- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
John Cook comes with a variety of temperature settings. Away from the golf course he gives off the warm glow of a fireplace. "He's about the nicest guy I know," says Mark Calcavecchia, despite being singed by Cook during Sunday's final round of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in Indian Wells, Calif. "I know he doesn't have an enemy, that's for sure." On the course Cook's rage often makes him about as easy to get next to as a man on fire. "I don't associate this guy with that guy," says sports psychologist Bob Rotella.
Cook's game has a similar duality. He's a short hitter with a sweet swing, but before the Hope he had had a so-so eight victories in 17 seasons and finished among the top 10 on the money list only once. Beneath the precise style and modest record, though, lies an exceptional talent. This Cook knows how to sizzle. Last summer in Memphis he shot the lowest opening three rounds in PGA Tour history, a 24-under-par 189, and came within a stroke of the 72-hole record with a 26-under 258. "I hit it so close for four days it was frightening," he says. In 1992 Cook won the Hope by making three birdies and an eagle in sudden death to beat Gene Sauers, who birdied all four holes.
Finishing last week's marathon—five rounds on four courses with an army of celebrity hackers—with two days at vulnerable Indian Wells, Cook exploded again, backing up an 11-birdie 62 last Saturday with a nine-birdie 63 on Sunday. That tied the record for the best back-to-back scores ever, which Cook had also equaled in Memphis and is shared by three other players. Those kinds of numbers proved too much for Calcavecchia, who after going four strokes up on Cook with 14 holes to go, couldn't withstand eight Cook birdies coming home. Calcavecchia relinquished his lead on the penultimate hole when he mishit a drive into a eucalyptus tree 50 yards from the tee and made bogey. He birdied the final hole, but so did Cook by sinking an eight-footer for the win. "It hurts to play as good as you can play and not come out on top. What do I have to do?" said Calcavecchia, whose 32-under 328 would have won every Hope save the 1993 tournament, in which Tom Kite shot 325.
Unlike the big hitters on Tour, Cook didn't bulldoze his way to surreal numbers by driving par-4 holes and hitting par-5s in 2 with short irons. Instead, he did it the old-fashioned way, with dead-straight 270-yard drives and radarlike approach shots. Cook was particularly effective with his wedges. On four occasions on Sunday he left himself between 75 and 80 yards from the pin, his favorite distance with a sand wedge. On five other holes he had about 110 yards, just right for his pitching wedge. On six of those nine approaches Cook put his ball within six feet of the hole.
Indian Wells, a 6,478-yard par-72 cream puff with immaculate fairways and greens, is always among the easiest courses on the Tour and is a perfect track for Cook's finesse game. Last week the landing areas were firm, which gave Cook the added advantage of extra roll on his drives. "When I get on a course that plays into my hands, I feel like I'm in control of my game," he said. "And when I get that way, I think I have a chance to win—as long as I don't beat myself up."
The trouble is, Cook's best club has often been the figurative one that he uses on himself. With his mop of hair and boyish features, Cook, at 39, still looks like a carefree surfer boy, but in fact he's a perfectionist with a self-destructive temper. Mark O'Meara, who has been a friend since denying Cook back-to-back U.S. Amateurs by defeating him in the 1979 final, is sometimes so put off by Cook's negative attitude that he avoids him. "Cookie gets so pissed I just don't want to play with him," O'Meara says. "He gets so it looks like his head is going to blow off. We all get mad, but with John, it's like, Bud, why are you doing this?"
O'Meara was at the '93 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am when Cook snap-hooked his drive on the 18th hole into the Pacific. Cook admits that he "went completely ballistic," slamming his club on the ground, gesturing wildly and cursing. "I thought we were going to have to get the straitjacket out before he jumped into the ocean," O'Meara says. Later, a contrite Cook apologized to his amateur partner, Orel Hershiser, who joked, "Hey, I play for Tommy Lasorda. Don't sweat it."
"John has always been hard on himself," says his father, Jim Cook, a former college football and baseball coach who's now the tournament director of the NEC World Series of Golf. "Our whole family is very competitive—we expect a lot from ourselves—and while John probably holds his temper in better than most of us, it comes out on the golf course."
Cook's tantrums grew worse when he failed to blossom as a pro. "My lows have really been low," he says. When Cook joined the Tour in 1980, his sterling amateur record, blond hair and All-America status at Ohio State prompted comparisons with Jack Nicklaus. His well-publicized tutelage under Ken Venturi further raised expectations. Cook won at Pebble Beach in 1981, but the next season he injured his right hand and for seven years, during which he won only twice, he played in pain. After numerous failed attempts to find the cause of Cook's discomfort, an MRI in 1989 revealed that he had been competing all that time with a broken bone in his hand.
Cook emerged from a year's rehabilitation injury-free and refreshed, but the '90s have been a mixed bag. His best year was in 1992, when he won three times and finished second in the British Open and the PGA. Yet he was torn by the demands of his career. A devoted family man with three children, Cook struggled to balance his urge to dedicate himself to golf with his desire to spend more time at home.