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.
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."
Because cotton and polyester irritate the skin of his legs, Weekley wears rain pants frequently, including those in a camouflage pattern. One of his principal endorsements is Mossy Oak, a company that produces camouflage clothing for hunters. He can flat-out play golf, but Weekley would just as soon be swaddled in his "camo," taking a bead on a big buck or a flight of ducks. "That's just the way I am," says Weekley. "Don't get me wrong. Playing golf for a lot of money isn't a bad thing. It can be fun. But by the time I'm 44, 45, I hope I've reached that $8 million 'cause then I can be doing what I love for the rest of my life."
Love isn't exactly how you would describe Woody Austin's relationship with golf. His feelings are often closer to hate and his opinion of himself can swing with every swing he takes. He describes himself as one of game's best ball strikers, one of the game's most mediocre putters and one the game's biggest head cases.
"The most important part of being out here is mental," says the 44-year-old Austin. "Everybody out here can play, but it's who has the ability to show it under the gun. That's the intangible part that the greats have more than the others. Physically, I'm as good as anybody. Mentally, I'm at the bottom of the barrel."
Austin remembers having a discussion with noted sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella at a tournament not long ago. "He asked me a bunch of questions, then said, 'Yup, you are the kind of person whose brain won't shut off.' Mine won't shut off when I'm sleeping, it doesn't shut off when I play golf."
And therein lies for the rub for Austin, whose career was marked by such early struggles and consternation that he once took a job as a bank teller in his hometown of Tampa, Florida. "You know, Tiger gets over a shot and says 'I can hit it,'" says Austin. "I get over a shot thinking I can hit it, but I'm also thinking about what's left, what's right, what happens if something goes wrong. My brain can't zone in and focus."
He was, however, able to find some focus in 2007, at least in the second half of the season. He won the third tournament of his career at Memphis, gave Woods a bit of a run before finishing second at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, and was instrumental in the U.S. team's win over the international team in the Presidents Cup, where partner Phil Mickelson gave him the nickname Aquaman after Austin fell into a pond after playing a shot from the edge of a hazard at Royal Montreal Golf Club. He can laugh about that moniker, but he really doesn't want to be known by it.
"Phil gave me that nickname," says Austin. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have it. I'd rather be remembered for birdieing the last three holes of that match to tie it. I'm a golfer and I'd rather be known for golf and not taking a splash. I don't want to be known by a fictitious name. I'll laugh and joke about it, but I don't want to be known as Aquaman. I want to be known as Woody."
He even got invited to his first off-season "funny money" event last fall, "The Shark Shootout," which he won with partner Mark Calcavecchia. Not bad for an aging player with a runaway brain. But Austin will never sugarcoat his achievements, never deny his fundamental flaw. "You can't fake confidence," he says. "You can fake it when you are talking. But when you are on the golf course under the gun, you can't fake that. That's why Nicklaus was so good, why Tiger is so good. The greats have real confidence. The rest of us just try to find some from time to time."
It takes a certain confidence to wear a belt buckle with a skull on it when you are playing PGA Tour golf. Payne Stewart's knickers were one thing, but a skull?
"I had a lot of people said they really liked it," says Rory Sabbatini, a 32-year-old South African. "Golf's a boring enough game just watching us walk around a golf course, so let's have some fun with it."
Sabbatini has made no secret of his ambitions to be the No. 1-ranked player in the world. It's just that there's this guy Woods who stands resolutely, and not a little vengefully, in his way. Woods and Sabbatini were paired in the final round of the Wachovia Championship last year, with Woods emerging the winner by shooting a 69, Sabbatini a 74. The next week Sabbatini said that Woods "was more beatable than ever," that he preferred playing against "the new Tiger." Those statements raised a few eyebrows, and heightened the tension of the final round of the World Golf Championships event at Firestone's South Course last August, when Woods and Sabbatini were again paired. This time it was Woods 64, Sabbatini 75. Asked about Sabbatini, Woods summed it up this way: "Everyone knows how Rory is."
For his part, Sabbatini says that the media misconstrued his comments. "A lot of the conflict that was created last year was exactly that, created by the media," says Sabbatini. "That's the way they ran with it, that's the way they portrayed it. Unfortunately, that's what people read and they don't get the full story. I'm not going to be a person who talks to the media anymore. It seems they have me portrayed in a certain light.
"I just feel the media seem to feel that some players are untouchable, that if someone makes a comment about them, that's not appropriate. They took a very short context about a statement I made and turned it in a completely opposite direction from being a compliment about a certain player; they took it to mean I said he wasn't as good as he once was. That's the way they sell magazines and I'm just tired of it."
