POTOMAC -- When he staggered off the final green and slumped in a chair in the scorer's tent, dazed and distraught after blowing last year's Kemper Open, most figured that things could not get any worse for Mark Wiebe.
Seemingly betrayed by a case of the yips, Wiebe had missed short putts for par on each of the last two holes to finish at 2-over 73 and lose by a shot to Justin Leonard.
A defeat such as the one Wiebe suffered at the TPC at Avenel might have been enough to sabotage his own career, one that had brought two victories and nearly $3 million over the 15 years he has played the PGA Tour.
It might have, if not for the response Wiebe received immediately afterward and for what he has experienced in the 51 weeks since. He has come to realize that the way he handled losing as well as some of life's other obstacles might enable him to win again, maybe even at this year's Kemper Open.
He received more than 100 faxes, phone calls and letters, including a special one from the legendary Byron Nelson, who wrote Wiebe and told him that every golfer misses putts like the 3-footers he had at 17 and 18. He also received an ovation the next day on the putting green at Congressional Country Club as he prepared for last year's U.S. Open. "It was all very emotional," said Wiebe, who has returned to Avenel this week for the $2 million event that begins today. "I wasn't prepared for it. It was an unbelievable response. It was kind of like I won."
One of the strangest things that happened came when he went out to practice at Congressional the next day. Who should be waiting for him on the first tee but Leonard. They wound up playing nine holes together and saying nothing about what had transpired the afternoon before.
"We talked about music and hockey," recalled Leonard, who shot a final-round 67 at Avenel to come from five shots back to win. "Maybe in a couple of years we can talk about it. It's not something I wanted to bring up, and it's something that he wanted to put behind him."
Not entirely. In the months that followed, Wiebe thoroughly investigated the problems that led to his shaky putting. Once considered among the tour's better putters, Wiebe initially blamed it in large part on the allergy medicine he had been taking during the month leading into the Kemper Open.
But in talking with Chuck Hogan, a Phoenix-based golf teacher and sports psychologist he had gone to from time to time during his career, Wiebe had recalled another incident that had taken place at home in Denver before he had even gone on the medication.
"I was trying to put up a toilet paper rack and I couldn't get the drill bit into the screw because my hands were shaking," Wiebe said. "It was pretty scary. I thought I could play through it, but it kept getting worse."
Hogan, who first thought Wiebe was suffering from "a classic case of the yips," asked one question that would lead to several more and eventually to figuring out what was causing the shakes. Hogan asked Wiebe if he had sustained any injuries in recent years.
Wiebe reminded Hogan of the shoulder problems he had experienced, first in 1991 and later reinjured in a skiing accident in 1994. Hogan, who also dabbles in applied kinesiology, began making adjustments to Wiebe's upper torso.
"There had been some damage done to the nervous system," said Hogan. "I took some of the kinks out of the routing."
Also complicating matters was a second bout with kidney stones in August, which forced Wiebe to withdraw from the PGA Championship at Winged Foot. The second place at Avenel was his only top 10 finish in a year in which he finished 85th on the money list.
After an off-season that included traveling with Denver neighbor John Elway and his beloved Broncos on their march to a Super Bowl victory, Wiebe finished tied for 10th at the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and then missed four straight cuts.
Wiebe took an MRI, which revealed two herniated disks in his back. The back problems, which flared up the week of a tournament in Greensboro, N.C., in late April, are now over after taking a couple of shots of anti-inflammatory drugs and steroids as well as physical therapy.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Wiebe said from Texas during the MasterCard Colonial Invitational two weeks ago, where he finished tied for 41st after missing the cut in his previous three events. "A lot of what I'm trying to do is keep myself in the right alignment."
As the result of conversations he had with Hogan as well as with a neurologist friend in Denver, Wiebe has also changed his putter and his putting grip, essentially going cross-handed. The doctor said that he had patients who by altering their environment a bit had found a way to do their jobs better.
"He told me about a trumpet player in an orchestra who couldn't play his instrument until he changed the mouthpiece he was using," said Wiebe. "I'm starting to see some results. I had some success at L.A. At New Orleans [in early April], I finished No. 1 in putting for the week."
Though he hasn't been in the hunt since that week at the Freeport-McDermott Classic, where he finished tied for third while being rooted on by his wife Kathy and their two children, Wiebe comes into this week's Kemper Open with a clear mind and a relatively pain-free body.
And while Leonard's victory at Avenel was the first of three in the past year -- all coming after trailing by five shots going into the final round -- Wiebe's defeat was a revelation of sorts.
"There are times when I get down, but it takes too much energy to get involved in negatives," said Wiebe, who played solidly last week at the Memorial Tournament and finished tied for 23rd. "Life is not always smooth in anything. Things like that are going to happen."
It also showed that many people, include the legendary Lord Byron, can relate to what Wiebe experienced. And, in some ways, it would make a victory in this year's Kemper Open that much sweeter.
Wiebe might be dating himself, but he remembers as a struggling young pro watching Jack Renner lose the 1983 Hawaiian Open when Isao Aoki chipped in for eagle-3 from 128 yards on the final hole, then seeing Renner come back the next year to win. "You need some good things to happen, but it's just a weird game," Wiebe said. "It just keeps us coming back for more."
Which is one of the reasons Wiebe will be coming back to Avenel this week, ready to avenge what happened to him there last year.
"I can't wait," he said.
Pub Date: 6/04/98