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Despite success, celebrity following eludes Huston

John Huston, holder of PGA Tour's all-time scoring record, is happy with his low-key profile.

John Huston makes noise, but nobody hears. He walks briskly between the ropes on some of America's best golf courses, isolated from the hysteria. He travels in a corporate jet, anonymous.

There are folks in Huston's Safety Harbor neighborhood who probably don't realize that one of the world's best golfers lives in their midst. And he likes it that way.

The holder of the PGA Tour's all-time scoring record, a member of the U.S. Presidents Cup team last year and a contender for the Ryder Cup team this year, winner of five PGA Tour events and nearly $7-million in prize money, the Dunedin High graduate has managed to stay in the long shadows cast by other "name" players on the tour.

He enjoys the shade better than the bright lights.

"I don't think it's a real comfortable thing for anybody to be recognized and have people come up to you," Huston said. "It's very nice. But I've never been that good at taking the compliments. Mostly because I've never really been satisfied with myself. I don't see myself as that big of a deal.

"Certainly, I'd like to win the tournaments that Tiger (Woods) and (David) Duval are winning. And I would deal with whatever came with it."

Huston has yet to need a disguise, but he's threatened to blow his cover by going over the $1-million mark in earnings for the second year in a row.

Last year, Huston, 38, knocked Ben Hogan and Mike Souchak out of the PGA Tour record book, breaking the 72-hole mark for strokes under par with 28-under-par 260 at the Hawaiian Open. He later won the National Car Rental Golf Classic and had a career-best 10th place finish on the money list with $1,544,110.

Although Huston has not won this year, he has three third-place finishes and is 13th on the money list with $1,176,887 heading into this week's final major, the PGA Championship.

And he is profiting from his success off the course. This year, Huston acquired a stake in a private jet, making travel far easier. He also has endorsements from head to toe: Maxfli golf balls, Bugle Boy clothes, Nike shoes. There are deals with Wilson Fat Shaft Irons, Never Compromise putter, Pure Spin wedge and National Car Rental. Perhaps the biggest perk of all came when Huston won in Hawaii last year. United provided him and his family with free travel for a year.

Yet Huston remains rather mysterious to the golf-following public.

"People don't know him real well, and if you ask me, he's a pretty private person," said tour player Brian Claar, a friend and former neighbor. "Golf is just that way. We practice alone. We work alone. He's not the kind of guy you have to talk to every week. He's very simple. And he hasn't changed at all."

Huston can go to the mall with daughter Jessica without being bothered. He can attend son Travis' baseball games and not be noticed. Even at local golf courses, he blends in. In fact, his father, Jerry, might be more well-known at golf courses around the Tampa Bay area, simply because he frequents them so often. "He loves golf more than anyone in the world," John said.

It's quite apparent that there is a golf gene that has been passed down in the family. Jerry Huston is retired, but he can just about hold his own off the tee with his son, and still plays to a 2-handicap.

Back when John was growing up in Dunedin, Jerry worked in construction but still managed to play a couple of times a week. He knew early on that his son was a good player, but it wasn't until John beat him at a local amateur tournament that his suspicions were confirmed.

"We played together since he was a kid, and I always played decent, so I thought I knew a good player when I saw one," Jerry Huston said. "He was shooting under par when he was in his teens. Of course, you always think your kids are better than they are, but when he was in high school, he was winning awards, shooting under par. He knew what he wanted to do."

Huston was Dunedin High School's top player. But he was not particularly successful in junior golf and did very little in college. He went to Alexander City Junior College in Alabama before a brief stint at Auburn and then the mini-tours.

Huston considers himself a late-bloomer. He didn't play in a 10th of the junior tournaments as someone such as Tiger Woods and wasn't schooled in golf until he got out of school.

At one point, Huston, who started working with noted swing guru David Leadbetter, quit the mini-tours to work in the bag room at Cypress Run in Tarpon Springs, where he is now a member.

"I kept working with David, but working in that bag room, seeing the hours you had to put in that was my inspiration," Huston said. "It was work, and I just wasn't doing what I wanted to be doing."

Huston finally made it through the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament in 1987, just weeks after the birth of his daughter.

As a rookie in 1988, Huston had two top-10 finishes and easily kept his card by earning $150,301, ranking 78th on the money list. It would be his worst money list finish until 1997, the low point. With three tournament titles to his credit and a reputation for being a player who could go low, none of his peers was ever surprised to see his name on the leaderboard.

"He's just a really competitive guy. He thrives on winning," Claar said. "That's what he really wants to do. I think the year that he struggled, he didn't feel he was competitive enough to win. It really bothered him. Johnny's all out. There's no middle of the greens. He plays to win. He's going to hit some really good shots because he is always going for the pin."

And that's what made the 1997 season so puzzling. For the first time in his 10-year PGA Tour career, Huston failed to keep his card by finishing among the top-125 money winners. He was nearly four years removed from his last victory. His game had gone bad, and his attitude went with it.

"I had a letdown. I just got soured on it," Huston said. "I was sick of it and just got so soured on everything at that point. I had such a bad attitude, looking back. If I had anything to do over, it's '95, '96 and '97 if I had the patience and determination I've had the last two years, I would not have had that down time. Then again, it makes you appreciate it that much more now."

Huston finished the 1997 season with just one top 10 and earned only $151,840, 141st on the money list. He lost his tour card, but was able to use a one-time exemption for being in the top 50 all-time on the PGA Tour money list.

Determined to make good on that exemption, Huston used the off-season to get back in shape.

"It was very inspirational watching him bust his rear end to get himself back on top again," Huston's wife, Suzanne, said. "I don't play the game, but there were times I would have had to say, "I'm not playing anymore.' But he just kept right along.

"He got up at 5:30 in the morning to meet with a (personal) trainer. He didn't pick up his clubs for two months. He wasn't going to do that until he felt he was ready. He set his goals. He had a plan. And that's how it happened. He came out of the gates hot."

Soon, Huston was making history in Hawaii, with 31 birdies and just three bogeys. He finished the year ranked among the top 10 in seven statistical categories and was No. 1 in the all-around statistic.

Not that many noticed, which is just fine, Huston said.

"You know, if you can do really well and be overlooked," he said, "I think it is kind of a blessing."