Woosnam finds 'great' reception Briton was heckled during Masters

June 16, 1991|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

CHASKA, Minn. -- Ian Woosnam didn't know what to expect when he came to Hazeltine National Golf Club last week for the 91st U.S. Open. From his game. From the course. And, especially, from the fans.

"I didn't have any idea," he said Friday.

For good reason. His game had gone a bit stale after he won the Masters in April. Hazeltine, or any Open course for that matter, wasn't Woosnam's idea of heaven. And after the rude response he got from some people in Augusta, he didn't think it would be much different.

"Everyone's been great," said Woosnam.

Not that things couldn't change if Woosnam stays in contention, trying to become the first foreigner to win the Open since Englishman Tony Jacklin did it here 21 years ago. More important, the 33-year-old Welshman is looking to become the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to win the first two legs on golf's Grand Slam.

"That would be very special," said Woosnam, who entered yesterday's third round at 4-under-par 140, three shots behind second-round leader Payne Stewart.

Though Woosnam has been the No. 1-ranked player in the world rankings for the past two years, it was his victory at Augusta that raised the consciousness of U.S. golf fans.

The experience at the Masters, where spectators rooting for Tom Watson cheered when Woosnam's ball found water at 13 and then heckled him by the 14th tee, left him a little cold.

"I was a bit mad at the time, but I can understand them wanting an American to win after British guys have won three straight years," said Woosnam, who followed Sandy Lyle and two-time champion Nick Faldo into the famed green jacket. "They've been great here. They're trying to make up for the Masters."

Woosnam has not quite felt the tug of other foreign players to join the PGA Tour full-time. Going into the Open, he had played in only four tour events this year, winning the Masters and the USF&G Classic in New Orleans. Despite those limited appearances, Woosnam was ranked fifth on the tour money list.

The experience of Augusta helps Woosnam at Hazeltine, as does the wet weather. The biggest problem the man called "Little Woosie" -- he's 5 feet 4 1/2 -- has had is in driving and putting. To put it simply, the U.S. fairways are usually too hard to hold his booming drives and the greens to fast to hold his zooming putts.

But the rain has helped keep Woosnam's rockets in the fairway and made the greens more puttable. Woosnam abandoned his ladies putter for a heavier stick during the second round of the Masters, and it has given him more control of his putts. Now if he could only control his game.

"It's always changing," he said. "Sometimes I'm playing great, and the next minute I'm playing terrible, then I'm playing great again."

Woosnam has not played that well since the Masters, and recently he picked up a bad head cold at a tournament in Yorkshire, where he finished a dismal, distant 12th. The aggressive nature of his game does not lend itself to the patience needed to win an Open, but Woosnam is trying to keep things on a fairly smooth ride.

Once considered on the verge of greatness, Woosnam now seems to be ready to stake his claim. "The game of golf, you have to have a plan," he said. "The way I was feeling, and the way I was playing, I didn't have a plan. But playing in a lot of majors, it's like a learning experience."

Part of Woosnam's plan is not to play too much, and not to overcommit when it comes to off-course commitments. He has seen what happened to Curtis Strange after winning back-to-back Opens in 1988 and 1989 and what happened to Greg Norman over the past year.

Though certainly not as high-profile as either Strange or Norman -- both of whom are also represented by International Management Group -- Woosnam said that it is his responsibility to manage his schedule.

"To keep from burning out, you don't play too much or tend to run around too much and you do what you have to do and make your own decisions," said Woosnam. "[There's] a lot of pressure on people who win a major, and the hardest thing is to enjoy your golf. If you are doing too much off the course, it starts to show in your game. The next thing people are criticizing you for it."

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