It's an easy drive from Duluth, Ga.—the Atlanta suburb that is home to the BellSouth Classic—to Augusta, due east on I-20. On Sunday night the freshly minted BellSouth champion, David Duval, did it in about two hours despite having to lug an oversized cardboard check for $450,000 and the historical weight of his recent achievements.
Duval has been the prohibitive favorite to win the Masters for a while now, and after his command performance two weeks ago at the Players Championship, the BellSouth was to be little more than a rest stop on the road to his first major championship, a tune-up tournament in which the only goal was to avoid spraining an ankle. That he won the thing was a bit excessive, not to mention unfair. Duval had nothing to prove, to himself or anyone else, as opposed to the host of players who rolled into Duluth knowing that a victory was their only avenue to this week's Masters because it would bring the last of the automatic invitations. A couple of fresh young talents, Rory Sabbatini and Mike Weir, both made gallant runs, and their pursuits were all the more interesting because they were trying to get to Augusta by way of South Africa and Canada, respectively. In the end it was this Masters backstory that added an extra level of drama to a hotly contested tournament.
"The Masters is in the back of your mind this week, no matter how hard you try to block it out," said Duval, whose 18-under-par 270 left him two strokes ahead of his former Georgia Tech teammate Stewart Cink. "Anybody who tells you differently probably isn't telling the truth."
Having exhausted all the superlatives to describe Duval's play, the facts themselves will have to do. With the victory Duval became only the third player, after Arnold Palmer (1960) and Johnny Miller (1974), to win four tournaments before the Masters (more on that later). The W was Duval's 11th in his last 34 starts, and with $2,598,300 he has already broken the single-season earnings record he set last year. What was scary about this victory was how easily it came.
He started the final round tied with Sabbatini and John Huston, one shot behind the co-leaders, Weir and Cink. Duval turned in a bogeyless 67, but he didn't win the tournament so much as everyone else coughed it up. After back-to-back birdies at the TPC at Sugarloaf's 15th and 16th holes—the one on the 15th the result of an unlikely chip-in—Duval found himself in a four-way tie for the lead with his playing partner Sabbatini and two members of the group behind them, Cink and Huston. That was when those three pretenders began "leaking oil like the Exxon Valdez? to borrow one of Sabbatini's colorful descriptions. On the relatively benign par-4 17th, Sabbatini drove into a bunker, sliced his approach into the trees, chipped on indifferently and three-putted for a double bogey. That was textbook compared to how the usually unflappable Huston played the hole. He was in one bunker off the tee and another on his approach, left two explosion shots in the sand, finally blasted onto the green and one-putted for a double bogey. Cink, for his part, took lame bogeys at 16 and 17. All Duval needed to slam the door was a pair of pars on the closing holes. Said the man, "I was trying to play smart, pick up a shot here or there, and then all of a sudden it was like, 'Hey, I won. How'd that happen?' "
Sabbatini had the answer: "The only way Duval is not going to win a tournament is if he stays home." It's a shame Sabbatini won't be making the trip to Augusta, because he would surely liven up the proceedings. Both his game and his personality are highly excitable. Born and raised in Durban, South Africa, Sabbatini was weaned on Gary Player stories and grew up in the shadow of Ernie Els, but he says Seve Ballesteros is his idol. It's easy to see why. Sabbatini surged to the 36-hole lead with a pair of 65s that were highlighted by gutsy shotmaking and a series of improbable recoveries. The second round coincided with his 23 rd birthday (he's the youngest regular on Tour), and he wasn't the only one celebrating. He reported that his parents back in Durban had stayed up until the wee hours on Saturday morning drinking Chivas and watching the numbers change on pgatour.com.
They must have been smashed four holes into the third round, by which time Sabbatini had made three birdies and surged to a six-stroke lead. At this point the gallery was on the verge of abandoning favorite sons Duval and Cink for the scrappy rookie. Part of Sabbatini's appeal is that he's the antithesis of those assembly-line Tour players, with their overly pressed pants and tailored swings. Sabbatini, listed generously by the Tour at 5'10" and 160 pounds, takes a mighty rip with a driver that's longer (46� inches) than average, and he hunches over his putter like a man with a sore back, gripping it practically on the steel. Like everyone else, he seems to delight in the volatile nature of his game and was in good spirits even after blowing up with five bogeys the rest of the way last Saturday and finishing with a 73. Sabbatini was brought into the press room and asked to go over his card. "You may need a map and a compass to get around this one," he said. On his way out Sabbatini put a bear hug on a startled Weir, a fellow Q school grad whom he had nonetheless met only that afternoon on the 1st tee.
Weir is used to a little extra attention. A native of Samia, Ont., Weir, 28, has been called the Tiger Woods of Canada, but considering the media contingent from his home country that scurries after him, Se Ri Pak might be a better analogy. "They are around almost all the time," he says of the writers from north of the border. In 1997 Weir won the Canadian Masters and became the first homelander to lead the Canadian tour's money list since Jerry Anderson did it in 1989. As a rookie on the PGA Tour in 1998, Weir just missed keeping his card, finishing 131st in earnings. The highlight of his year was a tie for fifth in the Greater Vancouver Open. That matched his best-ever finish on the Tour, which had come two years earlier at...the Greater Vancouver Open. (You were expecting the Houston Open?) Last week, on the eve of the final round, Weir was asked about the opportunity to earn a tee time at the Masters. "Growing up, it was a big tournament for us to watch up there as well," he said. "It would be unbelievable to play in that event. I'm sure those things will be entering my mind tomorrow."
Weir played solidly on Sunday but couldn't make any birdie putts. He shot 72 to tie for fifth. Sabbatini tied for third, and both left Duluth with mixed feelings. Weir was on his way home to Draper, Utah, to his wife, Bricia, and their 16-month-old daughter, Elle Marisa, while Sabbatini was heading to Tucson to visit his girlfriend, Katie Bohlander, a sophomore at Arizona. ("I am not cradle-robbing," Sabbatini said, not that anyone asked.) Both players planned to spend this weekend glued to the tube, dreaming about life on the other side of the glass. "I made a run at it, you know," Sabbatini said. "That's O.K. There's a Masters every year. I feel like this week I made a big step toward next year's."
It goes without saying that Duval's focus is trained on the Masters at hand. Grinding out four rounds on a course as long and hilly as Sugarloaf was not a popular means of preparation for the year's first major. Like many top players, Woods, the defending champ at the BellSouth, tubed the tournament in favor of some downtime and a little extra homework on revamped Augusta National. Last year Duval also took the week off before the Masters. Only his allegiance to his adopted hometown and its tournament brought him to Atlanta. (Duval was given a sponsor's exemption to play in his first Tour event, the 1992 BellSouth, while he was a junior at Tech.) On Sunday evening Duval was hardly regretting the decision. "I decided to give myself two weeks of competition as preparation, and it couldn't have gone any better," he said. "My head is where it needs to be. My swing and overall game are where they need to be. The biggest thing is, I have to get up there and make sure I'm rested." To that end he planned to skip practice rounds on Monday and Tuesday, which isn't as much of a handicap as it sounds because last month he buzzed into Augusta for two days of reconnaissance.