New Pavin returns to Shinnecock

Updated: June 11, 2004, 5:33 PM ET
By Jaime Diaz | Golf Digest

Corey Pavin ambles into the locker room at the TPC at Sawgrass, an initiator in the edgy banter that is the professional athlete's way of saying, "I'm OK, you're OK." Spotting Sid Wilson, the PGA Tour's vice president of player relations, slouched luxuriantly in an ornamental barber chair, Pavin zeroes in on the middle-aged executive's Caesar-style comb-down and asks with mock concern, "They have to be really careful with that part, don't they?"

Wilson, whose job description includes the ability to unflinchingly trade zingers with tour players, quickly assesses Pavin's graying buzz cut and takes the easy shot. "At least I have something to be careful with."

"Wow," says Pavin, feigning pain. "I thought I was supposed to be the jerk."

"Just trying to catch up," says Wilson.

Corey Pavin
Corey Pavin is a different man than he was when he won at Shinnecock Hills.

Pavin laughs. "You've got a lot of catching up to do," he says before adding, almost to himself, "A lot of catching up."

For Corey Pavin, the present is a time of reflection. At 44, during the last decade he has gone from U.S. Open champion to fringe performer, from married to divorced to remarried, from distant with family and friends to rekindler.

Through difficult times in which he was admittedly lost in transition, Pavin has done a lot of thinking about who he was, who he is, and who he wants to be.

"I wasted a lot of years of potential friendships not really letting people see the way I am, who I am," Pavin says in a quieter moment. "I regret the fact that I just didn't let myself be myself. I think I lost out on a lot of things. And I'm seeing what I lost out on. ... I'm learning from things I didn't do in the past."

Even if he never hits another quail-high cut, Pavin has had one of the game's distinctive careers. In his prime a mustachioed, Chaplin-esque character in the tradition of great light-hitting major winners like Paul Runyan, Doug Ford and Dave Stockton, Pavin has 14 victories on the PGA Tour, and he probably will be remembered as the game's last great shaper of shots. A slightly built 5-feet-9, Pavin also possessed a genius short game and an affinity for pressure performance that made him a giant killer. Nick Faldo, for one, smiles ruefully remembering Pavin's dramatic chip-in as dusk fell on the Saturday of the 1995 Ryder Cup at Oak Hill, which appeared to give the U.S. insurmountable momentum for the final day. "Standing on the green, I had a strong sense that, yeah, this is right up his street," says Faldo. "In those days, Corey had that special thing."

Pavin never put his gift to better use than at Shinnecock Hills in 1995. Saddled then with the unofficial title of best player in the world never to have won a major, Pavin struck the ball better every day, and his final round of 68, over a classic seaside layout baked hard by wind and sun, was a masterpiece of nerve and control.

"Corey stayed stone-faced all 72 holes," says Eric Schwarz, his caddie then and now. "He put on a putting exhibition, but he never changed expression. He'd just pick the ball out of the hole, hand me the putter and beeline for the next tee. That last day was incredible, like I was being pulled along by this amazing intensity."

Pavin's key memories of the week include an unplayable lie he drove into on his first hole of the championship, and the 9-iron he holed from 132 yards for an eagle on the par-5 fifth that got him back to even par for the day. "It was a shaky start, and I wasn't feeling too comfortable about my game," he says. "It could have been a disastrous round." After a scrappy opening 72, Pavin and Schwarz went to the practice tee and decided Corey should move the ball back in his stance two inches, precisely the same tournament-week adjustment Masters champion Ben Crenshaw had made with caddie Carl Jackson two months earlier. Pavin calls the sharply breaking seven-footer he holed for par on the 71st hole "the best putt I ever hit under pressure. It allowed me to play the 18th the way I wanted to -- conservatively." Still, there was unmistakable boldness in Pavin's burning, bounce-up 4-wood from 238 yards to within six feet, a stroke that lives on as the most celebrated wood shot to a final hole in the history of major-championship golf.

"It filled a void in my own mind," Pavin says of his greatest victory. "And it seemed to fill a void in a lot of other people's minds as well."

There would be other voids to deal with. Indeed, Pavin's return to Shinnecock for the 2004 U.S. Open will provide a fitting bracket for the most dramatic years of his life.

