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Austin Returns to Defend Buick

By Brian Wright

Say hello to Woody Austin, 1995 Buick Open Champion and PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.

Woody and his wife Shannon recently purchased a house in Lee's Summit, MO and now call this Kansas City suburb home. Austin, a Tampa, Florida native (and former credit union teller) had a stellar year in 1995 and '96 is looking to be just as productive.

Shannon, who was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas had a big part in the decision to move to Kansas City.

"We wanted to be closer to my family, but Wichita is so hard to fly in and out of for a Tour player," says Shannon. "We were trying to decide between Tulsa or Kansas City and found what we liked in Lee's Summit."

A longtime friend of Shannon's dad who lives in Lee's Summit (his best friend from high school) helped convince them that Kansas City is a great place to make a home.

"We've always scrimped and saved so Woody could achieve his goal of making the PGA Tour. We're still trying to get used to having enough money to even afford our own home," she adds.

Success has changed many things for the Austins. Shannon now manages the business side of Woody's golf career_which includes travel arrangements, corporate outings, tournament schedules, endorsements, interviews, photo shoots_all those day-to-day details that many people don't realize a touring pro must cope with. Although she has never tried anything like this before, she is extremely organized and has great public relations skills, two traits one must possess to be successful in any management position.

"I was always used to working hard and having my own money," Shannon said. "It's challenging trying to manage Woody's schedule, but I wanted to have a job and contribute to Woody's career. It also gives me something to do on the road."

Shannon and Woody met in '91 at the Nike Tour Wichita Open and have been a team ever since.

"I was in Wichita visiting my nieces and nephews. My sister and her husband lived right off the fairway at Reflection Ridge where the Nike event was being held," said Woody. "I wasn't exempt for the tournament and hadn't planned on trying to qualify. My sister and some friends talked me into playing in the Monday qualifier. I didn't make the cut, but I did meet Shannon," he explains. We just hit it off and were married Labor Day Weekend in '93."

Woody's journey to the top of the PGA Tour has been well-documented. Woody worked as a credit union teller in Tampa while Shannon worked as a hair stylist to pay the bills and the entry fees for golf tournaments. They both held night jobs as well. And, now, all the hard work has paid off.

Austin finished 24th on the official PGA Tour money list in 1995 with $736,497 in earnings. He was the only rookie to win a PGA Tour event (Buick Open at Westchester CC) and had seven top ten finishes. Not bad for a guy who in '94 was 23rd on the Nike Tour money list with $72,206 in earnings. Not to take anything away from his '94 season, though. He was the medalist finishing first at the 1994 PGA Tour Qualifying School. Since then he has taken his game to a higher level.

Austin admits that the Buick victory last August was a bit unexpected. "I'm not a 'go-low' kind of guy so that first round 63 was a nice surprise," said Austin. "I putted well that week which usually is not my strength." Still when he teed off on Sunday, Austin was three shots behind leader Jeff Sluman. "I really didn't think about winning until I made birdie on 16 and then noticed Sluman had bogied 13 and 14," said Austin. "Until then, I was just hoping for a good top 5 finish."

In the two hole playoff, Austin beat fellow rookie and compatriot Mike Brisky with a par on the 10th hole at Warwick Hills. "As far as handling playoff pressure, it was relatively easy because I knew Mike so well. Mike's a friend and so I felt bad for him," said Austin. "Winning is a nice feeling_it's great to prove to yourself and others that you belong out here."

In analyzing his own game, Woody says his strong points are his approach shots and distance off the tee. In 1995 he finished 9th on the Tour in driving distance and 2nd in birdies. You understand the accuracy of his approach shots when you see that Austin was 151st in putting in '95.

"My putting and chipping stink," he admits. "Luckily, my approach shots are very accurate and often I have putts of three or four feet for birdie. I'm still trying to get use to the speed of the greens. It's a big transition from the Nike Tour. The greens are extremely fast on the PGA Tour."

You would think that Woody would feel like he belongs on the Tour after '95, but he's not about to become complacent. It's just not part of his personality. The first to admit that he is his own worst critic, Austin pushes himself extremely hard to be the best. He has been known to even hit himself when he makes a bone-head decision on the golf course.

"My biggest problem is I'm too hard on myself, but I'm working on it. Even though I won Rookie of the Year, I seem to remember the 11 bad tournaments I played more than my good ones. I'm a perfectionist. It's nice to have that trophy to look at to remind me of my accomplishments," Austin said.

Maybe he is hard on himself, but it's his persistence and competitiveness that have gotten him where he is. He's never content with his game, and he definitely never gives up.

For '96, Woody plans on playing in at least as many events as he did in '95 when he played an aggressive schedule of 34 events. He started this year by playing in the Mercedes, an event for which only a win on the PGA Tour the previous year will gain you a playing spot. Through the U.S. Open, Woody already has had three top ten finishes, and is 25th on the Official PGA Tour money list with earnings of just over $380,000. Looks like no sophomore jinx for this guy. He is obviously a player who pushes himself to the limit every start, and is quickly gaining the respect of his peers on the PGA Tour.

"I never had an instructor. I just read magazines and watched videos_particularly Jack Nicklaus," says Austin who was a two-time All-American at the University of Miami. "I learn from watching others and absorbing information. Now, on the Tour, I like to watch Mark O'Meara hit balls on the practice range. He has a beautiful swing."

And what about that bad putting? Austin seems to be adjusting to the big Tour just fine, moving from a dismal 159th on the Tour in '95 to his current ranking to date of 54th.

"I'm playing pretty good this year but I'm still making too many mental mistakes," Austin said. "My short game has gotten a lot better. I just need to eliminate those mental errors. Overall, I feel good about my game."

So far, one of the biggest thrills for Austin in '96 was playing in his first Masters for which he qualified by winning a PGA Tour event and finishing in the top 30 on the '95 money list.

"Even though my game wasn't quite ready for Augusta it was a tremendous experience for Shannon and me," Austin says. "It's amazing how hard of a golf course Augusta is," Austin reflects. "I'd never been to Augusta even though I grew up not too far away. Television just doesn't do it justice."

Austin plays well on tough, tight courses such as Southern Hills in Tulsa (tied for 4th at the 1995 PGA Tour Championship), Westchester in New York and Riviera in Los Angeles.

At the U.S. Open last month, Austin had a fine tournament finishing tied for 23rd place. Austin was tied with Payne Stewart after a first round 67 at grueling Oakland Hills. In fact, he was still in contention when he made the turn for the final nine holes on Sunday. But a disastrous stretch on the first five holes on the back side_going bogey, par, bogey, double, double_ruined his chances for a much lower finish if not the outright title. At Oakland Hills the final statistics showed that Austin ended up at 104th place (out of 108 players) in putting, averaging 33.2 putts per round. Not surprisingly, however, he was second in Greens Hit in Regulation_hitting 55 out of 72 greens for the week. For sure, the Open convinced many observers that Austin's ball-striking skills are exemplary and that his Buick victory last August was no fluke. v

This article originally appeared in Kansas City Golf Magazine this spring. Brian Wright is the editor. Terry Moore provided an update.

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