Ladies and gentlemen, Corey Pavin has reentered the building. The evidence suggests that the 2�-year slump that has dogged Pavin, the 1995 U.S. Open champion and the heart and soul of the 1993 and '95 Ryder Cup teams, may be ending.
Exhibit A: Two weeks ago, in the first round of the Byron Nelson Classic, in which he would finish 18th, Pavin shot the quietest 63 in memory. His score went unnoticed because Tiger Woods had a 61 and superstar-in-waiting Sergio Garcia a 62 on the same day. "On the [490-yard] 3rd hole we outdrove Corey by a hundred yards," says Brandel Chamblee, who along with Billy Ray Brown was playing with Pavin. "He hit four-wood, and we hit seven-irons. We barely hit the green, and Corey hit it to two feet. I guess that's how you win U.S. Opens."
Shades of Shinnecock Hills and the most memorable shot of any Open played in the '90s, the pin-seeking four-wood from the 72nd fairway, a frozen rope that bounced onto the green, cozied up to the hole and clinched the tournament.
Exhibit B: Pavin held the lead after 36 holes last week at the MasterCard Colonial in Fort Worth thanks to a second-round 64. He was pretty sure that was the first time he had been in the lead in a Tour event since winning the '96 Colonial, after which his slump began. Despite a tepid 74 in last Saturday's third round, when his putter—yes, his putter—failed him, Pavin stayed within striking distance on Sunday. He shot a 68, which left him in 11th place at five under par, only three strokes behind winner Olin Browne, who celebrated his 40th birthday by sinking a par-saving eight-footer on the final green to win by a stroke.
There were a lot of bodies between Browne, who put up a pair of 66s on the weekend, and Pavin, but only three shots? That isn't much. "He sounded a little tired and disappointed," said Gary Smith, Pavin's Orlando-based teacher, after taking a phone call from him. "It's different when you're disappointed because you didn't win than when you're disappointed because you're missing cuts. It's nice to see his hard work paying off. I think Corey is ready." Pavin had called Smith to confirm that he was flying in for a practice session the next day.
Exhibit C: Pavin's game was starting to rise at the end of the '98 season. In November in Brisbane, Australia, he lost a playoff for the ANZ Players Championship to Aussie Stephen Leaney, who one-putted 10 of the last 11 holes he played. "He didn't like that very much, but he was very diplomatic," Leaney says. "I'm sure he's holed a few putts on other people during his career."
Exhibit D: Pavin's numbers are up this year. He has five top 25 finishes, one more than in the last two years combined, and two top 10s—a fifth in the MCI Classic and a seventh in the Tucson Open. He has already won $52,920 more than he totaled during the two slump years. The numbers also show that Pavin is striking the ball well. He tied Joe Durant for first in fairways hit at Colonial and tied for sixth in greens in regulation. Pavin was an uncharacteristic 51st in putting, which suggests that if he'd had even an average week with the putter, he would have been the one trying on one of those lovely plaid jackets they give the Colonial winner. "He's hitting those old Corey Pavin shots," says CBS analyst David Feherty, who walked all 18 holes on Saturday with Pavin and John Cook, the final twosome. "On some tee shots the highest they got was when they were on the tee."
Pavin used to be a one-man highlight film, the master of recovery. Remember the '91 Ryder Cup at Kiawah Island when, wearing a camouflage hat during his singles match, he charged out of a green-side bunker at the 17th hole like Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill and chased his ball toward the hole? Or the shot he holed from the fairway en route to a front-nine 30 while partnering Jim Gallagher in four-ball at the '93 Ryder Cup at the Belfry? Or the chip-in at the 18th green to stun Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo at Oak Hill in '95? These are enduring images.
At the moment, though, Pavin is working on the most important recovery of his career. He had been among the Tour's top 20 money winners in 10 of 13 years from 1984 to '96, and in 1995 was ranked as high as No. 5 in the world. Then, almost overnight, the bottom fell out. From the middle of the '96 season until last fall, he was invisible, missing 23 cuts, more than he had missed in the previous 6� years. Even now, Pavin's not sure what went wrong. "It's a mystery," he says. "I still don't know what happened with my swing. By the time I figured out there was a problem, it was a huge problem. I remember finishing in the top 10 at the '96 World Series, and it was not pretty. I hit it horrible. I got up and down from everywhere. I thought it was just a phase and that my swing would come back. I was wrong." He allows himself a wry smile, then says, "First time ever."
Tour pros fear slumps because they know that the next one may be fatal. "I hate to compare it to cancer," Pavin says, "but if you don't catch cancer early, it spreads, and pretty soon you're in a lot of trouble."