The most visible change was the stunning decline of Pavin's golf game. He managed to win the 1996 Colonial with guts and his short game, but almost immediately afterward he went into a free-fall. Since that victory Pavin hasn't finished better than fifth in a PGA Tour event. Beginning in 1997 his rank on the money list has been 169th, 155th, 70th, 160th, 111th, 148th and 148th.

At the same time, Pavin's marriage began to unravel. Finally, after 17 years together, he filed for divorce from Shannon in early November 2000. Pavin is terse on the subject, clearly sensitive to the effect on his sons, Ryan, 17, and Austin, 11, who live with their mother near San Diego. "Obviously I've gone through a divorce," says Pavin. "I've put it behind me. It was a difficult time in my life. It's something I'm done with, it's over, and I've moved on."

Pavin's friends saw the toll. Tour player Jay Delsing, Pavin's best friend since their days on the golf team at UCLA, remembers a visit while the Pavins were still together in 2000. "I had never seen him so unconfident and unsure of himself," Delsing says. "It wasn't his golf, it was his life. Shannon was always very involved in pushing Corey. That relationship had helped him for years and years. But now it was really suppressing him as a person."

The personal upheaval prompted Pavin, a natural searcher who had left Judaism in 1991, to become a Christian and to take another hard look at himself. He came to the conclusion that a frosty Hogan-style approach to his career andrelationships, consciously constructed to enrich his golf performance, had left him poorer as a human being.

"I'd say that before I was kind of unapproachable," he says. "I didn't allow people in, and that was my fault. I thought that was the way to succeed as a golfer. ... I thought that if I was just me, I would lose focus." Adds Schwarz: "If you didn't know him, Corey was the kind of guy you thought of as kind of uppity."

Faldo, who since his insular glory days has traveled an even rockier road of life changes, can empathize with Pavin. "Trying to win those major championships came at a high cost," Faldo says. "For me to get the intensity right, to get in that zone, it was all intensity, all the time. That's the only way we knew how to do it in that era. Today, the psychologists really help the guys switch on and off. I wish I'd known that."

Pavin married Lisa Nguyen in January 2003 and credits her for helping ground his life.

For Pavin, the catalyst for change has been the former Lisa Nguyen. The two met when Pavin hired her as his personal assistant after his divorce. Three months later, they became romantically involved. Engaged in January 2002, they married exactly a year later.

The daughter of a South Vietnamese naval officer, Lisa was an infant when her family came to the United States during the fall of Saigon in 1974. Very close to her own family and an extrovert with lots of friends, she has urged Pavin to grow closer and be more open with the people in his life.

"When I met Corey, I could tell he was empty inside, somewhat unfulfilled, and definitely lonely," says Lisa, 29. "The more I got to know him, the more I realized his unhappiness wasn't just on the golf course but in his personal life as well. He didn't have strong friendships; he wasn't close to his family."

And so, to borrow a phrase, Pavin has made a concerted effort to catch up. He has made more visits and phone calls to his mother, Barbara, 77 (his father, Jack, who owned a chain of shoe stores, died in 1997 at age 70), and his brothers, Matt, 49, and Fletcher, 47 (both golf-equipment salesmen), all of whom still live near Pavin's hometown of Oxnard, Calif.

"Corey is so much happier now, and it shows," says Fletcher. "My wife, Anna, has only known Corey since he's been on the tour. I always told her that as a kid he was always joking, acting squirrelly, but he'd always been so serious that she never believed it. But the last few times he has really relaxed, and I broke in and said, 'This is the brother I was telling you about. Let me introduce you to my brother Corey.' "

Delivering on his gift to his brothers last Christmas, Pavin treated them in March to a five-day golf trip to Northern California in which they played such gems as San Francisco Golf Club, Pasatiempo and Cypress Point.

"We've played a round or two together, but we've never gone on a trip together," says Pavin. "These are my brothers, who I love. And if I want to spend the time with them, I have to carve the time out. ... Just the things you could say normal people do. But I've never done it."

