Out of Africa

JAMES DEACON September 12 1994

Out of Africa

JAMES DEACON September 12 1994

Out of Africa

Zimbabwe’s Nick Price has become the world’s best golfer



It was one of those sporting moments, reminiscent of Paul Henderson scoring the winning goal in the Canada-Soviet Union hockey summit of 1972, or Joe Carter swatting the World Series-winning home run last fall. Down by a stroke and under enormous pressure, Nick Price sank a nearly impossible 60-foot eagle putt on the second-last hole of the British Open at Turnberry, Scotland, last July to win the most prestigious title in golf by a single shot. Price’s feat was not for country, like Henderson’s, nor for team, like Carter’s. It was more personal, a monument to childhood dreams. But Price was not alone when he exploded with joy as the ball disappeared into the cup. Tens of millions of golf fans, watching on TV around the world, shared his emotion as he leapt about on the green, hugged his caddie and twisted his face into the kind of grin that leaves stretch marks. A month later, the thrill had not diminished. “I have never been that excited in my life over one shot,” the amiable native of Zimbabwe admitted last week. ‘That putt on the 71st hole was the most incredible thing I have experienced in golf because I was a stroke behind and I had to sink it to win. It was a wonderful feeling, to face that challenge and meet it.”

Until then, Price had a nice little career going. In his first 11 years on the PGA Tour, the 37-year-old had won more than $6.8 million and nine tour events, and was considered one of the best players in golf.

But his career path took on a steeper trajectory this summer, not just because of the British Open. In August, in oppressively hot Tulsa, Okla., he coolly pulled away from the elite field at the PGA championship and won by the absurdly large margin of six strokes. In a matter of five weeks, Price had collected two significant bits of silver that go with golf’s “majors”—the British Open’s claret jug and the heftier Wanamaker Trophy for winning the PGA. And suddenly, the mantle of world’s best golfer that for years had passed back and forth between Australia’s Greg Norman and England’s Nick Faldo had

found a new owner. “Nicky’s up there somewhere and the rest of us are down here,” said U.S. Open winner Ernie Els, holding one hand above his shoulder, the other at his waist. “Maybe some of the other players don’t want to admit it, but it’s true.” As a result, Price is the favorite at this week’s $1.8-million Bell Canadian Open in Oakville, Ont., as much with the fans as the bookmakers. Spectators at the host course, Glen Abbey, have embraced Price as one of their own ever since he won there in 1991. That feeling is reciprocated: the tournament is a “sentimental favorite” for Price, both because the 1982 Canadian Open was the first tour event he ever played and because of his win. “I frequently think back to 1991, and how I played on the back nine—making five straight birdies to win by a stroke,” he recalls. “I am very proud of that.”

While he appreciates the support in Canada, Price is also enormously proud of his roots in Zimbabwe. And while he is clearly having the most success, he is just one of a contingent of African golfers who have taken golf by storm. Defending Canadian Open

champion David Frost, reigning U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and 1993 World Series of Golf winner Fulton Allem are all from South Africa. On the 10-event Canadian Tour this season, three other South Africans—Roger Wessels, Ian Hutchings and Derek James— finished second, fourth and seventh, respectively, in tournament winnings.

Price, though, would have been happy if he had been allowed to become the greatest living golfer on Earth without it getting around. He was never interested in being a star, and money stopped being an issue when he joined the European Tour in the late 1970s and discovered that he could eam a living at golf. But his drive to improve prompted him to move to Orlando, Fla., in 1983 and compete on the PGA Tour full time. “What has always motivated me, ever since I was a kid, was that I wanted to be a great player of the game,” he says. “And I wanted to win all four of the major championships at least once.”

That seemed an unlikely goal for a while. After winning the World Series of Golf in 1983, his first full year in the United States, he went nearly eight seasons without winning another tour event. “I come from very humble

roots,” he says, “and when I was single, if I had enough money to put gas in my boat, and enough to buy the odd fishing rod, then I was happy.” But it bothered him not to be winning. In retrospect, he says, the turnaround came when he and his wife, Sue, started a family. He ended his winning drought in 1991, the year son Gregory was bom; his daughter, Robyn, was bom in 1993. “Everything pales in comparison to the health and well-being of your family,” he says. “It has made me more determined, and it has made me a better person, a fuller person.”

