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Clearing the air: Tiger Woods, Fuzzy Zoeller put controversy to rest over lunch

By Dave Caldwell

The Dallas Morning News

(KRT)

FORT WORTH, Texas - Tiger Woods ate lunch Tuesday in the players' dining room at Colonial Country Club. This was big news. His dining partner was Fuzzy Zoeller.

These two professional golfers, one a 21-year-old prodigy and the other a 45-year-old with graying hair and deep laugh lines, said they had a brief but cordial conversation. This was news, too. The two, entered in this week's MasterCard Colonial, have been linked in a month-old controversy over racially insensitive comments made by Zoeller about Woods. They made it obvious that they wanted the controversy to be over.

"We had a nice talk," Woods said.

"He's a quality guy," Zoeller said.

Woods went to do a news conference and play a practice round, and Zoeller taped his syndicated golf show. There were no public handshakes and no photo opportunities. Woods and Zoeller did separate interviews, and both said they were anxious to start talking and thinking about other things - like golf.

Zoeller said he meant nothing by his remarks. Woods, coming off his victory Sunday in the GTE Byron Nelson Classic, said he accepted Zoeller's apology and wanted to move on, but he did not exactly let Zoeller off the hook, either.

"I found out some things I needed to know," Woods said less than an hour later. "I let him know how I felt. Now it's over, and hopefully, we'll both have a good tournament."

Two hours later, Zoeller said: "I hope things go back to normal. I hope we can go back to joking, having fun and enjoying the game."

We find out at 12:30 p.m. Thursday if the American public - or golf fans, anyway - will let them.

That is when Zoeller is scheduled to tee off at the MasterCard Colonial. It will be his first tournament since he said in an April TV interview that Woods was a "little boy" who might decide to serve fried chicken or collard greens "or whatever the hell they serve" at the traditional Masters champions' dinner next year.

Woods, 21, whose father is African-American and mother is of Thai descent, accepted Zoeller's apology in a statement, but the two had not seen each other until Tuesday.

In the meantime, Zoeller withdrew from a tournament in North Carolina and had his sponsor, Kmart, pull out of an endorsement deal. In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel that appeared Monday, Zoeller called his life "a living hell" the past month.

Tuesday's lunch was arranged by the PGA and International Management Group, which serves as Woods' agent. Woods said the lunch lasted 20 minutes, but those who were there said it lasted about half that time. They did not just talk about race or about golf. Zoeller said they talked about marlin fishing, among other things.

Woods was peppered with questions at his news conference about the lunch, but he seemed reluctant to talk about it. He made it clear that he did not condone what Zoeller had said.

"Over time, I think we'll see it was an incident which I think was good for golf," Woods said.

"In what way?" someone asked.

"I think it'll take some time," he said.

"This incident is one of many that is going to happen over my career," Woods said later. "I've had a lot worse than this. Hopefully, I won't have a situation like this ever again, but it's probably unlikely."

Later, after taping his golf show near the driving range, Zoeller said: "Tiger and I feel we both have a great opportunity here to help a lot of great things happen.

"There were no hard feelings. I don't want to hurt anybody out here. I haven't hurt anybody out here in 22 years. Why should I start now?"

The other people who play this tricky game for a living will be glad to see this controversy end. They clearly don't want to be stuck in the middle of it.

Justin Leonard was talking about his round of golf with a group of reporters. He had played well Saturday at the GTE Byron Nelson, and he was in a good mood as he walked back to the locker room.

Then one of the reporters asked him about Zoeller. Leonard, a Dallas native and a rising star on the PGA Tour, abruptly stopped. The smile faded. He looked as if he had been asked to hit a ball out of the Gobi Desert with a sand wedge.

"No comment," Leonard said.

Pleasantly but firmly, Leonard explained: He considers the controversy that has swarmed around Zoeller in the past five weeks to be, in his words, "a sticky situation."

Almost anything he would say, Leonard added, would be misinterpreted by someone. He would rather get a reporter angry than some of his colleagues. Golf questions are OK. Fuzzy Zoeller questions are off-limits. No offense.

Other golfers find themselves rushing to the defense of a man they consider to be one of the most popular players on the tour. Some of them are angry at the media for stretching the controversy out of proportion.

"Fuzzy's a great guy," Payne Stewart said last weekend. "Fuzzy's a credit to the PGA Tour. You'd hate to see one incident ruin a career."

"Everyone loves Fuzzy," said Mark O'Meara, one of Woods' closest friends on the tour. "He's a jokester. I've heard some of his jokes 100 times. I hate some of his jokes. But I think he and Tiger both feel bad about what happened."

But the golfers fear that the controversy won't die when Zoeller hits his first shot of this week's tournament.

"I'm appalled," Nick Faldo said of the media attention Zoeller has attracted. "We all know Fuzzy. We know his character. Unfortunately, it's an indication of the media now. He made one minute mistake, and they made a mountain out of a molehill."

Frank Urban Zoeller was born in New Albany, Ind., and went to Edison Junior College in Florida, then to the University of Houston before he turned pro in 1973.

He has won 10 pro tournaments, the Colonial included, and more than $5.3 million in his career. As recently as 1994, he was fifth on the PGA Tour in earnings. Eighteen years before Woods became the youngest golfer to win the Masters, Zoeller won the tournament in Augusta, Ga.

He has described himself as a "jokester" more than once, and the personal section of his biography in the PGA Tour media guide makes him sound like a fun person to be around:

"A gallery favorite for his relaxed approach to the game...Known for wearing sunglasses whatever the conditions and whistling...Asked if he were looking forward to the Senior Tour, the 45-year-old said, 'Are you kidding? No cut and I get a cart!' "

"He knows he said the wrong thing, the way he said it," Brad Faxon said. "It's just sad. Everyone keeps talking about it. It'll calm down sooner or later."

This week?

Faxon looked off into the distance and shrugged.

"I don't know," Faxon said. "You're going to make a big deal out of it, because (Woods and Zoeller) are going to talk. And it will be a big deal if something comes out of that."

He paused.

"I don't even feel comfortable talking about it," Faxon said. "Once you start bringing up race, somebody's going to be unhappy about it. I've read where people on one side or the other say, 'It's not a big deal.' And there are going to be people on one side or the other saying, 'It is a big deal.' He wasn't intending any malice in what he said. You know?"

Sam Day, the MasterCard Colonial tournament chairman, said Monday that he has not received any negative feedback from fans after Zoeller said he planned to play in the tournament.

Those who play against Zoeller - and who consider him to be a colleague - want to let the whole matter wither. What they know, what they fear, is that it won't.

"I think this is something that I'm sorry ever happened," Payne Stewart said.

Zoeller did three interviews Tuesday - at 7:30 a.m., immediately after lunch and late in the afternoon.

Zoeller was asked if he felt any weight had been taken off his shoulders after he met with Woods. Zoeller smiled.

"I still weigh about 210," he said.

(c) 1997, The Dallas Morning News.

Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at http://www.dallasnews.com/

Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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