Next week's PGA Championship will be the Tour's version of last call. Leave Sahalee Country Club in Redmond, Wash., empty-handed, and you'll have to wait eight months, until the 1999 Masters, for another chance to make a major impact. Last week at the FedEx St. Jude Classic at the TPC at Southwind, in Memphis, three PGA champs who haven't been top of mind in the majors for years- Nick Price, Jeff Sluman and Paul Azinger—showed they're capable of winning at Sahalee.
Price won at Southwind with a sense of style and purpose. He was miffed last month at Royal Birkdale when oddsmakers made him a 40-to-l choice to win the British Open. "It was insulting," Price says. "I don't know what they were thinking, but they didn't figure I had much of a chance—and I won four times around the world last year."
Price, 41, feels as if he is one club from winning in bunches, the way he did in the early '90s. "If I could putt like I did from 1992 to '94, I would've won a couple this year already," he says. "I've been playing for seventh, eighth and ninth. My putter has been in the bag for show. I've putted mediocre 70 percent of my career. When I putt well, I have a chance to win."
In Memphis, Price missed a six-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole that would have given him the title, then rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole to beat Sluman, who had pushed his tee shot into the water and was scrambling to salvage a par. If Price had putted really well on Southwind's rain-softened greens, he would've left blue-suede-shoe prints all over the field. The victory, Price's second in Memphis and the 40 th of his career worldwide, was a reminder of just how good a player he was, and can be. "I never worried about being Number 1 in the world," Price says. "I just wanted to win tournaments. Tiger [Woods] and the others can have all the publicity. All I want is credit when it's due, and I still feel like I'm playing pretty well."
Tee to green, Price might be playing better than when he was taking no prisoners and winning 14 Tour events in four years, including two PGAs (1992 and '94) and a British Open ('94). Last week the evidence was the way he dominated Southwind's 16th hole, a 528-yard par-5. Price made three eagles—including a crucial one on Sunday—and a birdie there. "Before we teed off in the playoff, I asked him how he had played the 16th this week," Sluman said. "He started laughing."
Price's putter, though, has been no laughing matter. On Sunday, on the typically slow Southwind greens, he missed six good birdie chances on the back nine alone, yet still shot 32. He had 66 for the day and was 16-under-par 268 for the tournament. "Coming down the stretch, I hit good putts that just weren't going in," he said. In the end Price ranked 11th in fairways hit and tied for eighth in greens in regulation. He was 25th on the greens, but for the season ranks just 67th.
He is trying to improve that number. Miserable putting at the U.S. Open, in which he still finished fourth, gave Price the kick in the backside he needed to work harder on his short game, something he had done during his peak years. "Invariably, I spend two or three hours on the practice tee, then I hit putts for 20 minutes and run home," says Price, an admitted range-aholic.
Sluman, who won the PGA in 1988, is an underrated talent. That has something to do with his size (he's 5'7" and 140 pounds) and his short list of wins. (Last year's Tucson Chrysler Classic is his only other victory.) Sluman was 0 for 3 in playoffs before Sunday's, and as he watched his drive at the second extra hole drift into a pond, his reaction was, "0 for 4."
Still, he played well enough on the weekend to win. "Anytime you're one off the lead and shoot [a final-round] 65, that usually does it," said the 40-year-old Sluman, who had moved into contention with a 66 on Saturday. "Nick played a wonderful round, which I don't think surprises anybody. A reporter asked me if I was disappointed that I hadn't won more in my career. In situations like this, what can you do?"
The real sleeper for Sahalee could be the 38-year-old Azinger, an 11-time winner on the Tour. He beat Greg Norman in a play off at Inverness to win the '93 PGA only a few months before he learned he had a lymphoma in his right shoulder. Since then he hasn't finished in the top three. There have been positive signs, though. Azinger was fifth at Augusta National, a course that normally eats his lunch, and a closing 65 lifted him to 14th at the U.S. Open. Last week he played solidly for three rounds and was one shot behind Price and Bob Estes going into Sunday. A double bogey at the 6th, where he drove out-of-bounds, dropped Azinger out of the hunt, and he eventually faded to a tie for seventh. "[ CBS announcer] Peter Kostis asked me the classic question on Saturday," said Azinger. "He asked, 'What's missing now? What do you need to do?' I said, 'I don't think anything is missing. I have to pull it off, just do it.' "