For more than a decade, despite serious back problems, Fuzzy Zoeller has been a colorful character, an outstanding player and a leading attraction on the PGA Tour.
When it appeared last year that Zoeller, at 41, was beginning to fade, there was sadness all around. He played in only 18 tournaments in 1992, earned $125,000 and was 114th on the money list, his worst year since he was 146th in his rookie season in 1975. His future seemed anything but bright.
But apparently, Zoeller was only resting. He gave his back a good vacation and once again is among the game's elite. He hasn't won a tournament since 1986 but barely missed twice in a row recently and leads the tour in hitting greens in regulation.
Zoeller was in town to play one hole at Riviera Country Club the other day as part of a made-for-TV competition and talked about his future.
"I go by how I feel," he said. "And right now, I feel like I'll be going on forever. My back doesn't bother me, I'm hitting the ball well and I'm just having a wonderful time.
"I didn't realize it had been that long since I won. You see, I feel that I win every time I go out there. Winning isn't that big a thing. I win when I'm able to go out and play my best."
Zoeller, who has won $371,548 this year, has finished fourth, second, third and sixth in recent outings. He led by four shots at Memphis after three rounds, then succumbed to Nick Price's blistering 65. The next week in the Buick Open, he was tied for the lead after three rounds, then lost by a shot to Greg Norman.
As one regular on the tour put it, "If Fuzzy had been putting just fairly well, he would already have won several tournaments. He is hitting the ball as well as anyone."
Although he is among the leaders in driving efficiency, Zoeller is 89th in putting.
His popularity quotient remains high with golf fans, though. It accounts for his brief appearance at Riviera with John Daly, Tom Kite and Davis Love III in the "Chrysler American Great 18 Golf Championship" to be shown on ABC in October. The players went to 18 golf courses in the United States and played one hole on each of them.
They played as many as five in a day. On this particular day, they had arrived in Los Angeles shortly after midnight, having played five holes in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
They were up at 5 a.m. and teed off on the par-four, 321-yard 10th at Riviera at 7:15. Before the day was over, they also had played two holes in the Palm Springs area and two more on the Monterey Peninsula.
The short hole at Riviera was chosen in the hope that maybe Daly or Love could reach it with a drive. Neither did but Love was just off the fringe in the high grass, about pin high.
It was Zoeller, though, who had the early morning crowd cheering. He had the longest approach, about 60 yards. His wedge shot landed above the hole, rolled down to the cup, almost dropped, and rolled a foot past for an easy birdie.
"This game is a lot different," Zoeller said. "When you get a birdie on a regular round, it pumps you up and you're ready to go for another. But in this thing, you don't get to swing a club again for 2 1/2 hours. That takes care of momentum."
Besides the U.S. Open and the Masters, Zoeller has won eight other tournaments and was on three Ryder Cup teams.
"It was always exciting to play on the Ryder Cup team," he said. "It was a different feeling, because you weren't just playing for yourself. It was always an honor to play for your country. It just didn't get popular until we lost a couple of times. Then everybody started to care."
The 10th green was the first one completed in the rebuilding of greens and sand traps at Riviera, under the supervision of Ben Crenshaw. The project will be completed by Nov. 15. According to club pro Mike Miller, the idea is to restore greens and traps to their original contours and sizes.
If the county goes through with its plan to raise the price of 18 holes to $17 for weekdays, it will be another blow to the average golfer, already hit hard by previous raises during this recession. For those who can afford the tab, starting times will be easier to get. . . . Al Oerter, Bob Mathias and Parry O'Brien head the list of the former Olympic champions competing in diving champion Pat McCormick's third annual celebrity golf challenge. The charity event, which helps troubled school kids, will be played Monday at Tustin Ranch Golf Club. . . . Senior tour pro Lee Elder is the honorary chairman for the Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls tournament Friday, Oct. 8 at California Country Club.
The Scott Simpson--HBIC (Help For Brain Injured Children) pro-am will be played Monday at Friendly Hills Country Club in Whittier. The former USC star will engage in a pre-tournament, three-hole skins game with two members of the Golden State Tour. . . . Monday night at the Beverly Hilton the Multiple Sclerosis Society will honor LPGA star Amy Alcott, who has raised more than $750,000 for the group, at its annual dinner of champions. Times columnist Jim Murray will present the award to Alcott.