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If he could have a good lie in the fairway and a driver in his hand, Mark Calcavecchia swears that he would put up $100,000 to be standing 250 yards from the final, water-guarded green in a major championship, needing an eagle to win. "I just eat that situation up," he says.
But Calcavecchia admits that he was nearly incapacitated with gastronomic yips when he sat down to eat his first meal with his Ryder Cup teammates in the home of team captain Jack Nicklaus last September. "I was afraid to lift the food to my mouth," he says. "All I could think was, Don't drool barbecue sauce down your shirt."
In spite of the obvious contradiction, the two images can exist in harmony. On one hand, the 27-year-old Calcavecchia (Cal-ka-VEK-e-ya) has every right to think he can pull off golfs toughest shots. Since September 1986 he has won the Southwest Classic and the Honda Classic, along with more than $650,000 in prize money. In 1987 he finished 10th on the PGA Tour money list with $522,398. In the process he has exhibited a game that is among the biggest and boldest ever seen.
On the other hand, Calcavecchia lost his PGA Tour card five times while scratching out less than $90,000 in his first five pro seasons. Any golfer with a record like that is supposed to forget how to use a fork in the presence of Jack Nicklaus. "Sometimes when I'm out there playing bad and thinking everyone is against me, I stop and realize how many guys would give their left arm to be where I'm at," Calcavecchia says. "Hell, I was one of them."
Was he ever. Certainly Calcavecchia, while possessing a load of raw talent, never looked like potential fairway royalty. From 1981, when he joined the Tour, to 1985, when he lost his card for the fifth time, he had a self-taught swing that often failed him under pressure. Just as bad, he had a propensity for junk food and beer that left him with a depressing weight problem. The combination produced mood swings, and he alternated between raging, club-wrecking fits of temper and periods of sullen, lonely despair.
Fortunately, Calcavecchia has always had the ability to say, "Forget it." It's a trait that may have kept him off the practice tee, but it also allowed him to keep the game from devouring him. "He gets mad on the golf course," says his wife of four months, Sheryl. "But once he's finished playing, he says, 'Let's go have some fun.' "
Fun can mean dancing, listening to rock music or playing other sports. Calcavecchia is a 195-average bowler and a talented pool shooter. He and fellow golf pro Ken Green sometimes compete in their own version of the modern pentathlon—paddle tennis, tennis, Ping-Pong, pool and bowling—with the loser buying dinner.
"I'm not your normal PGA Tour pro," says Calcavecchia, whose name means "old shoe" in Italian. "I'm a little wilder than most, a little crazier. More of a let-it-fly type. I can't really help it."
Most Tour veterans take a dim view of carousers, when they notice them at all. "I'm sure I was a jerk a decent amount of the time," Calcavecchia says. "Everybody thought I was a screw-off, and I'm sure a lot of guys didn't like me. Everyone ignored me. When I saw the name players on the putting green, I just kind of sneaked around to the other side. It was almost like I didn't belong. Of course, now that I'm playing well, everybody knows me."
Calcavecchia is no longer a screw-off. He has worked diligently to change his swing, replacing a hard hook with a powerful, softer-landing fade. The change has increased his control and has cost him only a few yards of distance; his average drive is still better than 270—among the Tour's top 10. He has also improved his putting, moving from 151st in 1986 to 22nd in 1987.