November 28, 2008

25 Paul Goydos

John Strege profiles the journeyman pro whose brainy banter provides cover for Job One: raising two teenage daughters

His is an intellect that suggest a learned man, one whose literary tastes run to what, Voltaire? Proust? "USA Today," Paul Goydos says, no kidding, calling it the best newspaper out there. Out there, as in out there in the hallway outside his hotel-room door?

"They have stuff they wouldn't put in The New York Times," he says. "I saw a headline, 'Man kills four involved in a love triangle.' The Times wouldn't write that. First of all, a love triangle is three people. How can you kill four people in a love triangle?"

The cookie cutter went missing the day golf turned out Goydos. Does he fit anyone's notion of a PGA Tour player -- visually, artistically or otherwise? Golf Digest fashion director Marty Hackel once called him the worst dressed player on tour, but when you're 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds and your shoulders slope like a black diamond ski run, is Giorgio Armani really the answer?

2008 NEWSMAKERS OF THE YEAR • #25-Paul Goydos-A profile of the journeyman • #24-Olympics and Golf • #23-Amateur Winners • #22-George O'Grady • #21-Drug Testing • #1-The Tiger-Rocco U.S. Open Playoff

Goydos is bound to clash no matter what he wears. He is a singles hitter in a game that has evolved into Home Run Derby, and he favors the left side of the political fairway on a tour that overwhelmingly finds that route too taxing. Then there's this (brace yourself): He even had a job once. He was a substitute teacher long before Hank Haney standing in for Butch Harmon annexed its definition.

Yet what sets Goydos apart from his tour brethren has more to do with his brain than his biography. "He's one of the most sarcastic, quick-witted, intelligent people you've ever met," his friend and fellow PGA Tour player Steve Flesch says.

Goydos' mind comes with an extra gear that spontaneously enables him to turn what otherwise would be a mundane observation into high comedy. Playing Oakland Hills isn't just difficult, by his reckoning, it's like "playing Scrabble without the vowels."

If only repartee was redeemable for FedEx Cup points. Without a proper stage, its value is negligible beyond evoking laughter from friends at dinner. Goydos' wit always has begged for a wider audience, which for a journeyman who has produced two victories 11 years apart mostly had eluded him. Then in May fate provided him a forum commensurate to his skill. Three rounds into the Players, Goydos was its leader, earning him a sit-down interview with NBC's Bob Costas, who asked him whether he had ever held a 54-hole lead before.

"No," Goydos replied in his best deadpan, "but I've only been out here 16 years." The following morning, Costas put him on the air again and asked how he had slept. "On my back," Goydos said.

Goydos later wondered whether on the latter question his impulsive irreverence had been the wrong tone for the occasion. "If I'd wanted to be funny," he explains, "I'd have said, 'In the fetal position.' "

It was in fact the perfect pitch, resonating with the audience, the equivalent of a "Tonight Show" moment for a comic used to performing only for his peers. Goydos eventually lost to Sergio Garcia on the first playoff hole, but the grace with which he handled his defeat (a role he had been practicing for his whole career, he might have noted wryly) served only to burnish his newfound image as a player worth watching. Or hearing.

At that, there is more to Goydos than meets the ear, a sobering side born of real-world issues that mute the laughter. Even as the Players has generated new opportunities (he will play in the Australian PGA and Australian Open for the first time), he is disinclined to accept many of them. He doesn't like to commit, he says, because, well, then he's committed.

It makes sense only when you consider that he is a single father of two teenage daughters -- Chelsea, 18, and Courtney, 16 -- who might require his attention at home. "I'm still a parent first and a professional golfer second," he says, and his credentials in that regard will withstand any challenge.

When he and his wife divorced, he was awarded custody of the girls, whose mother, Goydos says, "has a substance abuse problem that she's fighting through." Goydos' first act was to take a year off from tournament golf (2004), aware the decision potentially could jeopardize his career. "That wasn't in the forefront of my mind," he says. "It was time for me to step up as a parent and show my kids that they are the most important thing on the face of this earth."

Chelsea and Courtney Goydos

Hold your applause, he says. He agrees his situation is analogous to Bobby Jones deflecting praise for calling a penalty on himself, equating it to praising a man for not robbing a bank. "I can't imagine a parent who's financially able to do it who wouldn't do it," Goydos says. "If they wouldn't, that says volumes about our society and where we need to go."

Goydos, 44, played in only two events in '04 (after averaging 29 starts his first 11 seasons), earning $19,366. Still, he says it was the best year of his career, better than '07, when he earned $1.2 million, or '08, when he earned $1.6 million. The returns on his investment of time were manifold. He helped out in his kids' classrooms; he took them to the mall to buy clothes. "All the stuff you take for granted," he says.

"The downside to my job is that you do some absentee parenting," he says. "But at the end of that year, not only had I gotten to know my kids better, they had gotten to know me a little better. They got to see a different side of Dad, not just Dad home from work."

