Golf's grimmest reality is that a player's next slump might be the one that never ends. For examples, see Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 British Open champ who is out of golf seven years later, or Corey Pavin, the winner of the '95 U.S. Open who turned into a nonfactor shortly thereafter, or Chip Beck, the hero of the '93 Ryder Cup who hasn't made a cut in his last 40 starts.
Slumps are beatable, of course, and most survivors come back with a fuller understanding of their swing and a better attitude. For example, see Joe Durant, the winner of last week's Motorola Western Open who quit the game six years ago, or Steve Stricker, the 1996 Western winner who lost his formula for success in '97 but showed in the last two weeks that he has found it again.
Last Saturday a suburban Chicago newspaper was the first to ask the most obvious question about Durant when it ran the headline JOE WHO? after he had taken the 36-hole lead at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club. Durant, who hunted down a copy for a souvenir, was not offended. "They got it right," he said, grinning. "Nobody knew who I was, and probably won't know a week from now either."
Durant wasn't quite right. He had drawn attention a week earlier by flirting with the early lead in the U.S. Open at Olympic, but he dropped out of sight with a pair of 76s on the weekend. Last week he showed more staying power, opening 68-67, putting up a 70 on Saturday and then leaving Vijay Singh, U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen and Greg Kraft in his rearview mirror with a nine-birdie 66 in the final round. That left him at 17-under-par 271 and holding a $396,000 check for his first PGA Tour victory, as well as spots in this month's British Open and next year's Masters. His name will be engraved alongside those of Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson on the Western's venerable J.K. Wadley trophy, which lists all the winners since the tournament, the oldest regular Tour event, began in 1899.
Joe Who, 34, is a late-blooming Nike tour grad playing his second full year on the big Tour. He grew up in Pensacola, Fla., and was a member of the NAIA Huntingdon ( Ala.) College team from 1982 to '87. After graduating, Durant played the mini-tours before qualifying for the Hogan (now Nike) tour in 1991. He entered 27 events that year and made 16 cuts but won only $16,095. That fall he lost a seven-man playoff to advance to the final stage of Q school.
Frustrated by his lack of success and needing to support a wife, Tracey, and a baby boy, Connor, who had been born that summer, Durant quit playing and took a gofer job at a golf-equipment retail house, filling orders and stacking boxes. He also earned an insurance license, although he never put it to use. Durant's foray into the real world rekindled his desire to play, and Tracey urged him to give golf another try—only this time with a more positive attitude. He had been out of the game for only six months, "but it seemed like an eternity," Durant says.
He started at the bottom, sometimes with Tracey as his caddie, and played his way up the ladder, reaching the Nike tour again in 1994. In '96 he won his first tournament, the Nike Mississippi Gulf Coast Classic, and finished the season with a ticket to the big time by placing third on the Nike money list.
Durant is not likely to escape further notice. He ranks among the most accurate drivers on Tour, which explains his success at Olympic and Cog Hill, tough tracks with substantial rough. His ball striking was also masterly at the Western. He hit 65 of the 72 greens in regulation, four short of the Tour record set in 1995 at Pebble Beach by Peter Jacobsen. But it was Durant's decision last March to concentrate on his short game, especially his putting, that has made the biggest difference. He worked with a friend, Tommy Jennette, who took one look at Durant's tense, death-grip technique and asked, "How in the world did you finish 100th on the money list [in '97] with that short game? You should've finished 200th."
At Cog Hill, Durant put the pieces together. "Putting makes all the difference," he said. "Maybe I've only gone from 175th to 130th [actually from 117th to 68th] in the putting stats, but for me that's significant. Now I can say I did it once, that I beat the best players in the world. This is a dream come true."
Durant shared a hotel room at the Western with Skip Kendall, whom he met on the mini-tours. " Joe is one of the best ball strikers on Tour," says Kendall. "The U.S. Open gave him confidence."