The Price of Fame
Nick Price sounded as though he was completely enjoying a break from his rigorous PGA Tour schedule when I caught up with him in early June at his home in Hobe Sound, Fla. The 46-year-old native of South Africa, who grew up in Zimbabwe, is attacking the game more like a 30-something these days. There's no sign that the affable Price, winner of 18 Tour events (including three Majors) and 24 international tournaments, will slide quietly into the Champions Tour.
Why should he? He won The Colonial Invitational in 2002 and led the EDS Byron Nelson Championship down the stretch this past May before losing to the Anti-Annika--Vijay Singh--by a stroke. Price, who had just come off playing 29 straight days of golf, was also happy to be sitting back and basking in the well deserved emotional sunlight of having been selected to enter the World Golf Hall of Fame this October. It is a fitting and somewhat overdue tribute to a man who not only was and still is a superb player, but also one of golf 's greatest ambassadors--a true class act if there ever was one. "When Tim Finchem phoned to tell me that I had been selected for the Hall of Fame it was a very, very special day," said Price. "It's great to be honored, but it is also a honor for all the people who have helped me along the way. People like my wife (Susan), David Leadbetter and the rest of my family and friends. It is a time for me to say thanks and when I give my speech, I will frame it around these feelings that I have." The fact that it took the selection committee so long to formally recognize Price's contributions to the game may have been due in part to his continuing stature as one of the best players on Tour. "I have to say I thought when Payne (Stewart) and Greg (Norman) got in that I might be with them. Last year I was disappointed that I was not selected. But I guess the committee thought that I was still very active and that my time would come." Indeed, the man with the perfect hair and a swing to match, is a threat to win any tournament he enters. That's about 20 a year at this point in his career. In addition to his near miss at the Byron Nelson, he had two other top five finishes through May and had amassed almost $1.4 million in earnings. Last year, he surpassed $2 million in winnings for the first time in his career. While Price has curtailed his Tour schedule somewhat, he has maintained a dedicated practice schedule, and has the feelings of a champion still tingling in his hands. "The desire is still there," Price said after returning to our conversation following a brief phone chat with his wife. (The couple have four children--Gregory, Robyn, Frances, and Kimberly Rae). "I don't work as hard as I once did, but I still put my time in on the range. And I know more about my game than I ever have and it's more refined that it has ever been." He continued, "The one thing I have noticed as I have gotten older is that I canít go out and, say, shoot back to back 64's in a tournament. It's more like a 64 followed by a 68. If I have one weakness this year it is my driver. Because the courses are longer I'm trying to hit the driver harder. I've gone from a 43-inch shaft to a 44 and a quarter inch shaft and the idiosyncrasies in my swing seem to come out more with a longer club. Apart from the driver, I feel like I'm hitting the ball, scrambling and putting as well as I ever have." Price did it all very, very well from the early to mid-1990's when he was the best golfer on the planet. His 15 victories tied Tiger Woods for the most by any player during the 1990's, and he was the PGA Tour Player of the Year in 1993 and 1994. In '94, he won six times, including the British Open and PGA Championship. He also won the 1992 PGA Championship and has been a member of four President's Cup teams. In a testament to his remarkable consistency, Price has finished in the top 50 on the money list for 17 seasons in row coming into the 2003 campaign. The 6-foot, 190-pound Price also developed a reputation as simply one of the nicest people in the game, beloved by fellow competitors, fans and the media, which has rarely had a harsh word to say about him. In an age when professional golfers seem to switch it on auto pilot and block galleries from their world, Price waves and beams smiles in all directions. Last year, he was the first recipient of the ASAP Sports/Jim Murray Award, given to a professional player for his "cooperation, quoteability and accommodation to the media and for reflecting the most positive aspects of the working relationship between athlete and journalists." "Sportsmanship has always been very important to me," said Price. "When I hang my clubs up I would like people to say that I was a credit to the game and a true sportsman." Price has tried to give back to the game in numerous ways, one of which is making sure youngsters have equipment and a place to learn and play the game. "I started playing golf at a semi-private course where visitors were always welcome and we paid non-member dues. If I didn't have that access to a course, I probably never would have started playing golf. So one of the things I have done over the years