Pavin has also sought to restore ties to old friends. A couple of years ago, he ended a feud with former UCLA teammate Tom Pernice Jr. that had lasted more than 20 years. Both men admit that the original source of the problem was silly -- Pavin had left an amateur tournament in Arizona where he had been Pernice's ride, stranding him -- but pride had caused the wounds to linger. "Corey came right to me," says Pernice. "I admired that. We used to be really close, sleeping outside in line for UCLA basketball tickets, meeting bright and early to hit balls on the intramural field. I'm glad we're friends again."

There has never been a rift between Pavin and Delsing, but since Pavin's second marriage, the two have grown much closer. The process started when Lisa offhandedly suggested that Pavin caddie for Delsing in the Monday qualifying at the 2002 Buick Invitational. Momentarily taken aback at the idea, Pavin thought, Why not?, and his friend shot 65 and qualified. "It felt so natural," Delsing says, "like we were back in college."

Then last year in the final stage of Q school, the two got together again. "It was a great week," says Delsing. "We shared a room and talked about everything. Then on the last day, I started out two over after four and made a 20-footer for par on the fifth. Corey can see I'm really grinding, so he starts telling me how nervous he was during the Ryder Cup. And I go, 'Really, you were that nervous?' He's like, 'Oh, bud, believe me, I was so nervous.' So just like he intended, it relaxes me. And all the way around he's telling me Ryder Cup stories. But then we get up on 18, and I sense that Corey knows the number. So now he's nervous, and he gets kind of quiet. So I go, 'Hey, can you tell me another Ryder Cup story?' like a kid going, 'Can you read me one more bedtime story?' And we laughed so hard. And I relaxed again. I wind up making birdie on the last hole and getting my card. Big chemistry there between us. And it was because his caddieing came from the heart. Lisa has given him that side back."

Corey Pavin
Pavin has even taken a turn as an announcer at ESPN.

Pavin has also broken out to try new things. Last year he attended the Porsche Driving Experience, a birthday gift from Lisa, and the two took a Caribbean cruise. Never much of an outdoorsmen, Pavin nonetheless is planning a summer fishing trip with Delsing and hoping to go hunting with Frank Lickliter.

And it was with a new spirit of adventure that Pavin decided to try being an on-course commentator. On his maiden voyage, an ESPN telecast from the Accenture Match Play Championship, Pavin was both natural and informative standing beside the player's ball and describing the options of the upcoming shot.

"It was something we had tried on the Champions Tour, and the Match Play gave us a chance to do it again," says Brandt Packer, a golf producer for ABC. "We had lost power in our compound before the show, so we never got a chance to rehearse Corey. Play starts, Corey says he's comfortable, so we cut to him on the sixth fairway and hold our breath. Well, he pulls it off like a 20-year veteran. His timing was good, what he said was good, and when I got in his ear and told him to finish his thought in 10 seconds, he did it on the number. We all kind of looked at each other and said, 'Hell, let's do this on every shot.' "

Pavin enjoyed the experience and the positive reviews. "It's something I could see myself doing in the future," he says. "What was most interesting is how they kept saying for me to just be myself. Which is exactly what I want to do in my life."

In contrast, Pavin as a golfer has had to become more than just his recent self to remain competitive on the PGA Tour.

The reasons Pavin fell off the charts in the first place have often been debated. It's now clear it was the result of several factors. But Pavin himself gives short shrift to speculation that marital problems and post-major-victory letdown brought him low.

Neither does he have much to say about the theory that the radical change in his equipment that occurred when he signed a five-year, seven-figure deal -- then considered lucrative -- with a Japanese manufacturer put him at a disadvantage. Insiders say that the new company never adapted to the unique specifications required by a tour player, particularly with the driver. As a result the already short-hitting Pavin lost yardage at a time when the rest of the golf world was getting longer. When Pavin's contract ran out, he switched companies, and is now playing TaylorMade clubs.

