A hacker who can't play very well sits near the practice tee at Congressional Country Club trying to figure out who can. The swings, like suits, come in an infinite variety of pieces and styles. Yet they all seem to produce the same result: golf balls shooting long enough and high enough to collide with weather satellites.
That fellow not seeming to have his mind totally on business, the chunky one with a rubber duck's head covering his driver, surely must be an imposter. Hardly. Fuzzy Zoeller has won the Masters and may well fly over $1 million in career earnings when the Kemper Open ends today.
A fair-complected stroker who could get lost among the galleries, Tom Kite is eighth on the tour money list this year and a guy who could pass for a Hog, 6-6 John McComish, is tied for 100th. The hacker also was less than mediocre at basketball and baseball, but could pick out Ted Williams and Magic Johnson in a crowd of other big-timers without their names being stitched to their work clothes.
The PGA stat sheets create more bafflement than enlightenment. For instance, you would be eager to sponsor a golfer who could sting it as hard as Hale Irwin off the tee, who could get out of traps as consistently as Jack Nicklaus, who could hit fairways as well as Ben Crenshaw and greens as regularly as David Graham and who could putt as unerringly as Johnny Miller.
You'd imagine turning $10,000 into $10 million in 10 years.
More likely, that $10,000 would plummet toward 10 cents.
Hard to believe as it is, none of these stars is among the top 80 this year in the skill areas mentioned. Irwin is 141st in driving distance, Crenshaw 82nd in accuracy; Miller is 144th in putting, Graham 93rd in hitting greens in regulation; Nicklaus, the master himself, is 104th in sand saves.
What's going on here?
From this mental hazard, the hacker seeks relief.
If a sophisticated player such as yourself, he asks former PGA champion John Mahaffey, were dropped from space onto a practice area without knowing a Nicklaus from Nicolette, Denis Watson from Tom Watson, could you survey the scene and pick the players from the prayers?
"They'd have to be practicing, though, not just warming up before a round," he said. "The guys who won't score well consistently will be hitting pretty much the same shots over and over, club after club. The excellent players will be hitting every kind of shot: hooks and fades, high balls and low balls. All of that with each club. And to difficult targets."
Tom Purtzer would have as good a chance separating the top 20 from the bottom 20 on tour with his ears as with his eyes. He could not describe the unique sound a blow by Nicklaus or Watson creates on impact, but it must not be unlike the difference between a Stradivarius and a polished-up fiddle.
Show Purtzer a striker with a lot between his ears, he sort of added, and he'll show you a potential golfing millionaire.
"It's attitude mostly," he said. "And putting. When I'm in the top 10 (in a tournament), it's because a few more putts dropped. Putting makes the game easier or harder."
The idea in golf, as Irwin has discovered and McComish will, is not how far a player hits the ball but how often he keeps it in the civilized world and how soon he plucks it from the cup. Pale Hale off the tee is 25th in driving accuracy and fourth in scoring. Long John is first in distance, 145th in accuracy and 147th in putting.
Still alive, McComish limped away from Congressional late Friday without getting close to the cut.
The difference between thriving on the pro tour and surviving is larger than Commissioner Deane Beman would have us believe.
"Not discernible to the naked eye," he said. "It resides inside."
Actually, it's almost exactly two shots a round. Lanny Wadkins is the leader this year, with an average of 70.48; McComish is No. 100, with an average of 72.53.
At first glance, it does seem infinitesimal.
"But that projects to maybe 10 shots a tournament," Hubert Green said, "and that's a whole lot."
The difference between first place at Kemper and 10th is nearly $62,000; the difference between 10th and 70th is nearly $10,000. That's why you can count the tour cutups on your gloved hand. Anyone who regularly strays three feet off the fairway with his driver and misses the cup by three inches is soon going to be hustling X-outs.
All the stats do is reinforce the notion that these pros are not the errorless robots we so often assume. They have their flaws, some tiny swing skeletons they try to keep hidden as long as possible. Nicklaus is rather like the rest of us duffers, anxious to avoid sand but a bit better escaping.
"The great thing about golf is that you get paid for what you produce," said Green. "My check is what I shoot. This week it matches the combination on my briefcase: 000."
Once Green was as proficient as anyone in golf. He held the lead in the '77 U.S. Open the final four holes, not quite sure someone off in the distance at Southern Hills wasn't pointing a gun at his head. From 1973 through 1979, he was among the top 15 money winners.
The last three-plus years Green hardly has been penniless, winning nearly $300,000. His position relative to his peers has dwindled, from 50th in 1980 to 32nd to 54th to 105th so far this year. His once-flawless short game now may be carrying too great a burden. Or perhaps not.
"One hot streak is all it takes," said Mahaffey, whose own career has been an up-and-down adventure. "The difference between winning and not winning very often is luck. You playing well, of course, but maybe somebody else missing at just the right time."
Had Ed Sneed not bogeyed each of the final three holes in the '79 Masters and forced a playoff, Fuzzy Zoeller might be just another rich and pretty face with a driver up a duck's back.