By 1995, after two winless years, Cook was seriously considering retirement. He reached his nadir at the Memorial, where his temper led to a bizarre incident. Angry that he had left a wedge shot short of the 5th green, Cook swiped at his ball with his hand while picking it out of casual water. He failed to catch it, instead batting the ball into a nearby water hazard where it sank out of sight. A two-stroke penalty was assessed, and that turned out to be the margin by which he missed the cut. "What happened at the Memorial really killed him," says his wife, Jan. "That dug him back into a hole. He had to do something, but how do you tell your husband—in a nice way—that he needs help?"
Fortunately Cook had already come to that conclusion. He went to see Rotella, who has helped Cook understand and manage his anger. But his turnaround really began when he had an emotional two-day reunion with Venturi last March.
"It was like I was 14 again," says Cook. "I've always kept a book of our old notes, and we started over. There was no cheer-leading, no 'You're the greatest, just have patience.' It was nice to finally hear someone say, 'No, it's not fun, 75 is not fun. Sixty-five is fun, 75 is no good.' I finally thought, Yeah, now I can talk to somebody who knows what I'm going through."
Having determined that his ambivalence about dedicating himself to golf had been the major cause of his frustration, Cook decided to immerse himself in his game. "People think I'm nuts, but I could've easily stopped playing," he says. "My wife and I figured out a plan, and that stopped all the questions. I was tired of being just another guy, looking at the board on Friday trying to figure out if I made the cut. That's not me. A lot of guys, that's the way they play, and god bless them for being out here and for the talent that they have. But that's not why I was put here."
Peace of mind is a powerful thing, particularly at the Hope with its 5½-hour rounds, myriad skulled iron shots and omnipresent miniskirted Classic Girls. But this year, for the first time since the tournament began in 1960, it was held without Arnold Palmer, who was recovering from the prostate surgery he had undergone earlier in the week. For most of the players, concern for Palmer outweighed the tournament's many distractions.
The fact that the Hope was the first full-field event of the year also worked in Cook's favor. "It's early, so everybody still has the good attitude working this week," said Calcavecchia, who has been known to do a pretty fair Raging Bull himself. What's more, Cook was playing in his adopted hometown—he has a house at Mission Hills Country Club in nearby Rancho Mirage. On Sunday, Jan rented a bus to transport about 50 family members and friends to Indian Wells to watch John play. "He's in a nice zone," said his caddie, Frank Williams, before the round began.
The ultimate test came hours later, particularly on the 89th hole where, despite Calcavecchia's bogey, Cook was jolted when he missed a six-footer for birdie that would have locked up the tournament.
"I wanted that one bad, really bad. Maybe that's why I missed," Cook said. "I had to regroup at 18 and somehow finagle a birdie." Another crisp wedge from 80 yards, plus one more eight-footer, and he had begun what he hopes will be a sustained comeback. "I hung in there," said Cook, who will reinforce the positive by skipping this week's tournament in Phoenix to spend two more days with Venturi in Florida. "My mental mistakes were few, but I'm never, ever one to say, 'Yeah, I've got this thing licked.' Saying that is a major mistake."
No matter what his temperature setting, John Cook knows he'll always be flammable.