Shinnecock is in Floyd's comfort zone

June 14, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Writer

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- There are two lasting images from the 1986 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club: the weather -- torrential rains and cold winds that blew scores into oblivion during the opening round -- and Ray Floyd's triumphant performance down the stretch in the final round.

When play begins here tomorrow in the 95th Open, the rain and chilly weather of the past few days are expected to be gone. But Floyd will be back, trying to add another major championship to his substantial resume.

Floyd, 52, is a dominant player on the senior tour these days; the Open will be only his third regular tour event this year and his first since finishing tied for 17th at the Masters. Yet the competitive instincts that made Floyd one of the game's most intimidating players remain nearly intact.

"I feel very competitive," Floyd said yesterday. "There's no reason in the world that I can't win this golf tournament. I've had good success on this course and I should be able to draw from that."

The last time Floyd came to Shinnecock, his confidence had been shaken by a poor final round the week before in nearby Westchester that cost him a chance at victory. With a reputation on tour as a front-runner who is difficult to catch after taking the lead, Floyd had collapsed and finished with a 77.

It took a now-famous talk with his wife, Maria, during their two-hour car ride on that Sunday night to get him thinking positively again. Floyd was ready to dismiss the round and move on, but his wife wouldn't let him. "Maria asked me: 'What's going to happen if you get yourself in contention in the Open?' " Floyd recalled.

"I addressed it, thank goodness. I did it because you have got to learn from your mistakes as well as your victories or when you do well. But it was something I was not ready to face and I'm glad that she forced me into doing it."

After shooting an opening-round 75 at the 1986 Open -- the average weather-inflated score that day was 77.8 -- Floyd gradually worked his way into contention. Three shots behind the leader, Greg Norman, going into the final round, Floyd stayed the hunt and managed to move past as many as nine who had tied for the lead to win by two shots over Chip Beck and Lanny Wadkins.

The victory was his fourth major title, after two PGA Championships and his record-breaking Masters win in 1976. It pushed Floyd into the highest echelon of the game after being criticized by some for not getting the most out of his talent.

"At 43, I'd been written off a couple of times," said Floyd. "Jack [Nicklaus] had won the Masters earlier that year at 46. It was a good year for the older guys."

This time, Floyd comes in with a great deal of confidence, having made the transition from the PGA tour to the Senior Tour. After winning 22 tournaments and more than $5 million in 32 years on the regular tour -- including a career-best $741,918 as recently as 1992 -- Floyd has won 12 times and earned more than $3 million in less than three full years as a senior.

"At 52, I don't think I feel any different from a physical state than I did then," said Floyd, who has won three senior events this year, finished second six other times and is second in earnings with nearly $700,000.

"But I'm a better player from tee to green than I was then. I'm a better driver of the ball. I think I can be competitive on any given day if I can putt."

There is a part of Floyd that seems to contradict his past image, a serenity that appears to have replaced his once-ornery nature. It comes from playing on a tour that often is as much about making business contacts as it is about winning tournaments, and Floyd admits that he isn't quite as fearsome as he used to be.

How intimidating was Floyd? Paired with him during that final round at Shinnecock, Payne Stewart conceded that Floyd's presence often got to him more than the pressure of the tournament. Some called it "The Look" -- and Floyd is looking for it these days.

"I think it is much harder to keep what you call the look," Floyd said yesterday. "If I knew what the look was, and I could induce it more, I would be a heck of a better player.

"I think what the look is, is the focus. When you're hooked in, when physically you are right, you know your game is there and mentally you get focused on what you are doing."

But does Floyd's success among the over-50 circuit give him a chance to compete at this year's Open, where the defending champion, Ernie Els of South Africa, is all of 25, and where most of the other real contenders are ranked among the top 10 in the world? Floyd's answer is simple.

The golf course is virtually the same one he won on nine years ago.

"I don't know if I have an advantage over them, but I have some positive memories to draw from," he said.

Floyd's first trip back since his victory came last month, when he was included in a pre-Open NBC telecast. His first practice round came Sunday, when he played with his sons, Raymond Jr. and Robert, both of whom are promising college players.

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