2001: No practice makes perfect for Hoch

BY JEFF RUDE

Lemont, Ill.

Much of Advil Western Open week focused on the neck injury that had rendered Davis Love III inactive for all but two tournaments since mid-April. And much of the week Scott Hoch talked of suffering tendinitis-type problems in his tight left wrist during his best golf stretch ever the last two months.

So dust off the saw about bewaring the ailing golfer, or at least the recovering one. And add this twist: Never underestimate the player who doesn’t practice. Neither Love nor Hoch hits balls before or after rounds now because of their physical conditions.

“Maybe the secret,” Love said, “is to be rested and relaxed.”

Being old apparently doesn’t hurt, either.

All of this played out at the PGA Tour’s second-oldest tournament, where Hoch, at 45, won his second Tour title since late April in the year’s best high-level, head-to-head Sunday duel. In a two-man race that started with Love one stroke ahead entering that final round, Hoch took his sole lead of the week on the 72nd hole when he saved par from a right bunker and Love didn’t.

Hoch closed with 64 and Love 66 at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club’s supposedly difficult No. 4 Dubsdread course. Each made eight birdies. When the sparring ended, Hoch had his 10th Tour victory and first multiple-victory season with a tournament-record, 21-under-par 267 total, one ahead of Love and eight up on anybody else.

“It was like a boxing match,” said Hoch, the first player 45 or older to win twice in a season since Hale Irwin in 1990. “I got caught up in the back and forth.”

Hoch won his most important title because he birdied 12 of the last 22 holes without a bogey. Love lost because he bogeyed two of the last three. Hoch won because of his driving accuracy (85.7 percent of fairways hit, ranking first) and putting (third). Love co-led in greens hit in regulation (58 for 80.6 percent) but lost because he missed two of the last three with errant shots. Hoch won because he all but wiped out Love’s five-stroke advantage with four consecutive birdies to conclude the third round. Love lost because he bogeyed the 409-yard 16th twice on the weekend.

“When you shoot 66 on this golf course, you don’t expect to lose,” Love said. “I probably would have taken 66 when we started, but when we got into the round I could tell Scott was putting well and playing with confidence. It got to where I just figured he wasn’t going to miss (putts). It looked like he didn’t think he could miss.”

Love won seven of the first 13 times he led or co-led after 54 holes, but he’s 0-for-6 since April 1998. Moreover, he’s only 3-for-22 converting 36-hole advantages into victories.

“At least I’ve had a lot of chances, and that’s nice,” he said. “I’m happy with the state of my game.”

But not as delighted as Hoch, golf’s human ATM machine and perhaps its hottest player. Hoch heads to his fourth British Open in 22 Tour seasons in a rich vein of form. Starting with the Shell Houston Open in April, Hoch has finished in the top 16 in his last nine Tour starts.

The run, fueled by good driving and putting rather than his celebrated iron game, includes a second at the Buick Classic and victories at Greensboro and here. He said his best golf ever has come at 45 for several reasons, including confidence from Greensboro, swing advice from David Leadbetter, Titleist’s new Pro V1 ball, conditioning and the “stars being aligned together.”

He has ridden the streak to seventh position in U.S. Ryder Cup team points. As Hoch well knows, the top 10 qualify. Only once has he made it on points. And the five times he just missed, captains overlooked him with their two wild-card picks.

This year, he has at least one supporter. After Love watched Hoch escape the left rough and make a downhill 25-foot birdie putt on No. 4 Sunday, he said, “I want this guy on my Ryder Cup team. He’s in it for the long haul.”

Hoch has excelled of late despite that fragile left wrist. He has undergone a magnetic resonance imaging exam and has plans for a bone scan. “I haven’t hit balls after a round for two months because of my hand,” he said. But once the wrist loosens up, he said, it doesn’t affect his golf.

It certainly didn’t bother him while overtaking Love down the stretch. At the 15th, he made an 18-foot birdie putt after he mistakenly thought his blocked fairway wood sailed into the right trees on the par-5 15th. “I thought the tournament was over,” Hoch said. He pulled even when Love hit a fat, left 7-iron approach and bogeyed 16. And he won after Love, on probably his worst swing of the week, hooked his drive 30 yards left of the 18th fairway and missed a 12-foot par putt.

“I don’t know what happened,” Love said of the final tee ball. “I probably got a little quick and jumped at it.”

Love jumped at the chance to play in the Western only because he had performed poorly at the Greater Hartford Open the previous week. He started the GHO with a triple-bogey 7 and double-bogey 6 on the first two holes en route to a 77. After missing the cut with a second-round 70, Love entered the Western because he needed competitive rounds to “knock off the cobwebs” and regain sharpness in advance of the British, his favorite tournament.

The 37-year-old went from the last day of the WorldCom Classic (April 15) to the first round of the U.S. Open (June 14) without playing 18 holes (yet still tied for seventh at the Open). His problems stemmed from bulging C-5 and C-6 neck discs. He figures he pounded too many balls early in the year leading up to the Masters. Unfortunately for him, he was in fine form then, having won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and losing a Buick Invitational playoff the next week in February. He said he was swinging better than ever when he aggravated the neck injury at the Masters.

When he tried to play this spring, he felt shooting pain in his left arm, suffered headaches and felt neck tension. He saw three doctors and had his MRI sent to three spine specialists. “I saw everybody but Frank Jobe,” he said. Rest was prescribed, possible surgery was mentioned and he went 2 1/2 weeks without even touching a club. His son, Davis IV, known as Drew, was so used to having dad around the house he cried when Love took off for Chicago.

“The toughest part was a sense of doubt,” said Love. “Am I going to play in the big tournaments and be on the Ryder Cup team?”

The Western erased the doubt. And there was no pain.

Save for the finish.

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