Shortly after dawn Feb. 17, Mark McNulty arrived at the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am. Hours before the day’s first bloomin’ onion hit the fryer, the diminutive Zimbabwean eased onto the practice range at TPC of Tampa Bay.
He’d been here before. Over the course of a professional career that spanned four decades, there had been hundreds of other ranges at hundreds of other tournaments.
Yet this time was different. This time the grass seemed clipped a little tighter, the cool morning air a little crisper. And McNulty stood for a while and soaked it all in.
Rookie. It’s the most endearing oxymoron in all of professional sport – a 50-year-old rookie. Every year the Champions Tour welcomes a handful of these newcomers and this year’s crop runs deep with pedigrees (Jerry Pate) and panache (Sam Torrance). Few, however, drew as much attention – at least from his fellow competitors – as McNulty.
His arrival at last week’s Outback may have seemed a touch early to some, but the debut of the soft-spoken McNulty as a card-carrying member of a U.S. tour had been 26 years in the making.
“As a rookie I still have to learn a lot. I have to earn my stripes,” McNulty said on the eve of his debut.
It took all of 54 holes for this student to turn the tables on the teachers. Still weak from a bout with shingles that delayed his debut, and unfazed by a furious final-round charge from crowd favorite Fuzzy Zoeller, McNulty etched out a one-shot victory Feb. 22. Seems the learning curve in the McNulty household is measured in leaps and bounds.
A little known commodity to American audiences, those who’d run up against McNulty in the past began the week with a cautious eye in his direction. There have been plenty of hares who have fallen victim to McNulty’s plodding tortoise act.
“If he has a weakness, we haven’t found it,” said Des Smyth, a fellow Euro Tour stalwart and confidant. “Thirty years and I still can’t beat him.”
Even more pointed was South African John Bland’s assessment of his friend’s chances in ’04: “I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins six times this year.” A weighty prediction considering McNulty’s best showings stateside prior to Sunday’s breakthrough were a pair of fourth-place finishes on the PGA Tour in ’82.
But perhaps the most compelling endorsement for McNulty came from Joan Baiocchi, wife of Champions Tour player Hugh, who is normally inclined to keep her support in her husband’s camp.
“I told all the wives on Monday he would win,” said Joan Baiocchi.
Smyth describes McNulty’s swing as a “smooth pass” while Bland dubs his friend “sneaky long.”
Although not long even by senior circuit standards – his caddie, Basil van Rooyen, estimates his man averages 260-270 yards off the tee – McNulty is crazy straight. Straight like the next fairway he misses will be his first. Actually, it will be his seventh as a senior but when you’re watching virtual perfection, it’s easy to lose track.
McNulty is a pure ball-striker with a swing honed by fellow Zimbabwe native David Leadbetter, but the cornerstone of a career that includes 55 worldwide victories and two trips to the Presidents Cup is a well-worn Titleist “Bulls Eye” putter. McNulty’s prowess on the greens is the stuff of legend, so much so that he was the dupe in one of the more elaborate practical jokes in pro golf history.
Prior to a 1984 exhibition match pitting himself and Nick Price against Simon Hobday and Dale Hayes, Hobday secretly replaced McNulty’s putter with a similar model.
“The announcer on the first tee starts, ‘Playing with Nick (Price) today we have Mark McNulty. One of the best putters in the game,’ ” McNulty recalls. “With that, Simon (Hobday) said, ‘We’ll see about that,’ and marches over to my bag and breaks my putter.
“I was absolutely stunned. Needless to say we didn’t win the match.”
The real “Bulls Eye” remained in one piece and helped lead McNulty to victory three years ago on the European Tour (South African Open). He narrowly missed becoming that circuit’s oldest champion last year, finishing runner-up at the European Open. All of which created an interesting dilemma as he approached his 50th birthday last October.
“I think I can still compete on the regular tour, whether in Europe or over here,” he said. “But I knew there was going to be a time when I had to stop playing the European Tour. You’re only a young 50 once.”
His mind made up, McNulty cruised through Q-School, winning his first-stage qualifier before taking medalist honors at final stage. Yet as easy as his victory at TPC of Tampa Bay appeared, it wasn’t always that way.
Twice before the 17-time European Tour winner had tried his hand at the PGA Tour and twice he’d been rebuffed. Injuries were the primary culprit – an operation to his right knee in 1985 that “went sour” and a neck injury in 1994, a lingering byproduct of a horrific car crash in the early ’80s – but even those don’t explain his inability to cash in across the sea.
“I just couldn’t get up the ladder high enough,” he said. “If you talk about bashing yourself through the door and getting to a level where everybody knows you, I was one step back whenever I played here.”
Giving the United States a third go was one of many tough decisions McNulty had to make in the last few months. Although he’s reluctant to go into details, the uncertain political and social situation in Zimbabwe led McNulty to seek Irish citizenship.
“The home that I knew, the home where I grew up and lived and practiced and sweated is no longer,” said McNulty, who has lived primarily in England the past 20 years.
His focus shifted across the Atlantic, McNulty plans to relocate to the United States and turn his attention entirely to the Champions Tour.
“Hopefully, I will be able to make a name for myself on the Champions Tour,” McNulty said.
He began the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am with one name – rookie. By week’s end, he had added another, more lofty title.