Hilton Head Island, S.C., is where golf goes to sleep off the aftereffects of the Masters. So when Tiger Woods skipped last week's MCI Classic, Harbour Town Links, with its curtains of Spanish moss gently swaying in the zephyrs off the Calibogue Sound, was prepared to serve as one very large hammock. But the reverberations from Woods's performance were so strong that players who normally find respite in the somnolent low country remained fully stimulated, and while the game's new master luxuriated in Canc�n for a few days before jetting up to Chicago to play his first 18 holes with Michael Jordan and tape a segment of Oprah, they were busy turning a butt-kicking into a motivational tool.
"Watching what Tiger did at the Masters is going to help me," said Brad Faxon, who played his first nine at the MCI in a tournament-record 29 strokes and eventually finished tied for second. "It charged me up. He has that spark and fire inside that's remarkable. I thought, This guy is burning. He wants it. That's the way I want to be."
Tom Lehman, who ended the week tied for fourth yet jumped ahead of Greg Norman to the top of the World Ranking, is already preparing for an assault on his new position. "It would be great to be the guy who says, 'Ah, ah, ah, Tiger, not yet,' " Lehman said last week. "He may be only 21, and I'm 38, but I've learned something from him: If you don't go in expecting to win, don't play. Because if you don't have that same mindset, he's going to kill you, and I'm not ready to get killed like that every time."
So even without Woods, this MCI had an intense, edgy feel. Last Friday, Woody Austin, who would miss the cut, became so infuriated on the 14th green that he whacked his very hot head with a putter shaft, finally bending the offending weapon on the fifth whack. That sort of emoting was not unusual, and it underscored the sense of urgency, even desperation, that was being felt by some of the players in the wake of Woods's 12-stroke victory in Augusta.
Perhaps because he already knows what it's like to be the best player in the world, and what it will take to reach that level again, Nick Price responded in a different way. Dedicating his play to his friend and former caddie, Jeff (Squeeky) Medlen, who's gravely ill with leukemia, Price lit up Harbour Town as its signature lighthouse never will. With scores of 65-69-69-66 for a 15-under-par 269, Price won by six strokes over Faxon and Jesper Parnevik. The win was Price's first on the PGA Tour since the 1994 Canadian Open.
That Canadian had ended a run of 17 victories worldwide during a two-year span that began with the 1992 PGA Championship and included two other majors, the British Open and the PGA in '94. But throughout 1995, when Price finished 30th on the money list, and most of last year, when he dropped to 50th, the virtuosity that had made him the No. 1 player in the world was missing. A lack of affinity for the spotlight, some troublesome endorsement contracts, health problems and abysmal putting took their toll on his energy and enthusiasm.
The 40-year-old Price, who grew up in Zimbabwe and now lives in Hobe Sound, Fla., began to rebound late last year after he found a medication that helps prevent the debilitating sinus infections he suffers as a result of allergies. Since December, he has been either first or second in six tournaments around the world. After finishing 21 strokes behind Woods at the Masters, where his low ball flight, medium length off the tee and uneven touch on the greens conspired against him, he arrived at Hilton Head both aggravated and motivated by a major he believes disproportionately rewards length. "I don't really get on that well with Augusta," Price said last week. "My game doesn't, anyway. I feel like I'm walking on a razor's edge and at any point I'm going to slip off and cut myself to death. Tiger's like a guy who can ace every serve. It's not a match. It was a joke, the clubs he was hitting in. I need five strokes a day from Tiger on that course. The fact that I played solidly and didn't put in a score fueled my desire this week."
More important, Price was once again willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become the game's top player. "There is nothing better, honestly, than playing golf well under pressure," he says. "And I have missed it."
Price missed virtually nothing at Harbour Town, a Pete Dye design whose narrow fairways and small greens complement Price's skills as much as Augusta negates them. For the week, he hit more fairways (50 of 56) and greens (54 of 72) than anyone else. Price bent his drives both ways, shaped his iron shots through swirling winds to the hearts of the tiny putting surfaces and refused to succumb to the low-percentage play. After booming a drive on the 575-yard, par-5 15th hole during the third round, Price had only 211 yards to the front of the green, but would have had to carry a 60-foot-tall stand of pines. When the fans implored him to go for it, Price, whose clothing is festooned with swooshes, took out a short iron to lay up and joked, "I am not Tiger Woods." On Sunday, though, Price was as dominating in his way as Woods is in his. By the time Price hit a seven-iron to eight feet on the spectacular 18th and holed the putt for his 66, he had put on a display reminiscent of his runaway victories at the 1993 Western Open and the '94 PGA at Southern Hills. "From the very first time I played this golf course, I wanted to win here because it tests just about every club in your bag," he said.
On Sunday the only club Price didn't hit was his three-iron, yet what pleased him most was having to use his puttee, only 26 times, a proficiency he will need if he is to return to the level he reached in 1993 and '94. As recently as last year Price had all but given up hope that his short, jabby stroke would ever allow him to be an effective putter again. But a week before the Masters, he switched from a mallet-style putter to a Bobby Grace blade with a white plastic insert made of what the clubmaker calls HSM—Hole Seeking Material, naturally. At Augusta, despite failing to make many putts, Price said he had "a beautiful feel with this putter."