is make sure kids have that access. Where I came from, golf was inexpensive and it still is. But what kids need is equipment and I've put my efforts into providing that for youngsters." He added, "What Tiger and the Tour has done with the First Tee program has been great. We needed someone like Tiger and the Tour to take golf to the inner cities where it is difficult for kids to even dream of being on a golf course. I'm really happy that that part of the game is growing on a daily basis. Unfortunately, it is getting more expensive to build courses because of escalating land prices, so owners have to charge higher greens fees. All in all though, I think the state of the game is still very healthy. I see more high school-aged kids playing, and I like nothing better than to rive by a golf course in the early evening and see a father with his son hitting balls." Price owes an innovative equipment manufacturer with at least part of the renaissance in his game. He has developed a beneficial professional arrangement with Sonartec and has been playing a slightly modified version of the company's SS03 fairway wood. He signed a modest endorsement deal with the California-based company and is actively involved in the design and testing of several clubs that will be hitting the market in the near future, including a revamped driver. "I was playing in a tournament in Japan," recalled Price, who has also worked closely with Precept in the development of that company's line of golf balls. "A couple of guys were using a new fairway wood on the range. I looked at the club, liked the shape of it and tried it out. I started using it and when I got back to the states, Sonartec and I got in touch with one another and one thing to led to another. They wanted to enhance their presence on the U.S. Tour and asked if I would be interested in signing a contract with them. The best contracts in the world are the ones where you love the clubs and they ask you to play them for pay." Price credited the Sonartec fairway wood with helping him win last year's Colonial and for his steady play over the past year. "To be honest with you, itís the best three-wood that I have ever used. I love the design. It allows me to hit the ball 265 yards, but also gives me the ability to cut the ball and hit it 235 yards. A three wood has to be multi-dimensional and this club performs exceptionally well. Sonartec has been able to match the spin rate with the launch angle in their fairway woods and it gives Price isn't surprised by the success Sonartec has had on Tour. "I think there are 26 players using the company's fairway woods on the PGA Tour, and as they say, the proof is always in the pudding. Guys don't put clubs in their bags unless it is a great golf club." Price, who has collaborated on golf course design with Tom Fazio and now owns his own design company, Nick Price Design, revels in the hands-on approach that his relationship with Sonartec has allowed him. "It's a lot of fun trying to take your expertise and incorporate it into a club that performs well and is aesthetically pleasing. As a skilled player, I can tell very quickly how a club is performing or not performing. I helped design a new driver that will be coming out in a few months, and hopefully it will take off like the fairway woods have. It's been a pleasure working with the Sonartec people. They have been open to suggestions and they understand there is a form to follow in the equipment business. You just donít go from the outhouse to the penthouse in a few weeks." Nick Price is clearly a man at peace with himself and the world around him. While he still loves to compete on the golf course, he balances that part of his life with dedication to family and the pursuit of simple pleasures such as fishing, water skiing, tennis and flying. "I'm playing only 20 weeks of the year, so I have 32 weeks off to spend with my family and enjoy life. I'm basically living the good life," he said with an infectious chuckle. "As for continuing to play, one of the things that drives guys in their 40's is that we are playing for more money now than we ever have. I can understand how the guys on the Champions Tour feel. Back in the 1970's, there wasn't much reward for continuing to play. There is much more of a reward now." Price is also still driven by the Holy Grail of golf--the Majors. He believes he can still win at that very highest level of competition. "The world ranking has allowed someone like myself to remain exempt for all the Majors. As long as I am exempt, I will continue to practice hard. Nicklaus, Irwin and Floyd all won Majors in their mid to late 40's. I would love to win another Major. It would be a crowning achievement, a cherry on the cake." Although the cake has tasted very good indeed, Price isnít about to become complacent, even surrounded by the finest trappings of life. "I have always believed I was given a talent by God, which I have nurtured over the years. I donít want to sit back and say to myself when I'm older that I didn't take advantage of all the opportunities I was given. I'm going to fill all the time that I have." For golf fans everywhere, that's good news.