December 31, 2007

Backspin

Bowl Event Changed Abell's Life

Poolside at his Jupiter, Fla., home, Abell takes a break from his work with Nick Price.

Poolside at his Jupiter, Fla., home, Abell takes a break from his work with Nick Price.

In hindsight David Abell's runaway victory in the 1974 Orange Bowl International Junior looks merely like a great week by a hotshot 15-year-old. Abell, a sophomore at John Carroll High in Fort Pierce, Fla., became the youngest winner of the star-heavy tournament (Nick Price, Gary Hallberg and Hal Sutton were in the field), and his eight-stroke margin also was a tournament record.

"I had played really well all that year and had won quite a few events," Abell says, "and most of the time I beat the older guys. I knew I had a pretty good chance of winning."

For Abell, though, those four days outside Miami the week after Christmas produced more than a nice trophy and intense interest from college coaches. "The Orange Bowl really was the tipping point for everything that has happened to me," says Abell. "Without that, my life would have been so different." The Orange Bowl winner received a trip to South Africa to play in the South African PGA Championship and South African Open as a guest of Gary Player. "I had traveled a fair amount on my own doing the whole junior tournament thing," Abell recalls. "It was probably the wrong thing to do, but I could get around. So I took off for South Africa. When I got to the Johannesburg airport, there was no one there to pick me up. But I made my way to the golf course, found Gary, and said, 'Here I am.' "

A three-week visit turned into a six-week adventure. Abell stayed with the Player family, made the cut in the South African Open and became friends with Price. Already interested in "living and working on every continent," Abell now was even more keen on seeing the world.

But back home, Abell's peers caught up to him. "I was better when I was 14 or 15 because I worked harder than anyone else," he says. "Therefore, if you have a certain degree of athletic talent and a lot more energy than everybody, you're going to win. But then as your competitors get more interested and they start practicing more, they get better and you don't win as much. People begin asking, 'What happened?' "

Abell received an Arnold Palmer scholarship to Wake Forest, but his game stagnated. "By the middle of college, I was a par-shooter at best," says Abell. "Slowly but surely I lost the ability to improve because I tried so hard to meet expectations. [You don't] want to disappoint, then you get so results-oriented, you lose the joy of the game."

Abell played briefly overseas after turning pro but soon settled into life away from competition as director of golf at Gary Player CC in Sun City. He found himself a witness to controversy as Player's caddie in the inaugural Skins Game in 1983. Tom Watson accused Player of having attempted to reposition a "growing live weed root" next to his ball prior to playing a pivotal chip shot on the 16th hole. Player claimed he hadn't broken a rule.

"I've always thought Watson was wrong, that Gary was wrongly accused of cheating," says Abell. "I got to the ball first, and Gary asked me, 'What kind of lie do I have?' I said, 'You've got the perfect lie to hit the shot you need.' The ball was sitting on a patch of clover. It was sitting way up. Watson was totally off-base in this instance."

Abell worked in Sun City for five years, followed by seven years in southeast Asia developing resort properties. After returning to the United States in 1996, he became Price's business manager and partner at the Nick Price Group. "Other than Ely Callaway, I'm the luckiest guy in golf," says the 48-year-old Abell. "Gary Player was a huge influence. To know Mark McCormack was great. And Nick, without question, stands for all that is great in golf."