Ultimately, all golf comes down to the putter, the glory club that winners such as Craig Stadler wave toward their galleries or the wicked stick such as John Cook flick toward their bags in disgust. Because Stadler sank everything he had to make yesterday, he won the Kemper Open. Because Cook's best "putt" came with his wedge, he lost.
"Yeah, that save at 14 looked mighty like a putt," Cook was saying, at the most hectic time of a tournament for anyone who has lost, the minutes between the final stroke and impossible deadline for a flight out of town. "Nothing was going in with the putter, so at 14 I just tried to top a wedge.
"I thought: 'Oh, God.' But it kept turning and turning (when it left the club 15 feet from the flag on the fringe of the green), and then hit the flag and dropped."
That was Cook's last chance at victory. With four three-putts, his cursed flat club had failed him at all the important times until then, and when he made that saving par with his wedge, Stadler stroked in a birdie putt for a five-stroke lead and the tournament.
Cook would argue with that. He is one of the game's battlers, and he refused to admit defeat for another hole, the 15th, when Stadler saved par with a good deal of luck and he missed birdie when the gods of golf sent his second shot two yards too far.
"Fifteen was the turning point for me," he said. Cook needed something awful to happen to Stadler, he being the only one with even a remote chance of catching the wonderful Walrus. On the tee, that seemed possible.
Stadler pushed his drive, far to the right, in Reagan country.
"Nice hook," he muttered, angry at failing to execute what he wanted. "Get lucky. Widest fairway on the golf course. God."
Cook's ball split the fairway.
While Stadler was punching through the fairway, Cook was hitting a splendid second shot to the par-5 hole, in fine shape for a pin-hugging pitch and possible birdie.
"It could have been a two-shot swing," Cook said. "My birdie and his bogey."
Then Cook saw where his ball landed.
"A couple of yards more than what would have been perfect," he said. "Just off the fairway, where I could have spun the ball close to the hole, into ground under repair. After the (free) drop, I still couldn't get the ball close."
Stadler could. His long third shot could, perhaps should, have landed in a trap. Instead, it took a skip over the sand and stopped close enough for a real walrus to two-putt. Probably unnerved, Cook missed a two-foot comeback for par after another chip and eventually finished fourth.
Two shots behind Stadler when the round began, Cook three-putted the first and second holes for bogeys. In truth, his putter was only on accessory to the crime. His tee shot on one was short, or at least in relation to Stadler's and Tom Weiskopf's and his four-iron approach wide. His tee shot to the par-3 second hole also put undue pressure on his putting stoke.
"You can't expect to two-putt all the time from 40 to 50 feet," he said, probably not believing that in his heart. "Still, I believe the greens were quite a bit slower than the last three days. You especially don't want to have a long lag on the opening hole, 'cause it's your first putt of the day, when you don't really know the speed yet."
After losing those two strokes, Cook got them back with birds on the third and sixth holes and got to within two strokes of Stadler again. So he three-putted the seventh hole. Then he made bird on the ninth hole to close within two again.
And three-putted No. 10.
Still, the most agonizing putt at 10 was Weiskopf's. He also was frustrated on the green. Off the tee and from the fairway, Weiskopf was straighter and more accurate than Stadler. Around the green, Stadler was a magician; a magnet might not have gotten Weiskopf's makable birdie putts to fall.
The 10th hole offfered perhaps the final omen that Stadler was meant to win and Weiskopf to be an also-ran. From the left rough, Stadler rammed a long-iron shot that kicked right just enough to make the green, to avoid rough high enough to make a pitch close to the hole very tough.
From the middle of the fairway after a drive that must have left lasting bruises on its dimples, Weiskopf hit his ball 17 feet from the hole. He stroked the putt firm and true, but the ball refused to drop. It hung on the lip of the cup, determined not to let Weiskopf create any drama.
From across the green, the gallery could see nothing keeping the ball in sight. For several seconds, Weiskopf waited, hoping a kind gust of wind would come to his aid. When it did not, he could have tapped in with a blade of grass.
The next few holes Weiskopf was even more skittish than usual. If a fan was not upsetting him, an airplane was. So often did he scowl skyward yesterday that when he comes back next year, the 14th club in Weiskopf's bag surely will be an aircraft gun.
When he realized there was no chance of finishing first, on the 14th tee, Weiskopf gave some of us the feeling he might not finish at all. He blocked the ball into golfing jail, had it smack a stake lying on the ground after a quarter-swing tap and made double bogey.
A long bunker shot at 18 that enabled him to tie Tom Watson for second kept Weiskopf civil. Even agreeable.
"That saved the day," he admitted. "To get up and down from there and end up second provided a lot of satisfaction. You can second-guess yourself all the time, but you can't look back six strokes. I didn't play that bad."
Indeed, Weiskopf was 23rd on the money list coming into Kemper. He is hitting the ball well enough to win, to perhaps end a comeback in style. His troubles for most of the last three years, the depths to which he has fallen, came with his response to one question before he literally ran for a plane.
"How do you feel you'll do in the Open?" somebody asked.
"I have to qualify," he admitted.