Jim Furyk is not a Vegas kind of guy. The dice and the vice, the bright lights and the long nights, Furyk can do without all of that. "I'd rather sit in my room and watch TV," he says. Not surprisingly, Furyk avoids casinos like a case of the yips. In 1995, his sophomore season, Furyk came to the Las Vegas Invitational and won his first Tour event, no doubt because he got more rest that week than any other player. He celebrated the victory by going crazy and playing 25-cent video poker. Last year Furyk won the Invitational again, and this time he really lost his head, playing five-dollar hands of blackjack for about 20 minutes, the sum total of his week's gambling—at least off the course.
Furyk's aversion to the trappings of Sin City may have something to do with an acute medical condition: He is allergic to excitement. The symptoms can certainly be seen in his golf game. He plays with a joyless efficiency and clinical precision that is numbing to watch. (Ask Sergio Garcia, who was de-spunked by Furyk in a key singles match at last month's Ryder Cup.) In the fastidious Furyk's relatively short career, he has established a reputation as a guy who will grind out strong finishes, if rarely victories, on tough courses in tough conditions. Since 1996, Furyk has had five top fives in the majors and has been among the top 15 in nine of his last 11. Furyk's game, then, is seemingly as ill-suited to Las Vegas as is his personality. The Invitational is a sprawling 90-hole tournament played on three shortish desert courses, each rendered defenseless to accommodate the amateurs who play alongside the pros for the first four days. The tournament is basically a nonstop birdie-a-thon, and that Furyk had won it twice was considered a fluke, like being dealt back-to-back royal flushes.
So here's the really weird part: Last week Furyk prevailed again, but it wasn't so much the victory that was a stunner as the manner in which it was achieved. On Sunday, Furyk birdied three holes in a row down the stretch to hold off a scrapper named Jonathan Kaye by a shot. And what birdies they were. First, Furyk holed out a putt for bird from well off the green on the 14th hole at the TPC Summerlin. He then brazenly whipped out his driver and drove the green at the 320-yard par-4 15th, setting up an easy two-putt. At 16, a watery par-5 of 536 yards, Furyk went for the green in two, and though he bombed a four-wood long and left, he produced a lovely up-and-down for the birdie that proved to be the margin of victory. In the end he had put together the jaw-dropping score of 29 under par (67-64-63-71-66-331). An even more shocking number: 80. That was how many dollars Furyk had won playing cards the night before the final round. "I have no explanation for why I've played well here over the years," says Furyk. "Things just seem to go my way."
Not so Kaye. The Invitational is the only tournament in golf in which a guy can start the final round in second place, shoot a 64 and wind up losing, which is exactly what happened to Kaye on Sunday. "Sometimes your best isn't good enough," he said in a tone that was surprisingly world weary for such a boyish 29-year-old. Then again, Kaye has put on some hard miles. Toward the end of a promising rookie year in 1995 he began having problems with his left shoulder, and two reconstructive surgeries and three lost seasons later, Kaye is finally putting his game back together. He proved a perfect foil for Furyk.
Kaye is one of the most entertaining players in golf, wild and freewheeling, and forever attacking. Generously listed at 5'11", Kaye is, inch for inch, one of the Tour's biggest hitters—he came to Las Vegas 28th in driving distance at 280.4 yards a pop. (Furyk, 6'2" and a former football player, was a mere 171st, at 263.9.) The key component in Kaye's game is passion. Though he's not a fist pumper, he seems to play with the volume turned all the way up. "The best thing you can say about Jonathan is that when people watch him play, they fall in love with him," says his caddie and girlfriend, Jennifer Sweeney, who also squeezed in a dozen tournaments this year as a player on the Futures tour. "The worst thing you can say is that he's a foul-mouthed hooligan. When he's not playing well, the F-bomb gets dropped just a tad too often."
Kaye's volatile nature got him into trouble during the third round of this year's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Frustrated by the slow response of a rules official and the amateurish behavior of one of the amateurs in his group, he packed it in at the turn without notifying tournament officials. This led to a $1,000 fine from the Tour and an exchange of letters with commissioner Tim Finchem. "Just one of the many run-ins," says Kaye with a crooked grin accentuated by his funky soul patch, the odd bit of facial hair on his chin.
During last Wednesday's opening round, played in hot, windless conditions, Kaye was one of eight players to shoot 63, which wasn't even good for the lead, as local boy Craig Barlow shot a course-record-tying 61 at the Las Vegas Country Club. That record lasted less than a day. On Thursday, Tommy Armour III rang up a 60, the 12th in Tour history, though he was still three back of leader Harrison Frazar, who had a 62. "If you shoot a 67 around here, you're out of it," said Fred Couples. On Friday the scoring reached record lows, as the cut came in at 11 under, a number that would have won 16 tournaments this year. (The old record for lowest cut, 10 under, came at the 1993 Bob Hope Classic, another 90-hole tournament.)
The calm was shattered on Saturday, beginning in the wee hours of the morning when an earthquake that registered 7.0 on the Richter scale and originated in the California desert rocked Vegas with enough force to leave players trembling in their beds. From the 35th floor at the Bellagio, Kaye could see waves in the hotel's ground-level pools, and the tall casino hotels were swaying for so long that Paul Azinger said he got seasick. John Daly, returning to his ancestral homeland, was so spooked that he refused to go back to his hotel room, instead crashing on a park bench at ground level to try to catch a few Z's.
After the quake, the wind gusted up to 42 miles an hour and scores soared. Over the first three days Summerlin played to an average of 68.68. On Saturday that number ballooned to 7756. Only two players broke par, Furyk and Glen Day, whose 70 shot him from 62nd place to 13th. Furyk's 71 added to his reputation as a premier wind player. His only official victory on Tour other than in Vegas came at the blustery '96 Hawaiian Open. He has also won the windswept Kapalua International, back when it was a Silly Season staple, and finished in the top four in two of the last three British Opens. "I never wake up and say, 'Boy, I hope it's windy today,' " says Furyk, but if it is, he has a bulletproof game plan—keep the ball in play by bunting it off the tee and rely on a putting stroke that Kaye (who shot a 73 on Saturday, leaving him three shy of Furyk) calls "probably the best on Tour."
No one will ever accuse Kaye of being a great putter, but in the early going on Sunday he didn't need to be. He hit it to a foot on the 1st hole, to two feet at the 2nd and then reached the fringe of the par-5 3rd hole for three easy birdies. After going out in 31, Kaye finally snagged a piece of the lead with a five-footer for birdie at 11. He promptly made his only real mistake of the day, a pushed drive at the 12th that cozied up to the base of a skinny tree and forced him to punch out. Kaye made bogey, and that was the only opening Furyk needed. After putting out on 18, he finally allowed himself a hint of emotion—an awkward fist pump and an embrace of caddie Fluff Cowan, who took up with Furyk in May after being fired by Tiger Woods. Cowan made no effort to contain his glee. With a nod to his 10% cut of the winner's check and to the damage sustained on the green felt, he said, "Thank god we won. Now I'm about even on the week."