Pavin, Stewart Step to Head of the Class

The Washington Post

Now that we have all the big shots in golf gathered together in one place for the Tournament Players Championship, let's give out our PGA Tour first-quarter report cards.

Will the guard at the door please stop Greg Norman, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros from leaving. Sit tight. We'll get to you hackers in a while. Bob Tway, stop squirming.

First, let's praise the fellows who have really been golfing their ball.

Corey Pavin, step to the head of the class. You've got $311,865 in your wallet already and two championship trophies on your mantle from the Bob Hope Classic and the Hawaiian Open. Ever since Pavin had the richest rookie season in golf history in 1984, many have wondered when he'd be the Tour's top money-winner.

Spectacular seasons often start in spectacular ways, then build on their momentum. Pavin's has already. In January, he came to the last hole of the Bob Hope tournament tied with Bernhard Langer, then sank a 20-foot birdie putt to win on the horrifically tough PGA West course. That would be a swell way to start a career-best season. No doubt Pavin's noticed that Pete Dye, who built PGA West, also made the Players Club in Florida.

Foes worry about Pavin because he has a bit of Ben Hogan in him. The bantam 140-pounder came up from the caddie ranks (even if it was Peter Ueberroth's bag he carried) and seems to live on the practice tee. The more he wins, the tougher he'll get.

Payne Stewart, you get an A, plus extra credit points. You may never have Pavin's grit. You've already squandered more chances to win in the last four seasons than most players get in a career. But you've got style that goes deeper than your pastel knickers.

In '84 and '85 Stewart finished No. 1 on the tour in all-round excellence in nine statistical categories. Yet he won nothing. However, when Stewart ended his four-year drought two weeks ago at Bay Hill, winning on his home course, he gave his entire $108,000 winner's check to an Orlando cancer charity in his late father's name. Stewart makes a handsome living, but his gift was nearly half his average annual tour income. The Masters' Augusta National has always suited his game; now it might suit his frame of mind.

While the whole golf world's been waiting for Pavin and Stewart to arrive, nobody thought Mark Calcavecchia could caddie in the 1986 Honda tournament, then win the same event in 1987. Just to underline his name, Calcavecchia already has finished third three times this year and his $235,025 in earnings is fourth best on the tour.

Golf often seems like the sport in which athletes have the best chance of discovering a second wind after age 35. Ben Crenshaw, Lanny Wadkins and Johnny Miller--all pros of a certain age--already have won this year with honors performances.

Crenshaw might easily have funked himself into a slump after losing a playoff in the Los Angeles Open when he blew a yard-long putt. Instead, he gathered himself and won in New Orleans last week.

The season's most sentimental win so far was Miller's at Pebble Beach. Putting with his eyes on the hole (not the ball) as a nerve-settling gimmick, he made a 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to beat the fading Stewart by one shot. "How come golf is the only sport where you look at the ball instead of the target?" queried Miller. "Maybe someday everyone will putt looking at the hole."

What next, Johnny, drives?

Best blitz of the year goes to mystery man George Burns, whose 22-under-par total at San Diego, including a 63, makes you wonder if he isn't going to get so far ahead in a major that he can't wake up and back up.

Best quote goes to Don Pooley, who's the sort of fellow you would want to stand beside in a lightning storm. Two years ago, when he was 46th on the money list, the Vardon Trophy walked up and presented itself to him because he accidentally played a lot of easy courses, thus lowering his stroke average.

This month, at Bay Hill, Pooley's four-iron shot hit halfway up the flagstick and dropped into the cup for an ace. And a million-dollar hole-in-one prize. Asked why he was using an old-fashioned V-grooved style of irons, Pooley said, "They skip down flagsticks better."

Now, let's see who's sitting in the back of the class in the dunce caps?

Who'd have thought that Watson, Norman, Ballesteros and Tway would--despite playing more early-season golf than normal--stand 39th, 38th, 19th and 17th, respectively, on the money list?

The Watson case is particularly discouraging. He's trying desperately to rediscover his putting touch and competitive edge; yet, in seven events, he has only one visit to the top 12. He's 107th in driving accuracy, 50th in putting and full of Palmeresque doubts. Hooked drives and lipped putts can make a 37-year-old feel 73.

As if any further proof were needed of how hard it is to stay on top, Norman, Tway and Ballesteros are giving us more examples. Good just isn't enough in a sport where top players' scoring averages are within tenths of a stroke of each other.

Norman has a third, a fifth and two back-in-the-pack finishes so far. He needs to get cranked up in a hurry or he could follow in the footsteps of Tom Kite, Craig Stadler, Hal Sutton and Curtis Strange--gents who were one-year money-list champions in the '80s, then faded and haven't returned to the peak.

Tway, who may be almost too hungry for his own good, has played in eight events and could burn himself out before the Opens. After several solid finishes (15, 10, 3, 6), he's been reeling (cut, 10, 76, 39). Somebody want to tell The Oklahoma Kid that it's a long career; finding a cruising speed is essential.

As always Ballesteros looms on the horizon like an exciting storm cloud--one that promises lightning but sometimes only produces thunder. He's back on tour on his own terms--not as a PGA member--after his year of warfare with Tour commissioner Deane Beman. Does his 23-9-2 progression sound promising?

In a sense, what we have seen so far is akin to a golf exhibition season. Early season tournaments named after cars, comedians and telephone companies are easily and inevitably forgotten. But the fireworks about to start in Jacksonville, then Augusta, are likely to live not only in the record books but in our memories as well.

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