Every year they straggle onto South Carolina's Hilton Head Island, in the grip of PMS (Post-Masters Syndrome). The symptoms aren't pretty: frayed nerves, violent putting strokes and emotional outbursts at the merest mention of green formal wear. For some PGA Tour players the tranquillity of the MCI Classic is the perfect antidote to this maddening spring fever. Others find a cure far more elusive. Only one thing is certain. "This ain't the Masters," says Paul Azinger. "Thank goodness."
This is not a knock on the Masters. Not exactly. The annual stressfest at Augusta is still the most prestigious tournament in golf. It's just not much fun for the players. Hilton Head, on the other hand, is like a working vacation. Wedged between the sunbathing, sailing, fishing, beer drinking and bike riding is a golf tournament, and a pretty good one. But, no, this ain't the Masters, and here's another easy way to tell: Davis Love III is your 1998 champion. This is the same Love who opened the Masters 74-75 and was in such a deep funk that he had to be coaxed out of his room for dinner on Friday night. This is the guy who shot a final-round 78 and walked off the last green "as steamed as I've seen him," according to his wife, Robin. In his 13 years on Tour, Love is 0 for Augusta but has now won IV times at Hilton Head, a tournament record. On Sunday evening, flush from scorching Harbour Town Golf Links with a closing 65 and looking resplendent in the wonderfully tacky plaid victor's jacket, Love reflected on what a difference a week makes.
"This place is a blast. It's one of the most fun events we have out here," he said. "Last week I didn't have much fun. I should've just relaxed and played without trying so hard. That seemed to work O.K. this week."
Even an understated fellow like Love had to smile at that last bit. His seven-shot margin of victory over Glen Day was also a tournament record, and he called his seven-birdie, one-bogey closing round one of the finest of his career. It took Love all of eight holes to turn the final round into garbage time. Two strokes in the lead after a 67-68-66 start, he couldn't stop knocking over flagsticks on Harbour Town's testy front nine. His fourth birdie of the day, set up by a seven-iron shot that stopped six inches from the cup at the 466-yard par-4 8th, coupled with Phil Mickelson's bogey, pushed the lead to six, and Love never let up.
Love's unsporting dominance of the tournament seemed very much at odds with the hospitality that he and Robin displayed aboard their 53-foot sportfishing boat, Lexseas, which they anchored in the shadow of the lighthouse that frames Harbour Town's 18th hole and filled to overflowing with friends, family members and fellow players. Love not only parried on the boat but also slept there, and it provided him with such peace of mind that he figured the best way to quiet his nerves on Sunday morning was to scrub the deck.
Mickelson, too, spent his time on Hilton Head attempting to decompress from the Masters. "Monday and Tuesday, all I did was hang out," he said. Alas, for the second straight week he began the final round in second, two shots back, and for the second straight week he performed a Phil phlop. Hitting the ball erratically, he suffered four bogeys on the front side to make the turn seven behind Love, and the rest of the way he looked like a dead man walking. He finished with a 73 to tie for third. Perhaps Mickelson found it difficult to execute a proper shoulder turn with such a large monkey on his back. There used to be a lively debate about who owned the dread title of Best Player Never to Have Won a Major, Mickelson or Mark O'Meara, but now the 27-year-old lefty has the tag all to himself. ( Colin Montgomerie is off the hook until he proves he can win any kind of tournament in the U.S.)
"It's a compliment," Mickelson says, not sounding very flattered. "A lot of good players haven't won a major championship. It's a compliment to be considered one of the best."
So he's comfortable with the title? "Well, for now."
Proving how debilitating PMS can be, Mickelson was the only Masters contender to make a blip on Hilton Head's radar screen. O'Meara was present in body but not spirit. He had to scramble to make the cut and finished a spent 24th. Even that was 55 spots ahead of Jim Furyk, who was fourth at Augusta. David Duval phoned in a last-minute withdrawal "to pout over his near-miss in the Masters," as the Savannah Morning News put it. Fred Couples never planned to show up, while Azinger did his best Couples imitation and pulled out after a first-round 70 because of back pain.
O'Meara, who regretfully committed long ago to the MCI as well as to this week's Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic, is too much of a pro to pick up his marbles and go home, a la Duval. "I guess I'm old-fashioned, but to me a commitment is a commitment," he said. Anyway, if he had skipped Hilton Head, he would have missed the dozens of notes plastered to his locker, the bottle of champagne from Payne Stewart stashed inside, the congratulatory phone calls from everyone from Penny Hardaway to Rick Dees and the standing O's that greeted him at every green. He also would have missed the opportunity to grouse about not making the cover of SI despite his Masters win. Approached by this writer after last Friday's round, O'Meara, a smile frozen on his face, said, "Questions? I've got a question for you. What do I have to do to make the cover of your magazine? I know the Masters is just a tiny little tournament, but Pedro Martinez? C'mon. I mean, what's a bigger event, my winning the Masters or a pitcher on the Red Sox winning his second game of the season?"