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The PGA's Players with Pizzazz

Some professional golfers are not cookie-cutter people with robot-like personalities, and they bring those sometimes off-the-wall qualities to every tournament.
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Armand Assante, Mar/Apr 2008

One of them has been knocked out by an orangutan. One of them has tried to knock himself out with a putter. One of them has a preference for skull belt buckles. One of them has hit a ball off the Great Wall of China. What do they all have in common with Tiger Woods? They were all winners on the PGA Tour in 2007: Boo Weekley, Woody Austin, Rory Sabbatini and Daniel Chopra. In an age in which the magnificence and mystique of Woods dominates the game—his shadow interrupted occasionally by the brilliance and travail of Phil Mickelson—it's easy to lose track of the personalities that enliven the Tour round by round, tournament by tournament, season by season. Tiger and Phil have to beat somebody in order for their own accomplishments to mean something, and they aren't just beating nobodies. There are a slew of players who dispel the convention that the Tour is a continuing parade of vanilla civility, a "vanillity" if you will. Personality abounds. All you have to do is look past the grooved swings, the smooth strokes and the logoed shirts. There are real people inside those ropes.

Boo Weekley, as country as they come from the Florida Panhandle town of Milton, once tried his hand at boxing with an orangutan at a county fair when he was 16, only to find himself lying in the bed of a pickup truck when he groggily came to his senses. Weekley won the Verizon Classic last year, and more than $2.5 million in prize money.

Woody Austin, in the days he struggled to keep his PGA Tour card, once banged his putter, repeatedly, against his head so hard that it bent the shaft. He still struggles with his confidence, still is hard on himself, but he won the Stanford St. Jude Championship last year and made the U.S. Presidents Cup team.

Rory Sabbatini is rather well known for being an irritant to Tiger Woods, even though he insists he didn't intend to be with his comments about Woods being more beatable than ever. Still, Sabbatini is a confident-going-on-cocky player with a newfound affinity for belt buckles with skulls, particularly a big white one he wore a lot at the start of the season. Sabbatini won the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial last year.

What stands out on Daniel Chopra's skull is his dyed white-hot hair, which was on full display at his victory at the Ginn sur Mer tournament in 2007, and at the 2008 season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship at Kapalua, where he defeated Steve Stricker in a playoff. Chopra, who is of Swedish and Indian descent, hit what is believed to be the first and only ball off the Great Wall of China.

Weekley doesn't fit the profile of the average PGA Tour player, if there really is an average PGA Tour player. He didn't come up through a hotbed college like Arizona State or Florida or Oklahoma State. He made a halfhearted pass through Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, where he studied turfgrass science, but it wasn't as if he wanted to be an expert in the field. He later worked as a laborer in a Monsanto plant, trying to eke out a living so that he could play some golf. He knew he had a chance of making a living at that game, and when he first qualified for the PGA Tour in 2002, he had a number in mind: $8 million.

"I still think that's my number," says Weekley in a drawl so thick you could make grits out of it. "If I can put that much in the bank, then I'll have enough to take care of my wife, my son, my parents and pretty much everyone else. You know, in case a cousin or somebody calls up and says they need bail money. If I get to that amount, then I can do what I really love to do in this life: hunt and fish and be with my family."

To that extent, Weekley, 34, is the new Bruce Lietzke, a solid Tour player of the '70s and '80s who wasn't in pursuit of major championships and glory, just cash to take care of his family, go bass fishing and coach his kids' teams during the summer.

Even if you can't take the country out of the boy, you can take the boy out of the country. Weekley agreed to play with his high school friend and fellow PGA Tour player Heath Slocum in the World Cup in China this past November, where they finished second to Scotland's Colin Montgomerie and Marc Warren. Monty was impressed with Weekley's laid-back demeanor, even suggesting that he spend some time with him. "He better come on home with me," says Weekley. "We've got a lot of changing to do."

On his way to the Mercedes tournament, Weekley ran afoul of airport security. It was his love of hunting that got him in trouble. When his carry-on bag went through the X-ray machine, the attendant noticed something at the bottom of it. "We went to Illinois deer hunting," says Weekley. "I reckon I just left two bullets way down in the bottom of it. I couldn't find them and they found them on that screen."

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