Fuzzy Zoeller spotted a familiar face in the crowd at the Tournament Players Club's remote 13th tee and headed that way, completely unconcerned that he couldn't remember the gent's name.

"Whataya got, Big Chief?" said the reigning U.S. Open golf champion to the small middle-aged man.

"Oh, just workin' hard," said the delighted, nonplused man, trying to match banter with one of the more famous quipsters in sports. "How you doin'? Coming to our tournament in Atlanta?"

"Yeah, if I'm still walkin'," said Zoeller, who learned last fall, barely two months after the biggest win of his life, that he'd have to have one disc chiseled out of his chronically bad back and have another repaired.

"I'm doin' pretty good. Have my good days and bad days. Today's not so good. I hate this slow play. When I start waiting, my back tightens up and I play like a klutz."

"Getting to bed early?" asked the fan, who had hoped for a nod of the head and was getting a life progress report.

"Got to. No choice," answered Zoeller, smoking and stretching his back as he waited on the backed-up tee. "I tried to stay up until 10 o'clock one night at Doral (Country Club) and the next day -- oooh, did it hurt.

"Ten to 12 hours in bed, I'm in pretty good shape the next day."

Next to Zoeller, Tom Watson was using the dead time to take about 50 practice swings, some with no club, some with a club turned upside down so he was swinging the handle. He was in his famed "rubber room" of concentration, oblivious to the fans and the course.

Seve Ballesteros was there, too, locked in his characteristic great-man-at-odds-with-the-universe sulk that comes over him when he's seven over par and about to miss the cut on another tough, tight course.

Zoeller looked at them, then turned and walked away as though Watson's ambition and Ballesteros' funk were both equally useless to him. Zoeller whistled to himself and gazed straight overhead at the Spanish moss hanging from the gnarled limbs of a live oak tree.

Miles above, a skywriter was printing out the word "S-L-I-D-E-R" in a cloudless sky. While Watson thought about golf and Ballesteros about himself, Zoeller looked at the world around him and decided, again, that it was wonderful.

"Nice place to be," he said, then stepped to the tee and hit his ball in a trap. "Ooops, that wasn't very good."

The crowd by the green moaned as though the ball had been hit by Arnold Palmer.

Nearly two hours later, Zoeller's ordeal of delays finally ends as he saves par at the 18th hole with a great sand shot and makes the cut by a stroke.

In relief and exasperation, he pulls his tap-in out of the cup and throws the ball into the lake. The crowd laughs because Zoeller is smiling.

They hardly guess that he is aggravated, exhausted and stiff, just as they never knew he played the first 10 years of his career in nearly constant pain -- wearing a corset, taking twice-daily shock therapy in the lumbar region of his back.

Zoeller never said why he let his caddie get the ball out of the cup some days -- because he couldn't bend over.

At the scorer's tent, Watson's wife and baby daughter kiss him as a CBS minicam whirs two feet from their faces. Zoeller goes out the tent's back door and signs autographs for 15 minutes after Watson and Ballesteros are gone.

Only as Zoeller walks though the crowd, answering every cry of, "Hi ya, Fuzzball," does he reach his own wife and two small daughters. Zoeller is interrupted constantly, but the less significant the person, the more attention he gets.

"What did ya shoot?" asks one man who, when told "74," is as silent as if Zoeller had said his dog died.

"Hell, better'n 75. Made the cut. I'll be back tomorrow," says Zoeller, who shakes his head after the fellow walks away.

"Never been able to understand that attitude. Things can always be better, but they can also always be worse. Why not look on the good side?"

As he walks, Zoeller answers questions so graciously and patiently that you could forget that he's been asked the same dull litany for six months.

"I didn't know I was makin' a comeback. Everybody makes such a big deal out of me winning at Bay Hill (three weeks ago). Well, I should have won another one, too," says Zoeller, who has finished 20th and seventh (with a closing 63 in Las Vegas last week) in his three most recent starts.

"The biggest trouble I've had is in my head, not the back. I fall asleep on too many shots. Gotta keep concentrating.

"The back? It is and it isn't a problem. Sitting is tough, waiting is tough." But Zoeller's back was "tough" for years, so it's all relative. "You won't see me over there much," said Zoeller, pointing to the practice tee.

"The doctors tell me it will take two years and two months until I'm completely back to full strength.

"I'm doing exactly what they tell me, even trying to lose a few pounds. I'm up 10 from when I won the Open. This is one time I'm not a free spirit."

The closer Zoeller gets to the clubhouse, the more buzz surrounds him. "Hello, Smiley," says one player.

"Tooth and nail, coming in," moans Zoeller to one person. "Well, thank you," he says, stopping to look someone else in the eye after a compliment. "Head, head," he says, spotting someone about to decapitate himself on a low ledge as he walks and gawks at Zoeller.

"These guys are real glad to see me back," he says as he steps into the locker room. "They just wanted me to come back and talk to 'em. Nobody in there will talk to each other, all so serious.

"They need to have somebody to give 'em grief and who will appreciate it when they give it back."

"The Hoosiers gonna win the NIT?" a shoeshine man asks Zoeller, a rabid Indiana fan who watched 30 college basketball games a week during his first bed-ridden month after surgery ("That's what kept me sane").

"Those cockroaches better win," says Zoeller, then brightens as he spots Ben Crenshaw.

"Are you buyin' my dinner at the Masters this year or not?" says '79 champ Zoeller to the man who finally won a green coat last April. "New man has to buy for everybody, but I haven't seen any 'Ben Crenshaw Dinner' invitation in my mail."

"That went out three weeks ago," protests Crenshaw.

"Doesn't matter," says Zoeller. "We're all sendin' you the bill, anyway."

Another reporter gets Zoeller in his sights, asks how he feels.

"Wore out. Goin' home," he says.

"One question."

"You get uglier every year."

"What's the one shot in your career you wish you had back?"

"You asked me that yesterday. I said I couldn't think of one."

"Figured overnight it might have come to you. Now don't strain, Fuzz. We don't want you to have to have brain surgery, too," says the reporter, who would hardly feel comfortable saying such a thing to any other top star.

"Every shot I ever hit has been perfect," says Zoeller.

Crenshaw, overhearing this, says, "You should ask me that. I got plenty I want to talk over. Every time Fuzzy gets in contention, he wins."

Zoeller winks devilishly. "Well . . . if it ain't the truth," he murmurs.

Former Open champion Larry Nelson is nearby and says, "When Fuzzy first became known, after he won that Masters, I thought he was funny from trying to be funny. But now I'm convinced it's just natural.

"He's like Lee Trevino, but Lee's humor is more cutting. Fuzzy is softer. There's truth in humor and Fuzzy will take it right to the edge of being questionable. Lee sometimes goes over."

"I think it's tremendous that he could come back," says John Mahaffey, the former PGA champion who has had his own will-I-ever-play-again moments.

"Maybe it's lucky that he came back on tour so fast. What ever that special thing is that you have when you're winning -- I don't know if it really has a name -- he still had it. That magic, I guess.

"What's so special about Fuzzy is he's just genuine. Can't teach that."

Zoeller is walking out the clubhouse door when 6-foot-4, 210-pound Andy Bean grabs him in a hammerlock from behind and starts bending him backwards playfully.

Bean used to wrestle alligators and is renowned for not knowing his own strength and not always using good judgment.

Zoeller goes along with the joke but his eyes get big. If he had a white towel to wave in surrender, he'd use it now.

"Let him loose, Andy," snaps a veteran player.

"We need him."