Any golf tournament based near Chicago but known as the Western
Open would figure to be pretty old. It is. The Western and the
British and U.S. Opens are the only three Tour events in the
world that date back to the 19th century. "Really?" says
26-year-old Stuart Appleby. "I had no idea."
In fact, for many of those early years the Western was
considered one of golf's major championships. "That's
interesting to know," says Jim Furyk, 27. "When it comes to the
history of the game, I'm not exactly a buff."
It must be a generational thing, because Appleby and Furyk's
twentysomething contemporaries have shown a similar disregard
for tradition throughout this season, running amok on a Tour
that is supposed to be dominated by older guys. After Tiger
Woods won last week's Motorola Western Open, at Cog Hill Golf
and Country Club, eight of the Tour's top 20 money winners were
under 30, and these whippersnappers had won 10 of the season's
26 tournaments, most notably the Masters and the U.S. Open.
Though these young guys don't know much about history, they do
know how to make it. Should one of the lads win next week at
golf's oldest event, the British Open (which began in 1860, 35
years before its U.S. counterpart and 39 years before the
Western), players under 30 will have swept the first three legs
of the Grand Slam for the first time since 1936.
"There's a changing of the guard right now," says the wise old
man of the Tour, 47-year-old Tom Watson, one of six players,
including Appleby, who finished six shots behind Woods at the
Western in a tie for seventh. "They're not running roughshod
because they're young. We're being overwhelmed by their talent.
It's not a surprise that this younger generation of players is
winning like this. They should be. Once you've seen them play,
you expect them to win tournaments and you expect them to win
The Western Open is a good place to take the measure of the
young guys' growing superiority, not only because of the event's
long history but also because the tournament is the last
Stateside tune-up for most of the American pros who will play in
the British Open at Royal Troon. This Western confirmed what
we've suspected for months: Who's hot and who's not can be
broken down neatly along age lines. At the top of the list of
favorites heading into the British are four players, none of
whom is older than 27.
After a much-needed week off, Woods, 21, returned with a bang at
the Western, showing the fire and focus that have been missing
since his stunning win in April at the Masters, his first major
as a professional. Woods will head to Troon comfortable not only
with his game but also with links-style golf, for as an amateur
his best showing in a Grand Slam event came last year at the
British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, where he shot 66 in
the second round and finished 22nd. Woods's stoutest challenge
figures to come from 27-year-old Ernie Els, who skipped the
Western so that he could decompress after back-to-back wins at
the U.S. Open and the Buick Classic. Els, fifth on the money
list at $959,055, finished tied for second at last year's
British and had two top six finishes in the previous five years.
A pair of dark horses who have been quietly sizzling are Furyk
and Justin Leonard, 25. With his sixth-place finish at the
Western, Furyk has six straight top 10s, including a tie for
fifth at the U.S. Open. He's seventh on the money list. Leonard
has been on a tear since his win at the Kemper Open in early
June and had another strong showing at the Western. With the
$104,000 he earned by tying for third, Leonard jumped to 14th on
the money list. He also has been impressive in recent majors,
tying for fifth at the '96 PGA and seventh at this year's Masters.
What makes these players so dangerous is not just their grooved
swings--it's their youthful insouciance. Woods and Els have
already won their majors for the year, so what's to stress
about? Furyk and Leonard can cross the ocean under the radar of
the hypemongers and most of the debilitating expectations, as
can 27-year-old Phil Mickelson (18th on the money list), who is
about five years overdue to seize a major; 27-year-old Paul
Stankowski (10th), whose famously streaky game won him the
Hawaiian Open in February; and 25-year-old David Duval (20th),
who already has three top five finishes this season. "It's gravy
if you win a major in your 20s," says Appleby, a blue-eyed
Australian who came out of nowhere to win the Honda Classic in
March and is up to 11th on the money list, "so maybe we don't
get so frightened, so caught up with that
It-all-starts-on-the-back-nine-on-Sunday stuff. We can just play
the game. We can be in the attack mode."
