HARD CASES IN THE TOUGH NEW WORLD OF GOLF, A MEAN STREAK IS AN ADVANTAGE

December 08, 1997

The only people likely to connect 1997 and Steve Jones are those
who incorrectly guess which year he won the U.S. Open. Still,
one of Jones's recent musings perfectly characterized the past
golf season.

Jones was wondering how in the heck he had won the '96 Open, and
he came up with this insight. "Usually, I'm nice to everybody
and always worried about snubbing someone," he said, "but that
week I avoided eye contact and walked right past people.
Basically, I was a real intense jerk, and I never played better.
It's not in me to be that way all the time. As a golfer, though,
I wish it was, because that's what it takes."

Mothers, Montessori school teachers and Mister Rogers might have
a problem with this formula for success, and even Jones, who won
twice this year as nice-guy Steve, offered a rebuttal, but
golf's principals are embracing the hard line. The evidence was
everywhere this year. The European Ryder Cup committee, wanting
to win in the worst way, dumped an injured Miguel Angel Martin
so that Jose Maria Olazabal and Jesper Parnevik could both make
the team. On the Senior tour, hard case Hale Irwin pushed past a
herd of mostly sated roundbellies, while the PGA Tour put out
the word that, beginning in 1999, only those tournaments rich
enough to sign five-year commitments--rather than the
traditional one-year deal--will secure a place on the schedule.
Those who don't ante up should get the hell out of the way.

Yes, 1997 will be remembered as the year that golf got tough.
Nowhere was that more apparent than among the game's best
players. For David Duval, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson and
Tiger Woods, an on-course mean streak is as essential as a sand
wedge. Colin Montgomerie is openly combative, Ernie Els secretly
so, and Davis Love III is working on it. Even Greg Norman, the
erstwhile Shark, has been revitalized by all the new blood in
the water. The result is that more is riding on everything,
whether the contest is a major championship or a silly-season
conceit like the recent PGA Grand Slam, which Els and Woods
turned into a compelling showdown by jousting rather than
jesting. It's not the money. This is about turf, ego and
pride--the good stuff, the stuff that has been missing in recent
years.

The argument that the old guys were better golfers is dead, but
the claim that they played harder still has legs. Hogan, Nelson
and Snead sometimes had to win just to stay solvent. Arnold
Palmer came up through the same school of hard knocks. Jack
Nicklaus didn't, but his cold-blooded sense of destiny made him
the greatest winner ever. Tom Watson took note of the merciless
way in which Nicklaus dispatched Palmer and executed a heartless
succession of his own. In this version of King of the Hill,
ambivalent types like Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf were left
behind. Speaking for the killer elite, Lee Trevino simply said,
"Hey, we're all hard bastards."

Somewhere along the line things changed. Fuzzy Zoeller departed
from the grim norm by waving the white towel at Norman at Winged
Foot in 1984 (although he drilled Norman in the playoff);
everybody started getting rich and, even worse, friendly. By the
early '90s, top players like Fred Couples, Love and Nick Price
worried that becoming a world-beater might mean that they would
no longer be considered nice guys.

Now, nice is over, terminated this year by the emergence of
Woods. Like Nicklaus, Woods has a vision of greatness, the
talent to make it real and the tenacity to see it through. His
passion is to improve, to win and to make history. Woods's
effect on golf is like that of the stranger who infiltrates a
cozy pickup basketball game and immediately proves himself the
best player. Before you know it, the other players have raised
their games, and friends are competing more fiercely than they
ever would just among themselves.

Of course, the gifted stranger usually engenders resentment. On
the Tour the bad-mouthing is kept private because Woods is such
a lightning rod, but there's no one the other pros would rather
beat. A lot of players resent him for being self-assured, for
being rich and famous, for his ethnicity, for, at 21, kicking
butt. Locker-room conversations about Woods are spiced with
sarcasm. Sometimes those feelings seep out in public statements.
At this year's season-ending Tour Championship, for example,
when Woods was on the verge of losing the money title, and
probably the player of the year award, to Love, Norman seemed a
little too happy when he said, "It shows that unbridled
confidence is not always an asset."

That it always seemed to be one to the ultraconfident Norman is
a small quibble. Human foibles often surface in fierce
competition, and Norman's assertion and Woods's club-slamming
only validate the notion that a new era has begun. Like Jones
when he won the Open, the times call for real intense jerks. The
winners will be hard bastards, and the golf will be the best
ever.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN For pros like Olazabal, playing to win is all the rage. [Jose Maria Olazabal]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)