LAS VEGAS — It is a different Fuzzy Zoeller who comes into the Panasonic Las Vegas Invitational golf tournament this year.
Less than six months ago, the reigning U.S. Open champion came to this event, the richest on the American PGA tour, as the defending titleholder.
Before it began, however, he departed. His body was twisted and contorted in pain and his career was in jeopardy.
Within a week, he underwent major back surgery.
Now, with the Las Vegas tournament moved into a new schedule slot (it begins today), Zoeller enters pain-free and, once again, the easy-going guy who has become one of the most popular figures on the tour.
"The last time I was here, I could barely walk. Now, the back is fine. No pain. No trouble," said Zoeller.
In only his third week of play following the operation, Zoeller won the Bay Hill tournament, his last previous start.
Zoeller now plans to play five consecutive weeks, through the Heritage tournament.
The official purse for this five-day, 90-hole tournament has been raised $50,000 to $950,000, the largest on the U.S. circuit. Another $92,000 will be distributed in pro-am prizes. The official winner's share is $171,000.
Should that winner be Mark O'Meara, however, the prize will more than double.
The sponsors announced a $250,000 bonanza to a player who couples a victory in this event with a triumph in either the Bob Hope Classic or Bing Crosby Pro-Am. Lanny Wadkins, winner of the Hope, is not playing here, but O'Meara is. He scored the first of two consecutive triumphs in the Crosby and only he has a shot at the quarter-million extra prize money.
The format calls for the field of 144 to play one round on each of three courses--Tropicana, Desert Inn and host Las Vegas Country Club.
After three rounds, both the pro and amateur fields are cut for a fourth round Saturday at Las Vegas CC. After four days, all amateurs drop out for the pros-only finish at Las Vegas CC Sunday.
Denis Watson of South Africa is the defending titleholder and heads a foreign field that includes Greg Norman and David Graham of Australia, Nick Price of South Africa, Bernhard Langer of West Germany and Sandy Lyle of Britain.
Among the leading Americans are Ray Floyd, Tom Kite, Johnny Miller, Larry Nelson, Craig Stadler, Curtis Strange, Jim Colbert, Fred Couples and Jim Colbert.
Portions of the final two rounds Saturday and Sunday will be televised nationally by NBC.