In pro golf, there is hot and Ray Floyd sizzlin'. He's a 1980 George Brett whose double-play grounders pop mysteriously over second basemen for singles; he's a late-'50s Johnny Unitas who throws a pass into triple coverage and still completes it; he's the stock speculator who hopes for a $2,000 profit and ends up with $2 million.
So sensational has Floyd been of late that he rarely works at work. Practice? That's only for the players sort of successful recently: Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Craig Stadler. Floyd could have given 'em two a side the last month, having made about $200 every time he seriously swung a club.
"The best golf of my life, without question," said the man who in his 20th year on tour has won twice and lost a playoff his last three tournaments. "I'm doing everything right now. If I'm between clubs on a shot, I pick out the correct one; I hit great shots from bad lies.
"I think this flows over into my personal life. My wife says: 'You're so easy going; you're nice to people (who intrude at bothersome times). Nothing sets you off. I've never seen you so easy.' When you're going bad, working your rear end off for no result, everything bothers you, every bad break gets magnified."
Still, mature as he has become over the years, unerring as he has become over the last month, Floyd might not rate as an enormous bet to win the U.S. Open this week. In the Open, he often plays well, but not well enough to win. Or to finish in the top 10 the last decade. Or to even make the cut the last time the Open was held here.
But then Floyd has never been this unconscious before an Open. Or has he?
"I won the tournament before the Open last year," he volunteered. And then tied for 37th at Merion.
Floyd would rather not talk about why he has not been better than the best of his peers in an Open. He blames the U.S. Golf Association and whomever allowed Pebble Beach to grow lumpy and parched as much as himself for missing the cut here when Nicklaus won in '72.
"Certain parts of our game weren't allowed to be expressed," he said. "I was very surprised (this week) to find the course so fair, that we'll be able to perform as we want."
With $2 million won on tour, a home close to palatial and a young, growing family he adores, Floyd now plays for his place in golf history. And an Open would be nice to go with his '69 PGA and '76 Masters titles, although a major a decade is a slower pace than he had in mind when he rededicated himself to golf about eight years ago.
"What I'm most pleased about," he said, "is that I've been successful out here for 20 years. And to be better now than I've ever been, that's a highlight. Today, the mind games aren't as prevalent among the older players. Now a veteran is more likely to help a young player. Probably, that's because there isn't as much match play.
"I learned to plug up my ears real early out here."
And that such as Sam Snead could make your eyes lie.
"If you looked in their bag (to see what club an opponent had in his hands)," he said, "they'd find a way to work it against you. All the older guys were manipulators. Sam could take a two-iron and hit it 170 yards, with the biggest swing you ever saw.
"So you'd look in his bag, see he was hitting a two and use a three after you'd figured a four would be more than enough. And the crowd'd go"--he imitated a crowd watching a ball disappear over the horizon. Sam had slickered a young 'un again.
What's the first sign of slippage in a great player, the fellow three months shy of 40 was asked? He chuckled.
"Hasn't happened to me yet, so I don't know."
Of course he does, having seen so many peerless players plummet.
"You lose some strength," he said, "and because of it your rhythm and timing changes a bit. Your attitude is not as positive. You miss the little routine putts now and then. You start missing a few of the shots you always made under pressure. And then a few more.
"It's a progression. I don't think any person can be honest with himself and say: 'I still play as well as I used to--I just don't hole the putts.' I don't believe that."
As older pros refuse to acknowledge reality, and experiment, nearly everyone refuses to admit that putting is the cornerstone of his game. Putting, it seems, is something anyone with patience and a worn carpet can master. What all golfers want on their tombstones is: "great striker of the ball."
Floyd shoots into a golfing gale again.
"Let me be known as a great putter," he said. "I love it when somebody comes up and says: 'All I saw was rear ends and elbows, you down there pullin' the ball out of the cup all day.' I tell him that's where I was aiming. I want that reputation, because putting can make up for a lot of bad swings."
Experience has taught him to leave his game alone when it is as scorching as it has been recently.
"I've played my round, and made no mistakes," he said, "so why should I go out to the practice tee just for the sake of going out there?" So take a sentimental flyer on Floyd this week, unless somebody runs up and says he's been on the practice tee.