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A Warm and Fuzzy Win
Gary Van Sickle
June 17, 2002
The people's choice, Fuzzy Zoeller, overcame a tough course and a long victory drought to take the Senior PGA
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June 17, 2002

A Warm And Fuzzy Win

The people's choice, Fuzzy Zoeller, overcame a tough course and a long victory drought to take the Senior PGA

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The monster lives. Arnold Palmer christened Firestone's feared par-5 16th hole the Monster after he drowned a shot in the pond and took an 8 there in 1960, ruining his chances of winning the PGA Championship. Forty-two years later Palmer returned to Akron for the 63rd Senior PGA Championship, and the King made another 8 at the 16th. "That hole has been haunting me for 45 years" a chagrined Palmer said afterward.

At 635 yards the 16th is as fearsome as ever, but this time around all 18 holes of Firestone's South course provided a monstrous challenge, forcing the world's best Seniors to reach for the nearest walker. Fuzzy Zoeller, the new Senior PGA champion, wasn't simply the only player to break par for 72 holes on this beast—finishing at a modest two under—he was also the last man standing. How tough was Firestone? Even par was good enough for second place, and five over got you a tie for 10th. "This felt more like the U.S. Open than a Senior major," said Larry Nelson, who bogeyed four of the last six holes to finish in a tie for sixth.

The brutal conditions and large and enthusiastic galleries (what else is there to do in Akron besides rotate your tires?) created a major championship atmosphere. That brought out the best in Zoeller, the 1984 U.S. Open champ, whose play has been uninspired for most of his rookie year on the Senior tour. But Zoeller was in the thick of things from the start as he fired a first-round 69, and the fans, still loyal despite his infamous comments at the 1997 Masters, rallied in an effort to spur him to his first Senior win. "We had some decent crowds following us, and all you heard was, 'Go, Fuzzy!' " said Bobby Wadkins, Zoeller's final-round playing partner, who tied Hale Irwin for second, two strokes back. "Finally, on 15, Fuzzy's wife hollered, 'Go, Bobby!' It was fun to see people get behind the Senior tour and root for him. This is what the tour needs."

The carefree Zoeller was still bantering with fans on the 72nd tee, even though he was clinging to a two-shot lead, and mid-fairway he took time out to autograph a handful of balls for his caddie to distribute to some spectators. Zoeller has embraced the Senior tour's fan-friendly initiatives even as he has struggled this year—coming into the Senior PGA, he had one second but no finish better than 15th in 11 other starts. "It was his putting," said caddie Eric Schwarz. "Everyone who's seen him swing this year has been saying, Fuzzy's going to win soon, it's only a matter of time."

It had been 16 years since his last victory, the 1986 Anheuser-Busch Classic, but some quality time with his daughter Gretchen may have sparked this comeback She'll enter the College of Charleston on a golf scholarship this fall, and Dad spent the week before the Senior PGA practicing with her at Covered Bridge Golf Club, a course Zoeller designed (and owns) in Sellersburg, Ind., 10 miles from his home in New Albany. "I guess that practicing stuff really pays off," Zoeller joked on Sunday evening.

Zoeller interrupted his winner's press conference to call the Covered Bridge clubhouse and announce that he was buying drinks there for the next hour. "This could really hurt me, you know," Zoeller said of a bar bill he feared would be a real monster.