LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Disney golf courses already are loaded with lakes and ponds, and steady rain over the last several days have left the Magnolia and Palm courses under water in spots.
A perfect place for the return of Aquaman.
Woody Austin has not played since his memorable week at the Presidents Cup, when he took a dive for the U.S. team. More than any shot he hit in his best season on the PGA Tour, Austin might forever be remembered for losing his balance trying to hit from the bank of a lake at Royal Montreal and falling face-first into the water.
“Everybody I see now has to make a comment about it,” he said at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic, which begins Thursday. “I guess everybody wants to call me ‘Aquaman’ instead of Woody, but everybody is quick to throw out their quips about the water.”
He’d much rather hear about making three straight birdies after his dive to earn an improbable halve in his match, but that’s not likely to happen. He was on the cover of two golf magazines – one photo of him taking the plunge, another of him in goggles.
Don’t get the idea Austin can’t laugh at himself. Another magazine recently met with Austin for a photo shoot, and had him wear a wet suit, a mask and flippers.
“I’m not afraid to laugh at myself,” Austin said.
The former bank teller is laughing all the way to the bank this year, at a career-best No. 14 on the money list with over $2.8 million.
He is a rarity in many ways at this tournament, which is the ultimate example of the haves and have-nots. Austin is among 10 players at Disney who were at the Tour Championship, making the CMN Classic perhaps the strongest field of the Fall Series. Most of the others are well down the money list, needing a big week to simply keep their jobs.
Ted Purdy is at No. 125, while Tripp Isenhour is in a more precarious spot at No. 151. Isenhour will have no exempt status if he doesn’t at least make the cut this week, although he appeared loose on the practice range when he pulled out a mask of Bill Clinton.
Other players are here for the theme parks, such as Scott Verplank.
“I got bullied into being here by a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 3-year-old,” Verplank said with a laugh.
Austin would seem to fall into that category with two sons, 9 and 7. But they stayed home, more interested in starting their indoor soccer season than going to Disney.
Stranger still for Austin is this represents a homecoming of sort. While the majority of tour players live in Florida, few of them were born here. What’s odd about Austin is that he is a native of Tampa, and moved away to Kansas.
“Most of your tour players do live in Florida, and most of them are transplants,” Austin said. “I live in Wichita for one reason and one reason only. And that’s because she wants to live there.”
The “she” would be his wife, Shannon, who grew up in the Wichita area and met Austin at a Nike Tour event. They moved to Kansas City so she could be close to home when he was on the road, and they moved to Derby, a small suburb outside Wichita, when they had kids.
“It’s a great place to raise your family, my boys love it and I’m around family,” Woody said.
There’s only one drawback.
“I can’t practice when I want,” Austin said.
He still hasn’t forgotten that first moment when he knew he wasn’t in Florida anymore. It was his first winter in Kansas City, coming off his second year on tour. Austin walked into the kitchen and his wife asked him what he planned to do that day.
“I looked outside and it looked like an absolutely beautiful day,” he said. “And I looked at the temperature and I said, ‘I don’t know. What do you when it’s 27 degrees outside?’ I don’t know what to do. At that point, I had lived my entire life in Florida.”
He still hasn’t figured it out, and that’s why the first part of the year has been a struggle.
Austin shuts it down after the season, usually starting his year at the Bob Hope Classic and arriving early enough to get in some practice. Even when the week is over, he still comes home to usually frigid weather.
He thinks that’s why he started so slowly this year. But he sure had no qualms with how his season ended.
He won the Stanford St. Jude Classic for his third career victory, then challenged Tiger Woods in words and deeds at the PGA Championship, finishing two shots behind. His runner-up finish in a major was enough for him to earn the 10th and final spot on the Presidents Cup team, and he sure made a splash.
Austin doesn’t have much to gain at Disney. He’ll be eligible for all the majors in 2008 for the first time in a dozen years. The only golf left on his schedule after this is the Merrill Lynch Shootout, his first silly-season event.
But it’s good to be home.
“I grew up down the road,” he said. “I like coming back home. I get a chance to say ‘Hi’ to old friends and little bits of family that are still around. I always loved Florida, loved the heat. It’s nice to get out of Wichita once in a while and get back to my roots.”