he says, "those are the two to lose."