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The multimedia hagiography attending Hal Sutton's renaissance as a top golfer has been relentless and cloying. Enough already. There are lessons to be learned from Sutton's experiences.

Let's look at his past performance first. Sutton, who will turn 42 on Friday, was absurdly tabbed the next Jack Nicklaus when he turned professional in 1981. He won the 1983 PGA Championship and through 1986 won six other PGA Tour events. Hardly Nicklaus-like, but impressive.

Then Sutton won only once until 1998. He fell to 185th on the 1992 PGA Tour money list and 109th in 1996. In September of 1995, while playing in a pro-am event at the Thornhill Country Club in Toronto before the Canadian Open, Sutton talked at length about how far he had fallen.

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It was instructive to walk around with him that day. Here was a fellow who was once one of golf's best players, since reduced to a quivering mass of swing thoughts. He'd listened to a variety of teachers in a bid to right a swing that had once been nothing but right.

And there's the lesson. Golfers take a huge risk when they try to change their already proven swings. Sometimes, the risk pays off, as it has with Mike Weir, for one. He's tightened his swing considerably, but he won't be satisfied until it holds up week after week and in the majors. It remains to be seen whether that will occur. I'm betting that in his case it will.

But golfers can also get so confused that they sacrifice their careers. Ian Baker-Finch is the poster boy for the evil swings that can befall the champion who succumbs to the temptation to change. Baker-Finch won the 1991 British Open, then got it into his head that he had to hit the ball farther (hey, he'd only won the British Open) and failed utterly. He doesn't compete any more.

Or how about Seve Ballesteros? He has maintained his brilliant short game, but the five-time winner of major championships is a goner when it comes to his swing. He's so mixed up he can hardly take the club back without being overwhelmed by swing thoughts. And now his young Spanish friend Sergio Garcia, who has immense talent, is also in danger of getting mixed up. Teachers are saying his swing is too long and loose.

Sutton spoke that day at Thornhill about excess swing advice disease. Not until he consulted his old college coach, Floyd Horgan, did he start to find his old, excellent swing. He, like many golfers, had taken a leap of faith when he took apart his swing -- in his case with at least five well-known teachers. Sutton wanted to hit the ball higher. Bad idea.

"Each and every one of us has a fingerprint," Sutton has said of the swing. "When you start trying to change that fingerprint, that's when things go wrong."

These are important matters, so yesterday I asked Arnold Palmer about them.

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"When I left home to play the tour, my father, who was my only teacher, said something I never forgot," Palmer related in a telephone conversation. "He said: 'Now, boy, when you go out there and play and you don't have a good day, a lot of people will want to help you. The best way for you to get back home working for me is to listen to them.' "

Palmer wanted to win tournaments, not work for his father, Deacon, the head pro and superintendent at the Latrobe Country Club in western Pennsylvania. He heeded what he called Deacon's Gospel. The gospel was to seek his counsel only and to accept the fact that a swing is a fickle beast.

Sutton didn't do that for the longest time, but survived his long funk. He won three times in 1998, including the Tour Championship, took the 1999 Bell Canadian Open and last month won the Players Championship, beating Tiger Woods head to head in the final round. Sutton also won the Greater Greensboro Chrysler Classic last Sunday.

He says he's been through hell with his swing. But he made his own hell by listening to anyone and everyone. Sutton is lucky he came out the other side with any semblance of an effective swing.

"Some guys on tour see all the gurus and they can ruin themselves," Palmer said."

Can, and have. And will. Lorne Rubenstein can be reached via e-mail: lhruben@ibm.net

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