|| Clutch effort: Micheel secured his first win - the '03 PGA - with a shot for the ages.
Photo: Darren Carroll
For some players an initial win is a springboard to greatness. For others it's their one shining moment
By E. Michael Johnson
When Shaun Micheel zipped a 7-iron two inches from the 18th hole at Oak Hill CC a year ago to clinch the PGA Championship, he did more than become part of golf history. Like other maiden champions, Micheel entered a world of great expectations - his own and everyone else's - unique to first-time winners. As Micheel attempts tp defend his title this week, it is with the knowledge that many wonder how long the wait will be before he claims another trophy.
"Do I think I'll win again?" Micheel asks. "I hope so. Absolutely. I suppose some people feel I have to win again just to validate what I did last year at the PGA. But people don't understand how difficult it is to win once."
A lot of people might not, but 104 of the 263 first-time PGA Tour winners since 1975 know the score. That's the number of first-time victors who haven't won again. Even for some of those fortunate enough to grab a second title, patience was essential. Consider Tommy Armour III, who got his second victory only after bloodying himself inside the ropes for 13 years and eight months - a record 366 starts between wins - before taking the 2003 Valero Texas Open.
To be fair, Micheel's body of work since his PGA stunner is but a fraction of Armour's. In 23 tournaments since outlasting Chad Campbell at Oak Hill, Micheel only has one top-10 finish, a ninth at the Players Championship. The 35-year-old ranks 66th on the money list, not bad for a guy who until last year failed to crack the top 100 in earnings in five full seasons on tour. Compared to his fellow first-time winners who prevailed in majors last year, Ben Curtis (one top-10, 120th on the money list) and Hilary Lunke (no top-10s, 95th on the LPGA money list), Micheel's year isn't bad.
But once you win, not bad isn't enough. "It's hard not to put pressure on yourself," Lunke observed during this year's U.S. Women's Open when asked about expectations. "I'm trying hard not to. But I can't expect to go out and contend every week when I'd never had a top-10 before winning." What Lunke is coming to realize is that whether you win the Women's Open or the Western Open (see Jim Benepe, 1988), there is no guarantee a second win will come easily - or at all. It took Jeff Sluman nearly nine years to back up his 1988 PGA Championship title with a win at Tucson in 1997. But at least Sluman produced a victorious second act. For major champions such as Orville Moody (1969 U.S. Open) and Janet Alex (1982 U.S. Women's Open), it was one and done in their primes, although Moody and fellow one-time winners Tom Jenkins (1975 IVB Classic) and Bruce Fleisher (1991 New England Classic) rediscovered how to win in a big way after joining the Champions Tour.
|Since 1975 40 percent of the 263 first-time winners on the PGA Tour have not won again.
What a major does do, however, is guarantee that more people will recognize your name when it's announced on the first tee. One-hit wonders such as Don Iverson (1975 B.C. Open), Jeff Mitchell (1980 Phoenix Open) and Peter Persons (1990 Chattanooga Classic) don't have that problem. Neither does Mike Nicolette. Anonymity is nothing new for Nicolette, who won at Bay Hill in 1983. After joining the tour in 1979, he showed few signs of being a contender. In fact, he nearly quit after a disastrous 1981 in which he made one cut in 21 starts and earned $512. "I always considered myself a good golfer, not a great one," he says.
That mindset changed after Bay Hill when Nicolette, who was "worried about making my next rent payment," beat rising star Greg Norman in a playoff. Nicolette's $63,000 check took care of his money worries, but it also led to a decision that marked the beginning of the end of his pro career. "I changed my swing to try to become a better ball-striker," says Nicolette, who lost his rhythm when he tightened his long swing. "Being a good golfer suddenly wasn't enough for me anymore. But instead of finding ways to get better within my game, I went outside it. I never got it back. It destroyed my career."
Well before Nicolette got worse trying to get better, Marty Fleckman was driven from the tour through a pursuit of perfection. When Fleckman, who held the 54-hole lead in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol as an amateur six months earlier, won the 1967 Cajun Classic, it was the first time a player had won his first start as a tour pro. And he did so in style, with birdies on the final two holes at Oakbourne CC in Lafayette, La., to force a playoff, then another birdie on the first hole to beat Jack Montgomery. Reporting on Fleckman's victory, Golf World said, "It seems not inconceivable that his rise to stardom could be a rapid one."
Despite a minor windfall from winning - a $5,000 equipment deal from MacGregor and $750 to $1,250 a pop doing Monday pro-ams - Fleckman was soon bogged down by his search for the perfect swing. "Winning helped push me further into that trap," says Fleckman, 60, now the director of instruction at BlackHorse GC in Cypress, Texas. "As a result I became too critical of myself."
Fleckman measured himself against his mentor, Byron Nelson, a legendary figure who hit the ball straight as a string. He copied everything Lord Byron did: set up, waggle, swing. "After a while you get tired of banging your head against the wall and not seeing results," says Fleckman, who left the tour to become an instructor in 1981. But contemporaries haven't forgotten his meticulous ways. "Marty wanted to be perfect in everything he did," says fellow Texan and four-time winner Homero Blancas. "The way he dressed. The way he did his hair. Everything. And when it came to golf, he wanted his shots to not only be struck correctly, but go the perfect height, the perfect distance and dead straight. But golf is the opposite of perfect. Back then if we hit six perfect shots a round, it was a lot. You simply dealt with the rest of them. But Marty couldn't do that."
