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Elkington hoping to return to 1995 form

He never thought golf should be painful, not with a swing as sweet as his.

Steve Elkington couldn't understand why he had to ice his hip after a round, why he had so little energy for anything else after a short day of work, why he lost some of his power and eventually some of his confidence.

"Golf is supposed to be -- for someone who swings like me -- just play 18 holes and run around,'' he said. "The game of golf for me should be like falling out of bed.''

That's the way it was when Elkington won the PGA Championship at Riviera in 1995 and was awarded the Vardon Trophy for having the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour.

That's the way he hopes it will be again.

Dragged down by so many injuries that he stopped counting, Elkington followed the advice of his fellow Australian, Greg Norman. He had arthroscopic hip surgery in August by Marc Philippon, the same Florida doctor who operated on Norman.

The surgery might be the biggest craze to hit golf since titanium drivers.

Norman had his surgery after the U.S. Open, came back five weeks later and nearly won The International. Jesper Parnevik had it two weeks ago and hopes to return in time for the Tour Championship.

Elkington didn't win the Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens, but he felt every bit as optimistic about the future as David Duval.

It was his second tournament after surgery to repair what he called a "bucket handle'' tear in his labrum. Rounds of 66-68 on the weekend gave him a top-10 finish for the first time this year.

"My hip is so smooth. It's like being 15 again,'' Elkington said. "I think it's just a matter of time before I put four rounds together and get my confidence back. It's hard to believe it feels so good.''

The hip wasn't all that plagued Elkington.

He twice has taken time off with sinus problems, including surgery that kept him from defending his title in The Players Championship in 1998.

A year ago, he was within five strokes of the lead going into the final round of the Shell Houston Open when he had to withdraw because of meningitis. He missed Houston this year after injuring his wrist.

But the hip is what held him back the most, a small tear that probably began in late 1995 and got progressively worse each year. Whether he could have done anything about it any sooner is hard to say because the surgery is relatively new.

Along with three top golfers, others who have had the surgery include Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler and gold medal figure skater Tara Lipinski.

Steve Elkington earlier this year at the Doral Ryder Classic. .Allsport.

"When Tara found out, she was devastated,'' said Elkington, who lives near Lipinski in Houston. "Me? I was elated. I knew everything was going to turn around. I knew there was something wrong with my back and hip, and it wasn't just me thinking it.

"And there was a cure for it.''

That Elkington managed to win five times during that stretch, including a wire-to-wire victory in The Players Championship, is a testament to his swing. But it also makes the 38-year-old Aussie wonder what might have been.

Over time, crucial elements of his game suffered -- power, confidence, competitiveness. He thought he was doing fine, but never realized he simply had gotten used to "running at half speed.''

He qualified for the Tour Championship only once over the past four years, and that was in 1997 when he picked up nearly half his earnings from The Players Championship.

"I wonder whether things would have been different through '99,'' he said.

Still, he says there is a lesson to be learned from his injury.

Golfers have to listen to their bodies and know when to step away from the game until they are healed -- no matter what it takes, no matter where they are on the money list or the world rankings.

Duval did just that, skipping the PGA Championship and NEC Invitational and not returning until he was ready. He won the Buick Challenge and felt only residual soreness.

Tiger Woods did that to a lesser extent. Worn out from his incredible summer, he still had lingering flu symptoms and decided not to practice after a striking the ball poorly in a round of 72 at the Bell Canadian Open. He chose to rest that day, then went 65-64-65 next three days and won the tournament by one stroke over Grant Waite.

Elkington went through physical therapy with Craig Biggio of the Houston Astros, and the difference between golf and team sports was never more clear.

"We don't have an owner who says, 'Get your (butt) off the tour, get surgery done and come back.' We just keep chipping away, thinking we can play through it,'' he said.

That's no longer a problem for Elkington. He feels the best he has since 1995, ready to fall out of bed and just go play.




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