Practice Finally Paying Off for Price

By Mercer BaggsFebruary 23, 2005, 5:00 pm
2005 WGC Accenture Match PlayCARLSBAD, Calif. -- Nick Price is straight Old School. You can tell it when he reminisces about going head-to-head with Seve Ballesteros in the Lytham Open. You can tell it when he refers to the WGC-NEC Invitational by its old moniker, the 'World Series.' You can tell it by the way his gives well-thought-out answers, instead of standard two-sentence sound bytes.
And you can tell it most of all just by looking at his feet.
Nick Price still wears white shoes. Straight white. Nothing sporty, nothing designer ' with only black soles to provide a contrast.
In a time when players make the fairway their own personal runway, Price sticks out in his simplicity ' by being a solid among fancy and sometimes garish patterns.
The grounds at La Costa Resort and Spa arent conducive at the moment to keeping Prices mode of biped transportation in pristine condition. Its awfully wet and muddy, which is why officials decided to give the playing grounds and extra day to dry out before starting the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
When play finally commences Thursday, Price will meet another man who occasionally sports the Billy Johnsons, when he faces Tiger Woods.
The match-up will feature a pair of former world No. 1s ' players who have combined for 91 PGA Tour and international victories, and 11 major championship trophies.
Price, of course, is much further down the road in his professional career than Woods. Hes 48 now and is a good decade removed from when he challenged Fred Couples, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman for elite status.
Hes also ranked 64th in the world, which, thanks to the absence of Ernie Els, means he now has to take on the two-time defending champion. If he hadnt drawn Woods, however, it would have been reigning world No. 1 Vijay Singh. And had anyone else pulled out, it would have been Phil Mickelson or even Retief Goosen.
If you look at my predicament, he said, its jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, so it doesnt really matter.
So, he might as well go up against one of the best one-on-one players in golf history ' a man who has a 21-3 career record in this event to go along with three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur and three straight U.S. Amateur titles.
Im pretty excited about it, actually, he said. I dont have an awful lot to lose. I feel that if I play solidly and dont make any mistakes and make four or five birdies, I think well have a good match ' 18-hole match play is very unpredictable.
Just ask Woods. Though he has won this event each of the last two years, he was bounced from the opening round by Peter OMalley in 2002 and narrowly escaped a similar fate last year to John Rollins.
And he anticipates another difficult opener this time around. After all, O'Malley and Rollins aren't quite as credentialed as Price.
'I'm playing a three time major championship winner. It's going to be a good fight, and it's going to be a lot of fun,' said Woods, who first played alongside Price in the first round of the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock.
Logic would have it that one would rather meet Woods in the first round than in the later stages, before Woods can pocket momentum and start his steamroll. Price doesnt see it that way.
Tiger is Tiger. I dont care whether you play him in the first or last round; youve got your work cut out for you, Price said. For me, I would like to have two or three rounds under my belt and have a little more confidence.
Confidence is something Price was near empty on the last few years. He was putting the best in his life ' thanks to some technical assistance from Scotty Cameron, but his ball-striking ' the talent on which he made his name and his bank ' was frustratingly suspect.
The past few years, its been very frustrating, he said. I kept telling my caddie and my wife, if I putted like this when I was hitting the ball so well, I probably would have won 50, 60 tournaments.
Point blank: practice was not making perfect. If anything, practice was making the even-tempered Price ' a man who should wear a white hat to go along with his white shoes ' irritable and almost apathetic on the inside.
My game started going south a little bit in 2003. I started saying thats what is supposed to happen when you get to 46 or 47 ' your game is supposed to slide, its not supposed by be as sharp, he said. But I felt watching Jay Haas last year and the year before, that I could get it in myself to go to the practice tee more often and I could elevate my game. But, of course, when I did that, it didnt happen.'
My iron game wasnt quite as crisp. My driving wasnt quite as accurate. And what made it more frustrating was the more practice I did ' that didnt help, he added. It just sort of kept it at a certain level, instead of sort of getting better. It just seems that recently now when Ive been practicing, Ive seen a spike in the way Im playing.
Now my long game seems to be coming home, and if I continue to putt like I have done, hopefully this will be a year to look forward to.
With confidence having recharged his batteries, Price expects to compete more on tour than the 15 times he did a year ago. And he fully expects to be more competitive, as well.
I am looking forward to playing, honestly, I really am. Its the first time in probably three years that Ive actually got some desire to go out and practice and compete again, he said.
Unlike his Day 1 counterpart, Price is no longer motivated by ruling the golfing world or adding to his major collection, which stands at two PGA Championships and one British Open. Hes been there, done that. Hes a certified Hall of Fame member, and someone who wont hesitate to skip out on a mid-summer major to spend time vacationing with his family.
Golf has always meant a lot to me, but its never, ever been the absolute end of all ends, he said.
Price has always referred to himself as a realist. And he has but one real goal in mind for 2005.
Make the Presidents Cup team, he said. Thats a huge motivating force for me this year, to make it in the top 10. And if I dont accrue enough (points), to show (International team captain) Gary Player that Ive played well enough to warrant an invitation.
Not that hes abandoned the notion of earning his first title since the 2002 MasterCard Colonial.
If I start playing well ' if I continue to show the form in my game and it improves, then winning will be an option. If I putt well and keep doing what Im doing, I think I have a chance to win again this year.
And maybe, for a least one day, hell be able to open up a bottle of that old magic come Thursday.
I hope so, he said in as simple a fashion as his white shoes. I hope so.
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