"You're dead right," says New Zealand's Frank Nobilo, who was
second, three strokes behind Woods, at the Western and probably
rates as the hottest player among the over-30 set. "With older
players there is so much more pressure because you know you're
running out of opportunities. If you let one slip away, there's
no telling when you'll have another."
It's this kind of baggage from accumulated disappointments that
makes a number of the more experienced players iffy. Greg
Norman, 42, won two weeks ago at Memphis, but it was his first
victory since his evisceration at the '96 Masters. In the majors
he's damaged goods until proved otherwise. Norman's status as
golf's hard-luck loser is being threatened by 34-year-old Colin
Montgomerie, who has suffered a series of train wrecks in recent
majors and now has the added pressure of playing at Troon, where
his dad is the club secretary. Even stalwart Tom Lehman, the
38-year-old defending British Open champion, is looking shaky
after missing, for the third straight year, an opportunity to
win the U.S. Open. Throw in the travails of the two
Nicks--40-year-old Price, who's coping with the death of his
caddie, Squeeky Medlen, and a shoulder injury that forced his
withdrawal from the Western, and 39-year-old Faldo, who shot an
81 to miss the cut at the Masters and has been MIA ever
since--and things look grim for the usual suspects among the
There are even more explanations for the shifting balance of
power. "I had to learn how to win on Tour," says Watson. "It
took me five, six years to do that. These players are winners
when they come here."
Leonard, winner of the 1992 U.S. Amateur and the '94 NCAA,
amplifies the point. "College golf has become so competitive now
that young guys come here with a huge advantage," he says, "and
the summer amateur events are so good you're playing
high-quality golf year-round. It's practically like being a
touring pro. The Nike tour has also been a huge factor because a
lot of players join the Tour having already won a professional
With this kind of experience many young players come to the Tour
with a confidence that floors the old-timers. "These kids aren't
afraid of anything," says Lanny Wadkins, a 26-year veteran.
"They aren't afraid to win, and they aren't afraid to dominate."
Adds Appleby, "Nobody feels like they have to pay their dues for
10 years before they can win out here. I mean, if you don't hit
the ground running, you're going to get run over." Indeed, for a
player like Appleby the success of his peer group has expanded
his belief in what can be achieved. "Seeing what Ernie and Tiger
have done in the major championships is a good boost," he says.
"It takes away the intimidation factor that much more."
Nobilo makes another point. "When you talk about equipment
changes," he says, "there have been two major developments: the
metal driver with more advanced shafts, and the lob wedge. Older
players didn't grow up with either, while these kids did. Their
games are built around the advantages that come with them.
They're so much more aggressive off the tee. They just kill it.
If you grew up with a wooden driver and steel shaft--like a lot
of us did--there will always be something in the back of your
mind holding you back. Because of the lob wedge, around the
greens they all have shots that in the past only the very best
players could dream of pulling off. To some degree they're
playing a different game than we are."
A different game. That's how British Open golf is often
described, usually followed by the warning that youthful
exuberance is punished, while prudence, which comes with
experience, pays off.
Says Wadkins, "Troon takes more local knowledge than almost any
other British Open course." Says Watson, the five-time champ,
"Over there the game is not played as much by air. A lot of it
is by land, with the roll."
Says Duval, "There's a lot less to it than people think. The big
thing is how hard the turf is. You can pick that up in a
practice round or two."
This gang of twentysomethings enjoys dispelling old notions.
Listen to Stankowski, who tied for fifth at the Masters, dish on
the revered majors. "They're regular golf tournaments to me," he
says. "All the talk about more pressure, more
intimidation--that's all self-inflicted. I don't think they're a
big deal at all. They're a little more interesting, a little
more exciting maybe. But if you don't make a big deal out of
'em, then they become like any other tournament. If they're like
any other tournament, then anyone can win 'em, and it doesn't
matter if you're in your 40s, your 30s or your 20s."
Actually that last bit isn't entirely true. These days it
certainly helps to be in your 20s.