But he isn't afraid to say, or express, what he feels, any more than he is afraid to compete. In one tournament he was paired with the notoriously slow Ben Crane. Sabbatini got so fed up with Crane's snail-like approach to the game that he stormed ahead of Crane some 200 yards and waited for him to hit his approach shot at the back of the green. Such behavior did not endear him to his fellow competitors, who voted in a secret magazine poll in 2005 that Sabbatini was their least favorite player to be paired with.
"I'm one of those golfers that the commentators like to say wears their emotions on their sleeves," says Sabbatini. "That's something I've battled with my whole life. I've got a lot of Italian and Scottish and Irish blood in me, so I have a tendency to be a passionate person. My wife's my biggest critic and she gives me some suggestions and so does my caddie. I don't work with a psychologist or anyone like that. I have enough to deal with on the golf course without having to deal with my brain on the golf course."
Off the course, Sabbatini's wife, Amy, describes him as a Boy Scout. Sabbatini travels the Tour with his family—which includes son Harley and daughter Tylie Jo—in a luxury RV. Davis Love III, who has an RV as well, says that Sabbatini is a different man in the RV park than he is on the golf course. "All the families that live in buses become like a neighborhood, and Rory's the friendliest, most helpful guy on the block," says Love.
Sabbatini is generous with his charitable work, contributing thousands to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which aids wounded soldiers. At a tournament run by fellow Tour player Rod Pampling to raise money for muscular dystrophy research, Sabbatini donated a package of tickets and amenities that was snapped up for $60,000. His offer included four tickets to the Masters and the opportunity to caddie for him in a practice round and the Par 3 Tournament, as well as four tickets to the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.
The often in-your-face Sabbatini, who walks a golf course like an angry longshoreman and occasionally dresses for a round in a pseudo-goth style that might include camouflage pants with a belt adorned with a bejeweled skull, says he's the opposite at home. He is working on carrying some of that demeanor on the course.
"My wife's always trying to help her husband be the best person he can," says Sabbatini. "She's got a tough job, a lot of work ahead of her."
Then you have Daniel Chopra. He doesn't wear skull belt buckles, but his hair could be the North Star at night. Chopra is as worldly as they come on the PGA, having been born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Indian father, having been sent to India at the age of seven and raised by his grandparents, having played the Asian tour as his training ground, having played around the globe and having played 132 PGA tournaments before winning his first one at the end of last year, the Ginn sur Mer Classic, then quickly picking up his second at the Mercedes-Benz. Those victories clearly eclipse his most public accomplishment, hitting a ball off the Great Wall of China in 1995.
"I was the highest-ranking player in the field at the Volvo China Open," says Chopra. "Sandy Lyle was in the field and we played together the first two rounds. They arranged a photo shoot for us to go up to the Great Wall of China for us to hit golf balls off the wall. I teed up a ball between the cracks, hit a 5-iron from the top. It was a fun thing."
Chopra's multiethnic, multicultural and, at 35, can still be considered a child of the world. He's lived in Sweden, England and India, he's married to an Australian and there isn't a continent on the globe with a golf tour he hasn't visited, and often. After winning last year, he didn't take an off-season, instead traveling to play in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
"I love the fact I have two different heritages," says Chopra. "I was only supposed to be in [India] a couple of years. I moved there when I was seven. I started playing golf, started playing cricket, started going to school, and by the time it was time for me to move back, I didn't want to. I'm very proud to be half and half. People say, Do you feel more Swedish or Indian? I see myself as Swedish when I'm in Sweden and Indian when I'm in India. I feel right down the middle. It's hard to explain to somebody that doesn't share that type of upbringing."
He speaks Swedish, Hindi and English, which makes for some interesting practice-round chatter. "When I was playing the European Tour I'd play a practice round with Arjun [Atwal] and we'll have a Swedish guy playing in the same group and I'll speak Swedish to him and Indian to Arjun and English to my caddie. I remember we had some American guy playing with us, and he was like, What the hell just happened?"
When Chopra picked up David Duval's former caddie, Mitch Knox, there was a momentary language barrier: Knox's drawl might be thicker than Weekley's. "Yeah, I had to watch 'Larry the Cable Guy' for about a month to figure it out," says Chopra.
Now he seems to be figuring out how to push himself into the upper echelon of the game. Inside the ropes he isn't Swedish or Indian. "Then I'm just me," he says. "I don't think your heritage has anything to do with how you think. You think in golf, the language of golf."
Golf is the most individual of sports, and it sports the most individuals. While fans roam courses and park themselves in front of televisions to watch players of extraordinary talent, those players are doing much more than booming drives and snaking putts. The PGA Tour has always had its share of characters, and still does. It wouldn't be nearly as interesting without them.
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.
Illustration by Gary Hovland
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