Backspin: La Cantera 1995

Duffy Waldorf sounds like a bad shot crossed with a muppet, but he won the first Texas Open at La Cantera. Matt Cooper tells the story.

As the PGA Tour plays the Texas Open at La Cantera for the final time, it seems the perfect opportunity to spin the clock back 15 years to when the venue hosted the event for the first time.
The winner in 1995 was the outlandish figure of Duffy Waldorf – a man whose first name is wildly inappropriate for a golfer and whose surname puts one in mind of the lavish New York hotel or the grouchy character from Jim Henson’s Muppets.
His real name is James Joseph but when he followed his grandparents round the golf course they called him “Little Duffer” and one way or another it stuck.
By the mid-1990s his career was solid but unspectacular. Coming to the end of his ninth year on tour he had just 13 top-five finishes to his colourful name.
The good news was that the final event of the regular schedule was the Texas Open – one of his favourite events, indeed his first top-five finish in 1989.
Back-to-back 66s fired him into a 36-hole lead, but a 71 on Saturday allowed Jay Don Blake to cut his advantage to just one shot.
On the final day Blake limped home with a 77, most of the field failed to break 70 and Justin Leonard closed with a 68 to claim second place at -14, a massive six shots ahead of three players tied at -8.
Waldorf, however, was in another league altogether, shooting 65 to reach -20 and collect his first Tour title at a canter.
It was not enough to get him into the following week’s Tour Championship but it gave him professional security and over the next six years he would win another three times on Tour (and add three end-of-season unofficial victories with his close friend Tom Lehman too).
In 1999 he claimed the Texas Open for a second time defeating Ted Tryba on the first hole of a play-off.
After making the winning 45-foot birdie putt he leapt into the air, danced around the green and, when he was finally caught, said, “That was from the hinterlands. I was just hoping to get the right speed on it and lag it in there.”
For the majority of his career, Waldorf has been more famous for the rather “bold” nature of his golfing attire than his game itself.
In 2002, when he led the Open Championship at Muirfield after two rounds, the veteran American sports writer Art Spander wrote that Duffy, “only had to avoid the usual hazards, bunkers and rough. The other players have to avoid looking at Duffy’s shirt.”
Waldorf himself once said, “A lot of European guys wear J Lindeberg gear, but there aren’t many big Swedish people. I’m not the European cut, that’s for sure. Hawaiian shirts suit my shape.”
He walks the course dressed resplendently in what, for want of a better phrase, is American-Tourist-in-London-Chic: vividly patterned shirts, matching caps, wide-fitting pants – the only thing lacking is an enormous camera to take multiple shots of every monument, cottage and church.
Having taken the lead in glorious sunshine at the 2002 Open, the field was in for a rude surprise on the Saturday when the weather turned about as nasty as it ever has at the Open in recent years – it was the day Tiger needed four straight shots to hit the green on a par five.
Playing in the final group with Padraig Harrington, Waldorf suffered the worst 10 minutes of his professional life on the sixth tee.
As he prepared to hit his first shot a bus began to move behind him in the car park, the reverse warning bleeping and engine revving. Waldorf stepped away with a smile.
The noise abated and Waldorf returned to his set-up whereupon the bleeper and the revving started again. Once more Waldorf smiled, this time through slightly gritted teeth.
When he finally hit his shot it went 40 yards before burying itself in a bush. He declared he would be playing a provisional and then deposited that into the same thicket of undergrowth.
Harrington, Waldorf and the caddies thrust their hands deep into pockets, bowed their heads into the wind and pressed forward whilst the spectators looked at one another with wide-eyed astonishment – “Oh my word! Did you see that? That’s what I do!”
Waldorf eventually found his first ball, decided it was unplayable and traipsed back to the tee whilst Harrington took shelter in the Portaloo, cheekily poking his head out after the shot was fired, asking the crowd if it was safe to emerge yet.
Poor Duffy must have been shellshocked by what he experienced that day – as a southern Californian he was used to playing golf by the sea, but not when wrapped up like it was winter.
It says much for him that despite that horrific experience, he “only” shot 77 that day and kept the experience in perspective.
In some ways Waldorf is the sort of golfer many like to sneer about because he has enjoyed an incredibly lucrative career without ever gaining the killer instinct.
But he is also someone we should respect for his ability to stay grounded.
When he left UCLA with team-mates Corey Pavin and Steve Pate he was viewed as the “most likely to be a star”.
Pate became a multi-winner on Tour, contested major titles and played two Ryder Cups. He did well but his “Volcano” nickname indicates that the success came at a cost.
Corey Pavin (nickname Bulldog) has won 27 titles worldwide including a famous US Open win in 1995, but he too has paid the a price for his success – so driven was he by the need to prove himself that it was only after the breakdown of his first marriage that he found true happiness, thanks to second wife Lisa.
Waldorf could have been the sort of golfer who is tortured not by success but by relative failure. Instead he has maintained a sunny disposition that is reminiscent of his shirts.
“If I had to rate my career because of how many wins I have I probably would be an unhappy guy,” he once said. “But I don’t look at it that way.”
“I go out there and enjoy playing the game. It’s important to look at yourself in a light-hearted way, and realise where golf sits in your life and where everything else sits too. It’s simple – I’m not a bad person if I play bad.”