Terry Diehl's problem wasn't too much attention to detail, but not enough on the right things. After winning the 1974 San Antonio-Texas Open as a rookie, he fell prey to the culture of tour life, one in which weightlifting was limited to 12-ounce curls. "My night game was way out of control back then," says Diehl, who has been sober for 15 years. "But I never correlated the deterioration of my game to increased drinking. I thought my problems were golf-related. They weren't."
Upon reflection, like a crime-scene investigator looking at evidence, Diehl can make sense of what happened to him. In addition to the late nights, he didn't practice effectively. "Sam Snead said he would practice the weakest points of his game, but I practiced what I was good at it," says Diehl. His game suffered and, although he had several opportunities to win, posting five runner-up finishes, including a five-hole playoff loss to Tom Kite at the 1976 IVB Classic (the first of Kite's 19 PGA Tour wins), his game - and life - rapidly got away from him. He left the tour after the 1983 season to pursue other endeavors that included being a commentator for ESPN, a club pro, a stockbroker and, today, a money manager. It is, he says, a life he is comfortable with. "A tour pro strives to be perfect, hit the perfect shot, play the perfect round," he says. "It's nice not to have to be perfect."
The Electric Prunes had a hit in 1967.
Photo: Tom Tucker
Facing the music: One-hit wonders are not found only on the pro tours, but in the music world as well. Here are some appropriate chart-toppers that these one-time winners may have been humming at the time of their victories.
Although most tour players know they're not perfect, winning can change their thinking. Golfers struggling to keep their card wonder if they ever can succeed. Once they've won, they know they can. The trick is how they handle that knowledge, says sport psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella.
"Every player that wins once is thrilled that they have conquered that challenge," Rotella says. "But then the challenge starts all over again right away. Some players are patient about pursuing that challenge. Others are not. It's harder for the ones that get consumed by it to meet that challenge again." How a first-time victory is achieved also matters. According to Rotella, someone who wins because others slipped up, or who held a big lead and nearly kicked it away, is less likely to gain the confidence that comes from finishing off a tournament the way Micheel did. The pressure to prove it wasn't an accident is greater - and can become a burden.
The weight of following up success isn't confined to PGA Tour players. While it has been only a little more than a year since Lunke surprised many with her major triumph, Michelle Estill, who won the 1991 Ping Cellular One as an LPGA rookie, has gone 13 years and 317 tournaments waiting for an encore. Now 41, she is fighting her swing (no top-10s in 2002-03) and her health (balky back) while continuing her quest. Not that Estill hasn't thought about calling it off. She lost her card after the 2003 season and during the LPGA's six-month off-season, Estill viewed the practice tee with the enthusiasm of a roofer on a 100-degree day. As such, she didn't touch a club, taking a much-needed break from golf. Instead, she helped out a pregnant friend by taking her spot working at a gas station.
"Last year I really had a lot of doubt," says Estill. "I was thinking about maybe getting into something else." But she decided to keep competing, using the one-time exemption she was entitled as a past champion. And proving how nefarious golf can be, she came close to winning at the Corning Classic, leading after 54 holes before losing to Annika Sorenstam.
Like Estill, Tina Barrett also won in her rookie year, the 1989 Mitsubishi Motors Ocean State Open. And like Estill, her winless streak stands at more than 300 starts and counting. Jane Crafter, 49, knows she likely will have to be content with one win - the 1990 Phar-Mor at Inverrary - for a career marked by more than 500 starts on the LPGA Tour.
Still, one win is better than none. The memories of victory - and some of the spoils it brings - are indelibly seared into the minds of those who experienced it, even if the significance of their accomplishments didn't always strike them right away. For Diehl, that moment came the year after he won when he was at a dinner at Shady Oaks CC in Fort Worth. The club's most famous member, Ben Hogan, made a beeline toward him. "The first words out of his mouth were, 'How the bleep did you shoot 19 under at Woodlake?' " recalls Diehl. "Here's one of the all-time greats asking me how I could go so low. Amazing."
Hogan wasn't the only hall of famer Diehl encountered after winning. Sam Snead, sensing a greenhorn who had cash, regularly asked Diehl to play $20 Nassau practice rounds. "I played at least 25 rounds with Snead," Diehl says. "He'd tell stories about double-dating with Walter Hagen, and he'd recall tournaments shot-by-shot from 40 years earlier. And I got in his pocket more than he got in mine. It was a blast."
Diehl wouldn't have been able to share those hours with Snead if he hadn't won. If Nicolette hadn't won, he wouldn't have a 21-year-old gray, cashmere sport coat two sizes too small hanging in his closet. He got something else for winning - a 20-inch replica of the sword given to Bay Hill champions - but it has long been housed at Pleasant Valley CC in Connellsville, Pa. "I grew up at that club," Nicolette says. "[During] the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, I went there and gave them the sword. I thought it would be nice for the kids who play there to see it. I also thought, 'Oh, I'll win again. I'll get another trophy.' Man, I'd like to have that sword on my mantel now."
While Nicolette and many others must be content to remember the one week when everything went right, active players such as Micheel are addicted to the chase - if not for themselves, then to silence critics who toss around "fluke" as casually as a broken tee.
"I read in the newspapers in Scotland after the British Open that there were people upset about the one-hit wonders, the riff-raff like Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton who won their tournament," Micheel says. "Well, last time I looked, they won it fair and square. Was the shot I hit on the last hole at Rochester a fluke? I don't know. Nobody hit it for me, and I played 71 holes before that, too. But if people want me to win again to validate the first one, then I can understand that."
August 13, 2004