It certainly made an impact on his game. The Streak, as it has become known, began with two PGA Tour victories in 1991, continued with two more in 1992 and blossomed to four in 1993, when he also won player-of-theyear (as voted by his peers) and the Vardon Trophy for the lowest-scoring average over the entire tour season. He carried that momentum into 1994, racking up three tour victories before heading to Scotland for the British Open.

What has longtime golf observers excited, however, are his British Open and PGA triumphs. The back-to-back victories in majors put Price into esteemed company. The only other golfers to match that feat in the past five decades are all legends—Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and, most recently, Tom Watson, who won the U.S. and British opens in 1982

and was the last truly dominant player on the PGA Tour. Price downplays suggestions that he is Watson’s heir. “The pendulum has swung in my direction the last six weeks and I have taken advantage of it,” he said after a practice round in Akron, Ohio, recently. “But it will swing back to someone else for a while.”

His colleagues are not so sure. ‘This is far more than a roll,” tour star Ben Crenshaw said after withering under Price’s onslaught in Tulsa. “He is a fabulous golfer. He has proved it time and time again, under different conditions, on different courses, in different parts of the world.” Others are looking for ways to slow his momentum. Young turk Phil Mickelson, who finished third in Tulsa, has repeatedly offered to take Price skiing.

Mickelson, it should be noted, was unable to play for several months this season after breaking his leg on skis last winter.

Price has so far declined the offers, although he is not immune to the allure of adventure. He did his two years of compulsory service as a pilot in the Rhodesian air force, and only gave up flying private aircraft—including stunt planes—a few years ago. He

still water-skis and relaxes by fly-fishing— fj

something he learned from his father, who 1 died when Nick was only 10. But there is i less time for recreation. “The number of I calls and requests for his time have more * than tripled since the British Open,” says Julie Miller, one of two full-time assistants at Price’s Orlando office.

The fact that Price, Els and Spaniard José Maria Olazabal, who won the 1994 Masters, shut Americans out of the four majors this year has U.S. officials concerned. The tour is staging the inaugural Presidents Cup, pitting a team of Americans against one made up of nonEuropean international stars, the week after the Canadian Open. And the prospects for j the Americans do not look Ä good. But the intemationalizag tion of golf has been under way for years. The last Amerid can to win the Canadian Open, for instance, j| was Wayne Levi in 1990. (The last Canadian *! to win was Pat Fletcher in 1954.) The international players themselves offer several theories about why they have done so well, ranging from the difficulty of the courses they grew up on to the intense competition of foreign tours. “We had to be hungry to be successful,” says Norman. “I won the money

‘Nicky’s up there somewhere and the rest of us are down here’

list in Europe with something like £67,000 in 1981 or thereabouts. That wasn’t that long ago. If you didn’t put in a good performance, you didn’t have any money in your pocket.

[In North America], things are a little different. It’s padded a little more.”

Price’s recent play, however, gives him no guarantee at Glen Abbey, a course with a rep-

utation for demanding great performances from great players. Norman, whom Price unseated as the No.l-ranked player in the world, defeated American Bruce Lietzke in a playoff to win the open in 1992, and Frost birdied the final hole to beat American Fred Couples by a stroke last year. All except Norman will return this week to vie for the $324,000 first prize. And Canada will be represented by its two tour players, Dave Barr and Richard Zokol, both of Richmond, B.C., along with several top-rated players from the Canadian Tour, including Ray Stewart of Abbotsford, B.C., Arden Knoll of Yorkton, Sask., and Mike Weir of Bright’s Grove, Ont.

Price remains the man to beat, despite minor surgery he underwent immediately following the PGA to remove several minor outbreaks of skin cancer from his back. He says he has recovered and he has a caution for his challengers. “I am convinced that I can get ¡s better,” he says. “There are refinements that I I am still making, and that keeps making the g game exciting to me.” As for life off the S course, success does not seem to have I changed Price any more than it has changed the opinions of his peers, among whom he remains enormously popular. ‘When you see a guy like that, winning as much as he has over the last few years, and he’s still the humble, nice guy that he always has been, that’s impressive,” Zokol says. And in golf, at least, Price is proof that nice guys can finish first. □