Nine years ago, when they played together at the University of Florida, Gary Koch was the Gators' golf star while Andy Bean played in his shadow. Then, Koch had the best amateur credentials of any player prepping for the pro tour, except maybe Jerry Pate.
Koch's amateur honors were long as a one-iron: three times an all-America, twice on the Walker Cup team, once on the U.S. World Amateur Cup team, captain of an NCAA champion. Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson arrived on the PGA Tour with fewer loving cups, silver putters and gold plaques than Koch.
Since, Bean has earned $1.2 million on tour while Pate has won $1.5 million and a U.S. Open; both are among the top 22 money winners in golf history. The player once thought to be at least their equal thought, just a year ago, he might quit golf, leaving behind a reputation as one of the biggest disappointments of his generation.
All that changed today.
The Koch for whom greatness was predicted finally put in an appearance. To be sure, he won a couple tournaments in his first two years on tour: the Tallahassee and Citrus opens. But he never had a performance like his five-shot runaway victory over Ed Fiori in the final round of the Doral-Eastern Open this afternoon.
Koch chewed up the wet, windy Blue Monster with rounds of 69, 67, 65 and 70, for a total of 271. Except for a casual 72nd-hole bogey, Koch, who didn't know about the record, would have shared the tournament mark of 270 with Hubert Green.
Playing in a trance of perfect rhythm and ritual, Koch performed with such precision and confidence that the thought of an unsatisfactory shot seemed outside his ken. His whole pace of play was marked by such self-assured, deliberate speed that he appeared to have eliminated that fundamental bane of golfers, the nagging second thought.
He made a tough game on a long, blustery track seem childishly easy.
"Gary played fantastic. We were never in contention. It was a walk in the park for him," said Fiori, whose 71--276 put him one shot ahead of George Burns (71) and two up on Tom Kite (70) and Ray Floyd (70). "I don't think anybody could have beaten him this week, (with his) hole in one (Saturday) and all. He was ordering fried chicken by the 14th hole. He was ready to celebrate. I told him to smile some more (for the cameras)."
Koch saved his smiling, lots of it, for his hour of victory.
"It's almost six years to the day since I got to speak to folks like you at a ceremony like this and I can't tell you how great it feels," he said to the sparse crowd attending this makeup of Sunday's rained out round. "I want to thank my lovely wife Donna for all her love and support through the lean years. I want to thank my parents for helping me to continue to believe in myself. And I want to thank my (new) teacher, Peter Kostis."
Then, he walked away from the microphone, forgetting his $54,000 check.
By the time Koch adds in the ancillary benefits of this victory, such as entry in the Tournament of Champions, he'll have collected more money today than he ever won in a season.
Today, he was a master of his game. But, for five years, the game has mastered him, playing its mind games, eating at his confidence, nagging him with injuries and paralyzing him with self-analysis.
"I was a better player at 16 than I was two years ago on tour," he admitted. "When I came out of college, I thought I was going to keep improving, but it didn't happen."
The first step back was finding Kostis, who changed his grip, his setup, his preswing routine, his hip turn, his thinking.
"He told me that when you start making changes, you're not going to be comfortable," said Koch. "And I wasn't. I suffered. But I stuck with it."
By late 1982, Koch's career had reached its crisis. He wanted to give his game one last chance on the '83 all-exempt tour, but he had to crack the top 125 on the money list to make it. The pressure got him.
"I was below 125 with six tournaments to go," he said. "There was a stark realization that I might have to go back to the qualifying school. That might have been the catalyst that turned everything around. I had backed myself into a corner where it was either play or find something else to do. I kinda like doin' this. The work's not too hard sometimes."
Koch came to the last tournament of '82 sitting precisely on No. 125. With his career at stake, he won $10,000 and an exemption.
Finally, this week, Koch completed the transition from college wonderkind to adult pro.