It was just as well that most of the world's best players were either too exhausted or too unnerved by the Masters to come to Greensboro, N.C., last week for one of the PGA Tour's tradition-rich events. The Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic would not have helped them sleep any easier.
The ferocious rough at Forest Oaks Country Club—at least four inches longer than the tallest blade at Augusta National—wouldn't have kept them awake nights. They saw gnarlier stuff at last year's PGA Championship at Winged Foot and expect it at every U.S. Open. No, the scariest thing about the 60th Greater Greensboro Classic was the way it reminded everyone that pro golf, like real life, is bereft of sure things. You want a guarantee? Try a muffler repair shop.
Look and learn, David Duval, Ernie Els, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson, Lee West-wood, Tiger Woods, et al. The lesson of Greensboro was that today's hot commodity is often tomorrow's comeback story.
Take Hal Sutton. Bottled under the Next Nicklaus label after he won the 1983 PGA at age 25, he has had one victory in the past 12 years. Still the owner of one of the sweetest swings on the Tour, Sutton was looking like a contender for two rounds last week. Then he began to putt like a high-mileage 40-year-old and stumbled to a closing 75 despite an ace on the 12th hole. "That was about the only thing I did right all day," he grumbled. Well, almost right. If Sutton had waited and aced the 17th hole, he would have won a car.
Then there was 33-year-old Scott Verplank, the once-mighty 1984 U.S. Amateur champ. The first amateur to win a Tour event in 31 years when he beat Jim Thorpe in a playoff in the '85 Western Open, Verplank was beset by injuries a few years after he turned pro. Struggling to come back, he at one point missed 22 consecutive cuts. Last week Verplank provided the tournament's most dramatic moment, holing a must-make 35-foot birdie putt on the 72nd green to force a playoff, which he then lost. "It was pretty cool making all those people yell and spill their Budweisers," said Verplank, whose only win as a pro came at the 1988 Buick Open, unless you count December's Q school, which he won by four strokes while taking advantage of the Casey Martin rule and riding a cart.
Don't overlook Trevor Dodds, the man who beat Verplank to win in Greensboro. A native of Namibia, which was known as Southwest Africa when he was born there in 1959, Dodds began his pro career in 1985 but despite several successful trips to Q school could never crack the top 125 on the PGA Tour. He had fallen all the way to the Canadian tour by last season when, in June, he earned a spot in the Nike Miami ( Ohio) Valley Open. He won and then discovered that he had testicular cancer.
Dodds underwent surgery and followed up with radiation treatments. Despite not touching a club for six weeks, he put up eight more top 10 finishes to place fifth on the Nike money list and win a spot on the big Tour this year. When he beat Verplank with an anticlimactic par on the first playoff hole, Dodds ensured that he would retain his Tour card for only the second time in 10 years.
Bob Estes, 32, used to be somebody too. The winner of the 1988 Fred Haskins Award as the top collegiate player, Estes left Texas and hit the Tour running in '89. A perfectionist in the style of Ben Hogan, he steadily climbed the money list and peaked in 1994, when he won the Texas Open. Then, in '96, he hit the wall and fell to 149th in earnings. Earlier this year he began to change practically everything about his game—his swing, his equipment, his approach. A win last week would have been a crowning achievement, and all he had to do was par the final two holes. Instead, he bogeyed them both to fall a stroke short of the playoff.
Greensboro loomed as a $2.2 million opportunity for the Tour's B list of players. The weeks following the Masters are normally a dead zone for the marquee names, many of whom take vacation time before gearing up again later this month for a run at the U.S. Open. Last week others, like Leonard and Davis Love III, took time off so they would be fresh to collect fat appearance fees for teeing it up this week in Japan. Only three of the world's top 20 players—and none of the top seven—played in Greensboro. For that matter, only 19 golfers who competed in the Masters showed up, and just five of those were among the top 25 at Augusta. Mark O'Meara, the guy with the newest green jacket, gets a gold star for honoring his commitment to Greensboro. He refused to plead fatigue despite having played the week before at Harbour Town and dutifully wore out his autograph pen before narrowly missing the cut at Forest Oaks.
By the time the tournament reached the climactic final nine holes, the spotlight was focused on former college rivals Dodds (Lamar), Estes ( Texas) and Verplank ( Oklahoma State). "This is the way it should've been—or like we feel it should've been—a lot sooner," Estes said. "This is the way we dreamed it would be when we were winning tournaments in college and amateur golf, although Verplank won most of them."