Last week's Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic was golf's version of Waterworld—all matted hair, slimy vegetation and dank clothes. Those who thrived in the aquatic conditions of the final round were either enormously resourceful like Brad Faxon, who can get more out of a heeled drive followed by a toed five-iron than anyone in the game, or enormously acquisitive like Frank Nobilo, a descendant of pirates, who on Sunday plundered the Forest Oaks Country Club with a closing nine of 31 that was so forceful it nearly produced a rooster tail.
Like its sodden movie model, the tournament was no artistic success, but at least it had a surprise ending. After tying at 14-under-par 274, the two protagonists provided a role-reversing cliff-hanger of a playoff. Nobilo, a 36-year-old New Zealander known more for his solid swing than his short game, got up and down for par from 70 yards on the first hole of sudden death. Meanwhile Faxon, a wizard around the greens, took three from the fringe, giving Nobilo his first victory on the PGA Tour.
"I'm very disappointed," said Faxon, peeling off his rain clothes and, after removing his waterlogged shoes, some understandably redolent socks. "I'd like to play it again." Sinking into a chair, he quickly reconsidered. "But I don't think I'd like to go out there now."
For Nobilo, who is playing a full schedule in the U.S. for the first time, the victory confirmed the flashes of world-class ability he had shown in eight international wins dating back to 1985 as well as a 1996 season in which he played strongly in the majors, finishing fourth in the Masters, 13th in the U.S. Open, 26th in the British and tied for eighth in the PGA. The win also capped a comeback from a debilitating and confounding injury to his shoulders and arms that had him wondering if he would ever play well again. "This is going to be the one I'll always remember," he said, warming his hands on the swashbuckling beard that he keeps neatly trimmed. "Because of what I overcame, this goes to the top of the tree."
In terms of playing conditions Greensboro was at the bottom of the barrel, nearly sinking to the level of 1987, when it earned the distinction of being the last Tour event to be interrupted by snow. Last Wednesday's pro-am was canceled because of rain, and lift, clean and place was allowed in every round except the third, so tournament officials were glad simply to finish on Sunday. The rain thickened the rough into a slippery thatch of major-championship severity. Somehow the greens held up magnificently, with most of the credit going to Fuzzy Zoeller, who helped redesign them in 1994. Zoeller, of course, was not around to hear the compliments, having withdrawn on Wednesday after being rocked by the reaction to his comments about Tiger Woods at the Masters.
The tournament picked up in the second round when Tom Kite, riding the momentum of his second-place finish at Augusta, gained a share of the lead. A victory would have given the 47-year-old Kite, who last won in 1993, a real shot at becoming the first U.S. playing captain in the Ryder Cup since Arnold Palmer in 1963.
Kite shot a 67 last Saturday to remain in a tie for the lead, with Faxon at 14 under, but on the first hole of the final round he hooked his drive into the rough, took 4 to reach the green and made a double-bogey 6. "It set the tone," said Kite, who finished with a disappointing 76 and in a tie for seventh. "That first hole was a sharp poke in the eye."
When Kite faltered, Faxon appeared to be in control of the tournament. Coming into Greensboro, he was arguably the hottest player on the Tour, with a fourth at The Players Championship, a win in New Orleans and a second at Hilton Head. Faxon contends his improvement is mostly due to a simple but profound mind trick that's an extension of the way he attempts to hole, not lag, the long putts he often faces due to erratic iron play: He tries to win. "Last year I thought about making cuts a lot," says Faxon, who finished the '96 season with more than $1 million in earnings but without a victory. "This year I've thought about winning."
To Faxon, who lacks consistent length and accuracy off the tee, golf isn't about style points. After playing with Tom Watson and Greg Norman for two rounds at the Players, Faxon accepted the fact that his full shots weren't as solid or controlled as theirs and concentrated on scoring. "Greg and Tom were hitting it pure, and I knew they were watching me and saying, 'This guy can't keep it on the world. How in the heck is he beating me?' But I've found that hitting the ball better doesn't necessarily mean scoring lower."
Faxon did have one day of ball-striking excellence at Forest Oaks. After the second round, television commentator and golf instructor Peter Kostis replayed Faxon's swing on a monitor, pointing out to the golfer that he wasn't making a sufficient shoulder turn. Last Saturday, Faxon made the adjustment Kostis had suggested and scorched the course with a 65. "All I had to do was aim and shoot," Faxon said. "There was not a lot of thought involved." But even with his A game, Faxon hit only 12 of 18 greens in regulation and nine of 14 fairways, the same statistics he had on Sunday, when he shot 72.