Pro golf blissfully eased into its year-end decompression chamber last week at the Isuzu Kapalua International on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where ocean horizons accented by vivid rainbows are routine. The lost-in-paradise sensation was enhanced for the 44 competing pros, who could wear shorts during practice rounds in the nonofficial event and didn't have to worry about a 36-hole cut while playing for a cool $600,000. So what if the $150,000 that Andy Bean won for his two-stroke victory over Davis Love III doesn't count? It spends the same. "This is about as good as it gets," said Joey Sindelar.
The setting underscored the lush life that the PGA Tour has steadily built for itself. Aggressive corporate sponsorship pushed official prize money beyond $25 million this year, and no fewer than 41 golfers won more than $200,000 in official money. Payne Stewart, the third-leading money winner, pulled down $535,389 without scoring a single victory, and added an additional $300,000 for finishing second under the Vantage Cup point system, the biggest new commercial carrot on the Tour. Bob Tway, the PGA's Player of the Year in only his second season, won four tournaments, including the PGA Championship, $652,780 in official money and the $500,000 top prize from Vantage.
Had Greg Norman decided to play in the U.S. after August, he might have posted earnings that would have had even tennis players swooning. As it was, Norman became the first foreigner since Gary Player in 1961 to top the U.S. money list, with a record $653,296 in only 19 tournaments, two of which he won, not to mention his victories in the British Open, World Match Play and five other titles around the world. Norman skipped Maui, preferring to stay in his native Australia, where his winning streak has inspired comparisons with Byron Nelson or Crocodile Dundee, take your pick.
In the year of Jack Nicklaus's sixth Masters victory and Seve Ballesteros's exile, the most significant development was the inspired excellence of Norman and Tway. Not since Tom Watson in his prime have a season's top players so convincingly separated themselves from the thundering horde. And they did it at a time when many pros feel the Tour's system of giving the top 125 money-winners yearly exemptions is not encouraging players to push for their best.
"It's a real problem," says Peter Jacobsen, who underachieved to finish 78th on the money list with $112,964 this year. "Arnold Palmer made golf popular by playing to win, but now a lot of guys come out to make fast money and then take time off. The Tour has developed these bonus pools [like Vantage] to keep guys out here every week, but it's awfully hard to make yourself do that when the comfort level is so high."
Other pros, particularly Young Turks like Sindelar, who led the Tour in rounds played, with 117, disagree. "If you aren't playing to win a tournament, there is very little chance you are going to finish in the Top 10," said Sindelar. "There are so many guys who keep pushing the level up. Right now we're like the NBA. We have a lot of all-stars, but people are always looking for Michael Jordan and Larry Bird."
Right now that means Norman and Tway. The charismatic Australian and the low-key Oklahoman are at opposite ends of the personality spectrum, but not in their level of drive. Tway, whose swing and putting stroke are the objects of envy, appears unfazed by other people's projection of him as a new superstar. "No one expects as much from me as I expect from myself," he says evenly.
Meanwhile, don't look for a drop-off from Norman. "I think he has a lot to prove," says his regular caddie, Pete Bender, who was in Kapalua working for Mac O'Grady while his boss was at the Australian Open. "There was a time early last year when all Greg talked about was how Seve was the best. I told him, 'No, he isn't. You are.' And then Greg showed he is. Now he blocks Seve out and talks about himself."
That won't be easy if Ballesteros returns to U.S. soil next year primed to beat the two players who battled most fiercely over his empty throne while he stayed home and burned through the European tour. Ballesteros is eligible to play in only nine U.S. events in '87, but he, Norman and Tway might form a new Big Three to definitively succeed Palmer, Player and Nicklaus in the history of the game. If it happens, savor it, because it might not last long.
"Omnipotence is decided over a decade or more," says O'Grady, who talks golf as spectacularly as he strikes the ball. "But it's harder than ever to sustain excellence for that long. The next superstar will have to be a rare breed, a man who knows his place before the face of the sun. Greg and Bob are great, but I think Seve is still that guy."