Pavin can't deny that the technology-based distance explosion of the late '90s hurt him. As players got dramatically longer, the tour stretched its courses, made greens firmer and tucked more pins. Getting at pins with his low ball flight had always been a challenge for Pavin, but one he'd managed through his uncanny ability to curve shots and use slopes to play along the ground. But the new setups required high, quick-stopping shots to get close to the flagstick, more than ever favoring longer drivers who could hit high, soft-landing approaches. To gain more distance, Pavin in 1996 switched from the high-spinning, wound balata ball he'd always used to a solid-core ball that went farther. But that ball took away Pavin's ability to curve shots, and it was also harder to stop. His strengths neutralized, Pavin found himself caught in the distance revolution's no-man's land and became the poster child for the demise of the short hitter. His driving distance last year improved more than 10 yards to just under 269, but he still ranked 189th on tour.

Pavin's explanation is simpler. "The last seven or eight years I didn't play very well just because my swing went bad," he says. "If I was still swinging the way I was in the early '90s, I'd be very competitive."

Pavin says he could feel his golf swing leaving him in 1996, when he managed to finish 18th on the money list. "I kind of did it with Band-Aids and mirrors, getting a lot out of some very poor hitting," he says. "But it's really stressful to play that way week in and week out, and I knew the bubble was going to burst."

Part of the problem was that Pavin had dismissed the only swing coach he'd ever had, Bruce Hamilton, a few weeks before the '95 Open at Shinnecock. The two had worked together since Pavin was 15, but when Hamilton went through a divorce in 1995, tension between the teacher and the Pavins led to a split. After Hamilton, Pavin worked with Chuck Cook and later Gary Smith, but never with the same degree of comfort. Pavin reunited with Hamilton shortly after filing for his own divorce. "Corey called me and asked if we could get together again," says Hamilton. "I said, 'I'd love to.' That was a very emotional call."

Pavin takes a deep breath before recounting his experience with Hamilton. "If I had to do it over again, I would do it very differently," he says. "I made a very big mistake in the way I treated Bruce. When we got back together, that was the first thing I said. I apologized for the way I treated him in 1995. And I still feel bad about it today. I was judgmental, and I shouldn't have been."

Pavin made progress with Hamilton in 2001. But after stagnating over the next two years, Pavin -- with Hamilton's blessing -- last August sought out one of the leading gurus of the modern golf swing, Butch Harmon.

"Who's better than Butch?" says Hamilton, who remains a close friend. "Corey is making the right move for right now." Under Harmon, Pavin has worked to lose his distinctive habit of lifting and fanning the club open on the takeaway, producing a backswing that was too narrow and too long. The position required him to square the club with a power-dissipating manipulation of his hands.

Pavin's turn is now more compact and more wound up -- in his words "more shoulder turn, less arm swing" -- allowing him to deliver a heavier blow from released body rotation. When Pavin plays a high draw rather than his trusty low fade, he's capable of hitting it much farther than what his 260-something yard average would indicate. Moreover, he says he is more than half a club longer with his irons.

"Corey had to change his swing to be competitive on today's tour," says Harmon. "I really believe it will pay off, because, bottom line, nobody was ever better at finding a way to win."

"It's still easy to revert back to what feels comfortable but is mechanically incorrect," Pavin says. "The more I can swing uncomfortably in pressure situations, the better I'll be in the long run."

Adds Dr. Richard Coop, a mental coach who has worked with Pavin since 1990, "It's difficult in the short term -- kind of like trying to build an airplane while you're flying."

Pavin's results in 2004 have been encouraging, if not stratospheric. He made the cut in his first six tournaments, finishing among the top 20 in three of them. "Last year, when he finished tied for 32nd at the Players Championship, he was happy," says Pavin's brother Fletcher. "This year when he finished T33, he was mad. That's a good sign."

"I'm working my way to my potential," Pavin says. "If I can get there, I've accomplished my goal. And if that's good enough to win, or whatever, that's great. It's a very personal thing for me."

As he prepares to return to Shinnecock, Pavin for the first time believes his golf goals and life goals are in harmony. "Lately, it's really struck me a lot that I don't have to be a brooder, or so focused on golf every second, to play my best," he says. "There's time to step back and experience other things. It's made my life richer. Now I'll hear from Jay or another friend on tour that somebody said, 'Corey looks so happy. He's so much easier to talk to. I never knew he was like that.' It makes me feel good, because I'm learning that who I am is fine. It's nothing bad there. I am who I am."

It sounds like Corey Pavin has finally caught up.

Jaime Diaz is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.

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