For a man starting out with a stunning three holes -- birdie, par, birdie -- John Fought walked to the fourth tee at Congressional yesterday as glum as a laborer carrying shoulder weights.
The heaviness was real. Last week, with a chance to win the Memorial Tournament, the Jack Nicklaus extravaganza in Ohio, Fought let it slip away in the final holes. His back molars still ache, so wrenchingly was victory snatched out of his jaws.
This kind of emotional battering is probably the most agonizing pain on the PGA Tour. It goes to the solitariness of the game. No teammates can absorb the loss with you and few people in the gallery in the next tournament down the road, which is what the Kemper is after the Memorial and what Atlanta will be after this week, even know what you shot four days ago, much less that you could have won but blew it.
Fought, 26, PGA rookie of the year as a two-time winner in 1979, and the U.S. Amateur victor in 1977, obstinately held himself together yesterday by shooting a 71 after a first-round 76.
"It was hard," he said during a fruit-plate lunch with his wife after his second round. "After last week, I'm not in a good frame of mind. That was one of the biggest disappointments of my life. Something like that has to wear on you."
For a few moments on the front nine, Fought looked as if he might catch one of his playing partners, Jay Haas, one of the first-round leaders who started out two under. Fought carded another birdie on the seventh hole, a par 3 that he almost aced.
Then, as often happens in time of prosperity, Fought squandered his wealth in the loosest of ways. On the eighth hole he pushed his drive into trees on the right, and from there scraped it out weakly in front of the green. His chip wasn't much and he missed an eight-footer.
As I stood on the eighth tee watching Fought address the ball, I had a moment of thinking that Fought might actually drive the 362-yard green. He is a powerful boomer off the tee, even though his build has a lot less bulk than someone like Raymond Floyd, his other playing partner. Three holes earlier, on No. 5, a 409-yarder that sweeps dogleg left, Fought had no more than a 60-yard approach shot.
Fought gets his power from a fiercely uncoiling swoosh of a downswing. His slow, cautious backswing, with the slightest of pauses at the top, reminded me of the backswing of Claude Harmon, once a tour great. When I asked Fought if he had ever seen Harmon play, he said no, "though I have heard of him."
Because he was playing in a state of mental disarray, Fought didn't need much to unsettle him. On the 15th, a par-5 reachable in two by the power hitters, Fought included, he was nowhere close to the challenge of what is perhaps the hardest finesse shot in golf, the 30-yard bunker shot to the green. Fought half-skulled, half-splashed it over the putting surface into another trap. He slammed his club into the earth and even, a rare sight, banged his hand into the sand.
Fought's wife, Mary, who didn't seem as let down at her husband's misfortunes of last week as he was, said that people in the gallery sometimes overreact when a player shows emotion. "John is really self-controlled," she said. I agreed, and thought of telling her a few Tommy Bolt stories, so she could put in context her husband's temper -- which on the 15th had about 200 degrees to go before it neared boiling point. But after drawing a blank with Claude Harmon, I thought better of it.
Fought's power lets him play a different course than much of the rest of the field. On the 13th hole, a long par-4 with an upslope to the green, an average hitter would be delighted to have a six-iron or less to the flag. Fought crashed it 30 yards up the hill and had only a nine-iron left. After hitting to the green -- pulling it far left but on -- he told his caddie, "Let's hit a four-wood from the tee tomorrow, Patrick. Make a note of that."
Fought's thinking reflected one of the fundamentals of high-caliber golf: position is everything. As the Scots fundamentalists conceived the sport, golf is no more than a game in which you hit one shot to make the next shot easier. Fought understands that in theory, but he is still too much a newcomer on the tour to have built up the kind of self-confidence needed to carry the emotions through a few rough holes when shot after shot keeps making the next shot harder.
It is worth noting that only one stroke separated Fought and Floyd, even though Floyd played an erratic and, at times, sloppy round. In the early holes, he had a case of the hooks. Then perhaps overcompensating, he began pushing to the right. But he has been an athlete for nearly two decades. The seasoning shows in the way he was able to extract a decent score from a technically indecent round.
Fought is far back with his 147. Though he thinks that a couple of hot rounds would bring him in the winner, I had the feeling that he was forcing himself, painfully, to use this week as a learning experience: how to deal with the mental anguish of of a recovery week.
"I've never had trouble being a winner," Fought said. "And the physical part of my game is fine.I hit it well. But I've never been a very good struggler.I have to learn to take the bad with the good -- play the same all the time and don't let it affect you. I don't care how good you are, you're going to blow a lot more tournaments than you'll win."
Because he had an early tee time and came in before 1 p.m., Fought planned to leave Congressional soon after his round to go familiarize himself with the fairways of the Manor and Argyle country clubs, sites of the sectional qualifying rounds on Monday for the U.S. Open in two weeks.
Come Monday, Fought will have the Kemper behind him, which means that the pain of his loss at Memorial will have a topdressing of experiences at Congressional. That is one of the hidden benefits of the tour. There is no shortage of miseries and pains should you need one to cancel out the other.