Sutton changed swing coaches. He changed swings. He changed wives. If you had asked him to, he would have changed shirts with you. "Anybody that had a comment, I listened to it," he says.
He hit what he calls rock bottom in 1992, when he finished out of the money in 21 of 29 tournaments and was 185th on the money list. There were times when he struck the ball so poorly he was afraid to practice with the other pros.
Sutton's comeback began, strangely enough, about the time Cousins started restoring East Lake. Working again with Floyd Horgen, his old coach, Sutton rebuilt his swing from the spikes up. In 1994 he cracked the top 25 in 15 tournaments and boosted his official earnings from $75,000 the previous year to more than half a million. Sutton broke his victory drought in '95, and as recently as September he won again, at the Texas Open.
At East Lake, though, Sutton wasn't thinking of victory. For one thing, he thought the course favored a high-trajectory shot, and he keeps the ball low. For another, he didn't think he could catch Singh, who shot a course-record 63 in the opening round. Singh held the lead after each of first three days of competition, but by Saturday night Sutton and Jim Furyk had moved within one stroke.
Sunday's final round was not short on drama. Sutton took the lead when Singh made some early bogeys. Then Furyk, the Ryder Cupper with the swing by Salvador Dali, holed a fairway wedge on the 9th to tie Sutton at five under. But it came down to just the two, Singh and Sutton, and the difficult 18th, a 240-yard par-3-Sutton, trailing by a stroke, hit four-wood and found a bunker, while Singh covered the flag with his three-iron. Singh's ball, though, skipped into the thick collar grass behind the green. Sutton saved his par from the sand, and Singh bogeyed, forcing a playoff.
Same hole, same clubs, but this time it was Sutton's four-wood that flew true, landing on the upslope and rolling to a halt five feet behind the hole. Sutton made the putt to win the playoff, feeling, no doubt, the way many East Lake residents felt when the bulldozers finally smashed the yellow-brick walls of the Meadows project: renewed. "Axe you back?" someone asked him later.
"When I stand on the tee and look down the fairway, I see the fairway," Sutton said, sounding like a Zen master. "I don't see the rough. When I was down at rock bottom, all I saw was the rough."
It was left to Finchem to stretch Sutton's analogy over time and ocean. Asked what will happen to the Tour Championship next year, once it is stripped of its season-ending sizzle, the commissioner professed to see nothing but fairway ahead. "It's just a change from a one-week wrap-up to a two-week wrap-up," he said. "One of the troubles we have in the fall is getting fans to identify with our season. We think having two blockbusters, back-to-back, will grab their attention."
Maybe. A better guess is that Finchem will have to reinvent the Tour Championship, linking it permanently to The First Tee and similar not-for-profit foundations. He hinted at this on Sunday when he announced that the Tour Championship will return to East Lake in 2000. "Part of our strategy," Cousins says, "is to provide a blueprint to others."
Today a blueprint, tomorrow a scorecard. Late on Saturday afternoon, as the last of the tournament traffic whooshed past what remains of the East Lake Meadows housing project, a teenage boy and a young man hit golf balls across an empty field. Between shots, they paused to compare grips and talk—teacher and student sharing the secrets of the game.