Friday, August 10, 2007
Despite familiar attitude, Austin works his way into contention
By Bob Harig Special to ESPN.com
TULSA, Okla. -- The average guy can only dream of hitting a golf ball as well as Woody Austin. He can't fire shot after shot on hole after hole on course after course with anywhere near the same precision as one of the game's best ball strikers.
But certainly making those putts would be easy, right?
And therein lies the fascination with Austin, a journeyman PGA Tour pro who once worked at a credit union to keep his golf dream alive and has gone on to win more than $10 million.
An admitted worrywart who can take a nice round of golf and make it sound like he shot 100, Austin, 43, has things a bit mixed up. Most of us think hitting a golf ball 300 yards and striking irons well enough to stop with 10 feet of the cup is the hard part. Isn't it?
"I look at it like hitting the ball is the easy part," said Austin, whose even-par 70 at Southern Hills Country Club on Friday put him in PGA Championship contention going into the weekend. "You can hide a bad swing, you can hit it 12 feet. But it only takes that much [indicating an inch] to miss a putt, whether it be line, speed, whatever. So I think putting is a hell of a lot harder than hitting a golf ball."
Austin shot even-par 70 in the second round.
Of course he would. Putting woes have defined his career.
There are few players in golf who hit the ball as well as Austin. But if you can't make the putts, you can't score. And that was the case again Friday.
"I feel like I've lost a great opportunity to be out front because I've had way too many chances," Austin said. "You just can't have that many chances ... when you're someone in my position who has never won a major, never won one of these big events; you can't throw away all of these opportunities. I don't have that luxury.
"For me to make only five birdies, and I've made one putt over three feet for birdie. And I've had -- I don't know how many 10- and 15-footers I've had. If you can't make any of those, you're done. And so therefore, my score, I'm in a great position, yes. But my score is not good for the way I played."
"I look at this way," he said. "If you're not happy with your job, if you don't feel as though you're getting 100 percent out of what you put in or what you do for your job, are you supposed to be happy? I feel as though you've only seen half of what I have. And 50 percent isn't good enough as far as I'm concerned."
Austin grew up on a golf course in Florida and attended the University of Miami, then spent most of his time honing his game on various mini-tours. He didn't make it to the PGA Tour until age 31 in 1995 and was Rookie of the Year after winning the Buick Open.
But most of his career has been spent grinding. From 1997 through 2002, Austin never finished better than 100th on the money list. Three times, he fell outside the top 125. And he became best-known for an incident at the 1997 Hilton Head tournament.
It would have long ago been forgotten, except that when Austin hit a poor putt, he took his putter and started banging it against his head -- enough times to bend the shaft. It still makes the highlight reels, much to his chagrin.
"I wish I could look back with amusement," he said. "But if you're going to lead into that after I shoot 62 or win a golf tournament, why? That has nothing to do with the 62."
Austin shot 62 in June during the final round of the Stanford St. Jude Championship in Memphis to win his third career title. Video of the head-banging incident inevitably showed up. And there was more consternation later when it was learned that Austin -- who with the help of his Memphis victory had earned a spot in the British Open -- was skipping a trip to Scotland.
The man who lamented his lack of opportunities to win majors was skipping one. Among the reasons given at the time was that he didn't much care for links golf and didn't have much success in his one and only British Open appearance.
Few players who are eligible for a major and decline are given much slack. None other than Hall of Famer Gary Player took a shot at Austin.
"I think back to when I was a young man, I would've hitchhiked to have an opportunity to play in this great Open Championship and to accept the challenge of playing in those conditions," Player said. "But you know, it's a strange thing. A lot of these young guys and a lot of sportsmen today make so much money and forget about the tradition of the game, which I find quite sad."
Austin said it was more a matter of scheduling. He had played eight straight weeks. He was exhausted. He didn't think he would be able to perform very well. "I'm not going to want to go over there and shoot 80 both days," he said. "I want to play in majors. I'm hoping if I'm qualified for it early enough for next year, I'll be there, I guarantee it."
But Austin makes no promises when it comes to his mental state on a golf course.
He has tried for years to learn ways to calm down, to take things as they come. He's consulted sports psychologists and hypnotists. He's tried breathing exercises. Not much has helped.
"I've been a nervous person my entire life," he said.
It makes you wonder what he might be like if he's in contention to win the PGA Championship come Sunday afternoon.
Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.