American golfers have suffered a short supply of toughness over the past decade. While the practice tee has produced a long line of tall guys with pretty swings, predictable ball flights, placid temperaments and long-term exemptions, the element of grit has been missing.
One exception to the rule has been the short and skinny, funky-swinging, junk-ball-hitting, nails-for-breakfast Corey Pavin. The 33-year-old Pavin has earned a reputation among his peers as America's gutsiest player. His talent may not be the purest, but if you have a five-footer for your life, you want the man known as the Jockey standing over it.
On Sunday, Pavin defeated the world's No. 1 player, Nick Faldo, one up in a tense 36-hole final to win the World Match Play Championship in Virginia Water, England. The victory marks the first time an American has won the 30-year-old event—the only significant individual pro tournament contested at match play—since Bill Rogers prevailed in 1979. On the heels of the 1993 Ryder and Dunhill cups, both won by the U.S. on British soil, Pavin's victory swung the pendulum of golf preeminence back to the American side of the Pond and proved that U.S. pros once again have the stomach for the game's most gag-inducing moments.
Pavin's win on Wentworth's storied West Course was all the more impressive because it came over Faldo, twice a winner of the event. In the seesaw final, the normally steely Faldo faltered on the last hole. Attempting to carve a three-wood approach shot 240 yards around a dogleg, Faldo hit a shocking slice into the woods, leaving himself an unplayable lie. He scrambled to hole a 12-footer for bogey, forcing Pavin to make a five-footer for the match. He drilled it dead center.
Throughout his four matches, Pavin dazzled with his ability to invent shots, high or low, hooked or sliced. He opened with a 4 and 3 victory over Peter Baker of England and then had a rousing match with Zimbabwe's Nick Price. Two down after the sixth, Pavin won the next five holes, four of them with birdie putts of five, 20, 18 and 30 feet. By the time he had closed out Price 2 and 1, Pavin was 10 under for 35 holes.
Pavin met Colin Montgomerie of Scotland in the semis. He was 3 up with four holes to go, but three birdies by Montgomerie sent the match to the 37th. The situation looked bleak for Pavin, who lacked the length to reach the long par 4 in two, but Montgomerie hooked an approach shot into the rough. Montgomerie bogeyed, while Pavin parred the hole to win the match. "Match play is much more stressful, but it's a lot more enjoyable," said Pavin. "I wish we could play every tournament match play, but I think all my hair would fall out."
Before Sunday, Pavin, the top money winner on the 1991 PGA Tour, hadn't won since March 1992, when he seized the Honda Classic from Fred Couples in a spectacular finish. After holing an eight-iron from 136 yards on the 72nd hole to tie Couples, Pavin extended his playoff record to 5-2 by sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole. Since then, Pavin has been outgunned in some final rounds, notably at this summer's British Open at Sandwich. Leading by one stroke after 54 holes, he couldn't keep up with the torrid pace set by Greg Norman, the eventual winner, Bernhard Langer and Faldo, and fell to fourth. But now Pavin has inherited the title of best player in the world never to have won a major. If the little man keeps taking giant steps the way he did at Went-worth, he won't hold that title for long.