Golf: Zoeller has the game to defeat pain: Guy Hodgson reports from Sandwich on a great golfer's long battle with a bad back

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WHAT IF? There is not a sportsman who has not wondered, not a golfer who has not inquired. Shots are mulled over, club selection analysed, mistakes regretted. But does anyone linger over the imponderable more than Fuzzy Zoeller?

The 'what if?' about the American is huge. He might have been one of the great players, a talent and a mind to match his contemporary and rival the five-times Open winner Tom Watson. He surely should have more than two major victories? Instead he has agonising pain in his back to add weight to his musings about how good he could have been.

At 42, there are probably not too many years left for him; perhaps a couple of real chances of chasing a great prize, more probably a final groan of protest from his spine, which has been buckling for more than a decade. 'If it goes, I'm crawling,' he said. 'I can't do anything but go to bed and hope it clears up in a couple of days.'

Only he knows how much pain he endures to play, no one can truly gauge what he might have done in the game if he had been able to swing free. In a good week he can practise what Nick Faldo will devote to a problem in a day. Yet he has won more than dollars 3.5m ( pounds 2.3m) in prize-money and only last year slipped out of the US Tour top 100 for the first time since his rookie season.

That is a true reference to his ability for a fully fit Zoeller is a rarity and has been so since he first incurred the injury in a basketball match at college. Even so he has the Masters of 1979 - the only man apart from the inaugural champion to win on his first trip to Augusta - and the US Open five years later as testimonials to his talent, and a gleam in his eye about the Open Championship at Royal St George's.

'I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I had a chance,' he said. 'I didn't go to Muirfield last year because I couldn't hit a shot. I couldn't beat my wife. I didn't travel because it would have been a waste of a place; I'd have been out of there after two days. Instead I let someone else get the opportunity to play.

'At this tournament I'm well placed and enjoying it. I'm playing well, so who knows? The desire is there for any golf tournament, never mind a major.'

It was well known that Zoeller had back problems but their extent was only revealed after his US Open play-off win over Greg Norman at Winged Foot. He arrived for the US PGA at Shoal Creek with the usual fuss accorded the national champion and left in an ambulance. On the day of the first round his back seized completely and he had to spend a week in hospital. He then attempted to make a comeback in Las Vegas, broke down again, and this time the diagnosis was ruptured discs.

Which makes anyone wonder why he risks permanent injury by continuing playing. 'I've a wife, four children, dogs, seven horses and 25 black Anguses to support,' he said, disingenuously, as his wife was a rich woman before they married. 'I enjoy the competitiveness,' he added. 'They tell me you miss that when you retire.'

Zoeller at Sandwich week has been a reminder of 1985, a tournament he regards as a missed opportunity. 'I had it won,' he said. 'I just had to post the card as far as I was concerned. Then I hit one of those humpty dumps that sent the ball off to the right into a bunker and that was it.' He finished four strokes adrift of the winner, Sandy Lyle.

'It's a difficult course,' he said, 'but I enjoy the challenge. If you slip up a bit you can make big numbers. You have to use your imagination because the course wears on your nerves and your patience. It looks so easy on certain holes and you feel like a fool when you mess up. You can be made to look a complete

idiot.'

So far Zoeller has been nobody's fool, providing echoes of Lee Trevino with his rapport with the gallery. With his sun- glasses and wide shoulders he has the look of a Mafia henchman and he has been making hits on the fairway with monotonous regularity. In the first round he did not stray into the rough once.

Asked what he used off the tees, he replied: 'When you get to 42 you don't bother with three woods or one irons. It's drivers every time.' On his back he says: 'It's nothing a couple of belts of vodka won't help.' They say that there are a few charcaters left in sport, but they say it without reference to him.

Alcohol and Zoeller, if not synonymous, have not been autonomous either. 'He turned pro in 1975 and for a while he did his very best to drink every tour stop dry and accommodate as many beautiful galleryites as humanly possible,' Maury White wrote in the Des Moines Register: which makes Zoeller's relationship with John Daly more interesting.

Zoeller was among the first to recognise the big-hitter's talent and is also someone who has laboured to cure his alcoholism. He regards Daly as the most exciting thing to hit the US Tour in the last decade but is equally aware of his problems. Occasionally he will test his younger friend's teetotalism, pressing him to drink while hoping he will continue to say no.

At the moment it is whether Zoeller's body rather than Daly's abstinence will hold up. 'I'm looking forward to the rest of the tournament,' Zoeller said. His enthusiasm suggested he will not be too far from the pounds 100,000 first prize today. The 'what if?' this week concerns where he will finish, not when.

(Photograph omitted)

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