Lessons learned, Price takes major leap to No. 1 rank

August 16, 1994|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

TULSA, Okla. -- David Leadbetter was an obscure golf teacher who had set up shop just outside Orlando, Fla. Nick Price was an obscure European tour pro who was looking for help with his game. They had known each other from their days as junior players in Rhodesia.

"He wanted to play on the American tour," Leadbetter recalled Sunday night. "There were a lot of pieces missing, but the one thing Nick could always do was strike the ball."

That was the fall of 1981. The following summer, Price nearly lost his obscurity forever when he almost won the British Open at Troon. Unable to hold a lead down the backstretch on Sunday, Price faded badly and lost to Tom Watson. There were some who thought that Price, 25 at the time, might never get as close again.

"I think it was good that he didn't win," said Leadbetter, who would make his own reputation as Nick Faldo's swing guru. "It would have been too soon. It served to harden him. But I told some people about five years ago that Nick had the capability to be one of the top players. I thought he would be a late bloomer."

There would be other tough lessons along the way. When he lost down the stretch to a hot-putting Seve Ballesteros in the 1988 British Open at Royal Lytham, Price knew that he would have to improve on one of his biggest downfalls, his touch around the greens.

As his putting improved -- when he straightened the hunched-over style he had copied from Jack Nicklaus -- so did his confidence. And, with the help of University of Virginia sports psychologist Bob Rotella, Price learned how to concentrate on every shot. The package was complete. And soon, so was the evolution from a struggling journeyman into the No. 1 player in the world.

That's where Price, now 37, finds himself today. With his remarkable record-breaking performance and six-shot victory Sunday in the 76th PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club, Price passed his good friend Greg Norman to reach the top of the Sony world rankings.

It serves as both his coronation as the game's No. 1 player and a culmination of a two-year stretch that began with Price's first major championship, in the 1992 PGA at Bellerive. He has won 15 tournaments and more than $5 million since, including last month's British Open at Turnberry. With his victory here, Price became the first player since Tom Watson to win back-to-back majors in the same year.

"The only thing I had left to prove, even though I had won a major championship, was to start playing better in the majors and the British Open squashed all those negatives and doubts," Price said Sunday night. "To win any major championship the way I won it this year made me feel like I didn't have anything to prove to anyone anymore except myself.

"The only thing I want to do from here on in is to keep the desire that I've had over the last two years alive by not playing too much, not trying too much, just going out there and playing golf because that's what I'm enjoying doing the most out there, going out there and trying to control a game that's uncontrollable."

It almost looks too easy for Price, who has already won five times this year, the most since Watson won six times (including two majors) in 1980. Except for an even-par 70 Saturday, Price has shot under par in each of the last 10 rounds. His 11-under-par score of 269 was two shots better than the previous PGA Championship record.

As a result, Price has given the game its first dominant player since Nick Faldo's three-year run at the top from 1989 to 1992. Price, who now lives in Orlando himself, is the first full-time PGA Tour pro to dominate the game since Curtis Strange did it between 1987 and 1989.

"God, he's magnificent to watch," former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw said Saturday. "He's a man in full flight. He knows the game as well as anyone knows theirs. He's so strong. That's the one thing that's overlooked. His putting comes and goes, along with everybody else's. But I'd say, striking the ball, he's as good as anyone since Ben Hogan."

Price isn't quite ready to put himself in such legendary company, though he finally admits to being comfortable with the notion of becoming No. 1 in the world. A man whose friends and acquaintances say hasn't changed despite his new-found fame and wealth, Price squirms a bit when he is mentioned along with players such as Watson and Jack Nicklaus.

"I'm 16 major tournaments behind Jack Nicklaus," he said. "I don't think I'll ever class myself in his league until I've won that many. If I won every major for the next seven years, maybe I would class myself like Jack Nicklaus. But I've won three major championships. If I don't win another one, I will have had my time."

Considering the way he has played the past two years in general and the past month in particular, it seems that Price's time, after a long wait, finally has arrived. And it will likely continue for a while, with his No. 1 ranking all but locked up until next year's Masters.

"He can win," Leadbetter said with a sly grin, "every tournament he plays."

PRICE'S RECORD

How Nick Price (above) has fared in 1994:

Tournament .. .. .. .. .. Place .. Money

Doral Ryder Open .. .. .. T72 . .. $2,716

Honda Classic .. .. .. .. 1st . .. $198,000

Nestle Invitational .. .. T2 .. .. $89,600

Players Championship . .. -- .. .. Missed cut

The Masters . .. .. .. .. T35 . .. $10,300

Houston Open ... .. .. .. -- .. .. Missed cut

BellSouth Classic . .. .. -- .. .. Missed cut

Byron Nelson Classic . .. T20 . .. $12,105

Colonial . .. .. .. .. .. 1st . .. $252,000

U.S. Open ... .. .. .. .. -- .. .. Missed cut

Greater Hartford Open ... T33 . .. $6,205.71

Western Open ... .. .. .. 1st . .. $216,000

British Open ... .. .. .. 1st . .. $178,200

Federal Express Classic . 4th . .. $60,000

PGA Championship .. .. .. 1st . .. $310,000

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