Goydos laments only that their mother largely has been unable to be there for them as well. "There's a reason why we have two parents, not just biological reasons," he says. "It's having two perspectives. I'm not right all the time, as much as I want to think I am. Having two people who are committed, that's good for your kids. My kids only have one parent to an extent. I can't do as good a job as two people can do."

That said, his has not been a solo journey. "Single is an interesting word," he says, debunking the phrase "single parent." Goydos has had extensive help from his ex-wife's family, including his former mother-in-law, who when Goydos is traveling stays at his home in Coto de Caza, Calif., and looks after the girls. "The reality is, I've got a sister-in-law and brother-in-law and grandmother that, without them, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

His daughters travel with him occasionally. He took them to Las Vegas for the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, though they were more interested in Timberlake's concert than Dad's golf. Each brought a friend, too. "Four teenage girls in the room next to me for two days," Goydos says. "Good thing I missed the cut. They had a great time. They are already looking forward to going again next year. Great. My kids want to go to Vegas. Isn't that terrific?"

An instant affinity to Sin City notwithstanding, "They're doing great, all things considered," says Patrick Burke, a former PGA Tour player who lives near Goydos and is among his closest friends. Chelsea is a freshman at Saddleback College near the family's home, while Courtney is a high school junior already pondering college choices.

"We used to talk about that, family first," Burke says. "Golf is a miserable life for a family. We both agreed, if our families couldn't take it, we'd quit."

Trying times are not reflected in Goydos' performance; his most lucrative years, and some of his better golf, have all come post-divorce. In his last event of 2006, he finished T-2 to jump from 160th to 97th on the money list, giving him a full exemption in 2007. He won the Sony Open in Hawaii at the outset of '07, and then, of course, nearly won the Players this year.

"I don't know how he did it," Burke says. "I went through a few things, very minor, but it took so much of my focus away. He has an amazing ability to set it aside and go out and play."

Goydos' greatest asset is his ability to harness what talent he has and squeeze it dry. He was 19th in driving accuracy in 2008, but otherwise his statistics argue that he ought to find another line of work: 190th in driving distance, 151st in greens in regulation, 116th in putting.

"He's the real-estate broker in your office without a lot of flash," says his friend and long-time mentor Jamie Mulligan, a prominent teaching pro from Virginia CC in Long Beach, Calif. "But he's always closing more deals than anyone else. There's an intangible in playing, the ability to navigate yourself around the golf course with what you've got that day to work with. Paul had that when he was 15."

Goydos is a native of Long Beach who graduated from Long Beach State and took on substitute teaching for $100 a day to help bridge the gap between tour schools. He taught high-school classes in Long Beach, some of them at schools in gang-infested areas of the inner city.

Says Goydos: "A 13-year-old kid, his parents working 60 hours a week in different jobs, barely paying for a two-bedroom apartment, good, hard-working people, and a 20-year-old on the corner has a BMW, five different girls, having the time of his life, tells the 13-year-old to raise your left hand if you see the police and for that he gives him a hundred dollars. His parents don't make that kind of money. That's a bad kid? Are you kidding me? He's a smart kid. It's a systemic problem. I'd probably make the same choice. I kind of took that out of that job."

Goydos may have learned more than he taught. "He's got a lot of intelligence about him, but he saw a lot of things," Burke says. "Our biggest struggle growing up in New Jersey was whether we could afford to go to a Rangers game. Paul was working with kids whose biggest struggle was that someone they knew just got killed. There are plenty of guys who play at being book smart. Paul has a little more real-world intelligence, some down-home intelligence."

As often as not, his intelligence manifests itself in humor, delivered expeditiously, as when he took note at the Players that he was hitting twice the club Garcia was hitting -- say, a 4-iron to Garcia's 8. "Do you think we have a problem," Goydos said to his caddie, "when his clubs are divisible my mine?"

"The best line I've ever heard," Burke says.

Who else would ponder course architect Rees Jones' impact on golf and conclude that if Jones landscaped his home the mailman wouldn't be able to find the mailbox because he would have moved it back 40 yards? "Off the top of his head," Flesch says admiringly. However his career unfolds from here, suffice it to say that Goydos won't be operating in the kind of obscurity in which he once toiled. Strangers recognize him now, as one apparently did a few weeks ago when he took Goydos' picture in an Orange County mall.

Four years ago Goydos' assignment in his daughter's classroom was to ensure the students actually had read the books they were doing reports on. One of the kids brought in Open by John Feinstein, based on the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black. "My picture is in the book," Goydos says. "I was player one at Bethpage, first off the first tee the first day. I open the book and point to the picture. 'Who's that?' The kid hadn't quite put two and two together. I'm in the book and I'm standing next to the picture and the kid doesn't recognize me. Now they recognize me in airports."