Twenty-four hours with Bob Estes, the least known three-time winner on Tour, begins at his home base, Austin Country Club. It's a sunny but chilly, almost-spring day in Texas, and the plan is to meet at noon, but the 36-year-old Estes calls to say he has forgotten a dental appointment. He's a serious, orderly man. Forgetting the appointment was bad enough; missing his semiannual cleaning would be a step toward chaos. He apologizes and insists that I go ahead and have lunch without him. He'll meet me at 2:30 for golf.
A life-sized statue of Harvey Penick, the legendary teaching pro at Austin Country Club, instructing Tom Kite, one of Penick's prized pupils, stands sentinel over the club's practice green, where I'm warming up when Estes arrives. I nod toward the figures. "Where's your statue?" I ask. Estes finds that amusing and says he's pretty sure there's a photo of him somewhere in the clubhouse. He strokes a few putts, and then we're off to the 1st tee—no carts, no caddies. We walk and carry our own bags. Estes travels light. He has a Sunday bag and only a half set of irons, the odd-numbered ones. It's a few days after the Accenture Match Play Championship at La Costa, in Carlsbad, Calif., and Estes, who lost to Paul Azinger in the quarterfinals, says, "I've still got match play in my blood." He suggests we go head-to-head from the tips. He'll spot me a measly two a side. I had been alerted by Mike Biggs, one of Estes's agents, that "whatever you do, don't beat Bob. He doesn't like that." (Who does?) But two a side against a Tour pro? I accept the sucker bet.
"What do we play for?" Estes wants to know.
Money? Nah, that'd be crass. We both wear contact lenses. "How about laser surgery?" I suggest. He laughs, and the match is on.
The first thing I notice about Estes's driver is how short it is. He says he had it reduced to 43� inches—standard length two decades ago—for improved accuracy. Nowadays 45 inches is the normal length of a Tour player's driver, and 46 inches isn't uncommon. Being different is normal for the enigmatic Estes. He leads the league in tinkering with his equipment and with his swing. In the early 1990s he played with irons that were two inches longer than standard. In 2000, after playing for five years with a metal driver, he switched to persimmon, becoming the last player on Tour to be seen with a wooden driver.
In 2001 Estes went back to metal, embarked on an Olympic-style training program, switched to a baseball grip, hooked up with a new swing coach (Craig Koy), hired a new caddie (Chuck Mohr) and had the best season of his career, winning twice (the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis and the Invensys Classic at Las Vegas) and earning $2.8 million, good for ninth on the money list. Yet Estes continues to tweak. Last fall he shortened his irons to a quarter-inch short of standard, but last month, in New Orleans, he reversed himself and added a half inch. Now he's positive he has found the right length. "But that's today," he says, allowing a small joke at his own expense. At last week's MasterCard Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas, in which he finished 25th, 12 shots behind winner Nick Price, Estes used a mallet putter and a markedly upright stance for the first time. Why mess with success? "I've spent 14 years in R and D," he says. "Last year was good, but I'm looking for great."
Some people say all the changes have hurt Estes's career; he says they were, and still are, necessary. Estes was the college player of the year in 1988, his senior season at Texas, but was never much of a ball striker. He lived and died with his short game, even in high school, when he led Cooper High in Abilene to three straight Texas titles. "Bob's swing wasn't good. It wasn't repeatable," says Koy. "He's amazingly tough mentally, and he's a great putter. That's how he's survived 13 years on Tour."
Estes's lack of a classic swing explains why he's one of the Tour's hardest workers—he has to be just to get by. When he was in the sixth grade, he wrote a paper outlining exactly what he planned to do with his life: play golf in high school, in college and on the PGA Tour. In high school he practiced every morning and knew precisely how long it took to jump into his car and make it to class before the first bell. At Texas he was rarely seen anywhere but on the practice range after classes. "I think he went out on some dates in college, but not many," says Bob's father, Tommy, who coached the Cooper High team.
Playing the Tour was Estes's dream, but only part of it. He wants to win majors too. Until last year he didn't feel he had the game to do so. Now he thinks he's closer. Estes is lanky—6'l" and 180 pounds—and his right clavicle is longer than his left, which makes it impossible for him to set up squarely to the target. "Other teachers told him it's no big deal," says Koy, "but it is a big deal. I told Bob, 'You can't swing the club like everybody else because it doesn't fit your body. Let's figure out what works for you.' " Their solution is unorthodox. Koy has Estes play the ball back in his stance. His feet are aimed dead right, his swing path is turning inside out, and he has more knee flex than normal. "From that position he can play. Before, no way," says Koy. "I'd never tell another student to swing like him, even if Bob were to win five majors, but it works for him. Bob told me that he never really hit a solid shot until last August. That's mind-boggling."
Back on the 1st tee Estes and I both take a mulligan. (Estes hadn't had a chance to warm up.) After I hook two balls into the rough, Estes insists that I hit a third with his minidriver. The club feels like a fairway wood, and sure enough I pipe one down the middle. (You know which ball I play.) I can't help but think that Estes is on to something.