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Profile: Driven by the green effect: Nick Price

LAST weekend Nick Price arrived back at his Orlando home after three months on the road, in the air and on the golf course. He was greeted by a mountain of mail. 'I should get through it all just before the Open in July,' he joked. Given the season he had last year it is small wonder that friends and fans have inundated him with congratulations. Given the kind of man he is it is no surprise that he will reply to them all personally.

'He's a gentleman,' Seve Ballesteros says. 'Nick is proof that you don't have to be a jerk to be a good player,' Tom Kite adds. This is the player who relinquished his favourite putter rather than let down a sponsor at the US Open last year. Price's golf is admirable, too. His coach, David Leadbetter, who also teaches Nick Faldo, has called his 'the best-sounding strike in golf - if you watch and listen to him hitting iron shots, the ball comes off the clubhead like a bullet'.

Price was the leading money- winner on the US tour last year with a record dollars 1,478,557. He was also the tour's player of the year and recipient of the Vardon Trophy for having the lowest stroke average - 69.11. (Greg Norman's average was 68.90 but he did not play enough rounds to be eligible.) He won four times in the US and twice in South Africa, where in December he obliterated a quality field at Sun City by 12 shots with what he called 'the finest four rounds I have ever put together'.

'I feel I've got a good chance to win more majors,' says Price, who took the 1992 US PGA Championship, 'but I don't think I will ever win four times in one season in the States again. Last year was just incredible. Topping the money list was a special honour.' Norman and Gary Player are the only other foreigners to have done it.

Last summer, Price was in such impressive form he won three consecutive US tour events, causing Norman to say 'he's in a different league', and Davis Love to comment at one tournament: 'I guess the best reason for playing here this week is that Nick Price isn't'

Price has not been playing many places so far this year. An attack of tendinitis - the same wrist injury that has plagued Faldo - caused him to withdraw from the Johnnie Walker Asia Classic and the Australian Masters last month, and that after he had finished second and first in his two starts in South Africa in January, the latter after an opening 61, the lowest round of his career. His doctor will decide whether he is fit enough to embark upon his American campaign at Doral next week, but Price is confident he will soon be restored to full working order.

Ask Price his goal for 1994 and his response is a hearty 'to win all four majors'. First priority is the green jacket of the Masters in April. Last year Price went to Augusta as favourite, having just won the Players' Championship with some glittering golf. He shot 72-81 to miss the cut horribly. 'I think I learned from that experience,' he says. 'If it happened again, I would handle it a lot better. The hardest thing about winning a major championship is peaking at the right time. You have to be playing your best golf - a nine out of 10, or even a 10, to win. I was close to that last year.' He finished 11th at the US Open - where that putter swap may have been instrumental in him taking 128 putts to the 112 of the winner, Lee Janzen - and sixth at the Open.

The reliability of Price's long game elicits plaudits from his peers. Jim Gallagher, who won the US Tour Championship last year, said: 'You can't have your 'A' game every week. If you did, you'd play like Nick Price.' Price has an explanation for his consistency. 'I'm a purist when it comes to technique, just like Nick Faldo. We've both had that instilled in us by David Leadbetter, because if your technique is good, you can get away with murder on the course. If you've got the fundamentals in order, you can swing like crap and still play well.'

It took Price a long time to reap the rewards of his hours on the practice range. After an encouraging junior career, he joined the European Tour in 1979 and won the Swiss Open two years later. He started working with Leadbetter in 1982, and won the World Series of Golf in 1983, his first year on the US Tour. But his successes were sporadic. He was close to winning the Open in 1982 and 1988, but final-round leads went begging, and he did not win again in the United States until May 1991. Since then, he's done it eight times.

'What I am really excited about is that I feel my game is still improving. I feel I'm learning more about my swing - eradicating mistakes, honing and fine-

tuning all the time. Even when I'm playing badly, I'm out there working on stuff that's going to enhance my game.' He took a five-week holiday after his demolition job at Sun City, and it will encourage hackers everywhere to learn that even someone who can play the game as brilliantly as Price harbours similar anxieties. 'There's always doubt in your mind when you take time off,' he says. 'You wonder what will happen when you come back.' What happened to him was that 61 and a nine-shot win, so there ends the comparison. But Price also acknowledges another sensation that will be familiar to many golfers. 'It's in the short game that it takes most time for your feel to return.'

Before the tendinitis flare-up, Price felt he had achieved what he wanted. 'Winning in Pretoria showed I had picked up where I left off at Sun City. I feel I've been working on the right things.' Leadbetter adds: 'He has such confidence in his game now that I can see no reason why he can't even improve on last year.'

The only thing Price does wrong, or at least politically incorrect, is smoke, which is close to being a capital offence in the US. In southern Africa, he has a sponsorship deal with Camel, but he wouldn't dare do likewise in the States. 'They have so many anti-smoking laws. If America spent half the money it spends against smoking on an anti-drugs campaign, maybe it would sort out a few problems. I'm not proud of the fact I smoke, it is a bad habit, but if I'm stupid enough to do it, that is my problem.' He gets through about six a round, but that can go up if he is playing badly.

Price turned 37 in January. Born in Durban of British parents, he now lives in Florida. His only outward display of ostentation is a private plane that he regards as more of a necessity than a luxury, one he says he is lucky to be able to afford in order to spend more time with his wife, Sue, and two young children, Gregory and Robyn.

He bought his latest plane off Norman, a good friend, which leads to a curious tale. Last October, Price was at San Francisco airport, on his way home from the Tour Championship after a lacklustre performance and resigned to being beaten for the money title by Norman. 'Greg's pilot came up to me and said: 'Greg has bogeyed two of the last three holes to lose.' ' That meant Gallagher won the tournament and Price headed the money list.

Price and Norman go back some time together. In 1986, they were the final pairing on Masters Sunday, Price having set a course record of 63 the previous day. Then, their ambitions were thwarted by a rampaging Jack Nicklaus. This year, it would be no surprise if they were again in the last group, but with one of them emerging victorious. 'I'm really looking forward to Augusta,' Price says. 'That was such a huge disappointment last year.' And while he wants to win all four majors, as he says, 'any one of them would do'. Tendinitis permitting, the Masters would do nicely.