The voice mail message was short but oh so sweet. "Welcome to the
club," said Sergio Garcia. Tiger Woods called too, leaving
similar congratulations for Charles Howell after he had won last
month's Michelob Championship. Howell is likely to remember those
calls forever, because as H.L. Mencken wrote, "A man's first love
is special. After that, he tends to bunch them." The same goes
for Tour victories, which are just as elusive and every bit as
hard-won. (Unless you're Woods, who piles up wins the way the
rest of us pile up poker chips.)
Before this year, winning a tournament was considered a
monumental achievement, on the order of slipping a hanging slider
past Barry Bonds. Lately, though, winning has been as devalued as
the Argentine peso. Tour winners in 2002 included a Who's Who of
journeymen, rookies, late bloomers, international players and Q
school grads. And, believe it or not, this phenomenon occurred
smack-dab at the height of Tiger's Reign of Terror. Howell is
among a record 18 players--most of them less recognizable than
stereo salesman turned PGA champion Rich Beem--who snagged their
first wins this season. Three first-timers, K.J. Choi, Jerry
Kelly and Len Mattiace, took things a step further and won twice.
Six of the first-time winners even cracked the top 30 on the 2002
money list and therefore qualified, for the first time of course,
for last week's season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf
Club in Atlanta. Joining Choi, Howell, Kelly and Mattiace at East
Lake were Chris Riley and John Rollins.
Winning is not supposed to be this easy at the Show. It never has
been before. What's going on? "You tell me," says Nick Price, 45,
a 20-year Tour veteran. "These young guys have no fear."
"It's pure coincidence," says Howell, who at 23 represents a new
generation of aggressive, confident, long-hitting players. He was
ordained the Next Tiger by many hopeful, hypeful types when he
turned pro after leading Oklahoma State to the NCAA title as a
junior in 2000. In the last five weeks--and especially last week,
at tradition-rich East Lake--Howell has begun to look like the
guy who may lead the charge to close the gap on Woods. He was the
only player at East Lake to shoot four rounds in the 60s,
bookending 66s around a pair of 69s to finish two shots in
arrears of winner Vijay Singh. Howell closed the season with 16
straight rounds in the 60s. He racked up more than half of his
$2.7 million in earnings in the last month and, with the $540,000
he won in Atlanta, jumped to ninth on the final money list.
Howell was the only player to make a serious run at Singh on
Sunday. He slammed a sand wedge shot into the cup on the fly for
an eagle at the par4 13th hole and added two more birdies before
he was through, but the workmanlike Singh, who has led after 54
holes all three times the Tour Championship has been played at
East Lake but had never won, was uncatchable. After opening the
final round with a bogey, Singh hit 16 of the last 17 greens in
regulation. He demoralized the competition by birdieing three
holes midway through the round, then cruised home to a
three-under 67--he was 12 under for the week--to hold off Howell
and win $900,000, plus a $500,000 bonus for his play in the last
12 events of the season.
"I'm really proud of this one," said Singh, 39, who had won
earlier this year in Houston. "It's a good achievement,
especially as old as I am."
Nosing out Howell may someday be considered noteworthy if this
year's first-time winners prove as formidable as some of them
looked in victory. Big-name players such as David Duval, Davis
Love III and David Toms failed to win this year, but some
lesser-known first-timers did so impressively (chart, page G20).
Nonwinners and newcomers are supposed to hum Never on Sunday.
Instead, many of this year's newbies went low. This phenomenon is
not strictly a generational shift, since 12 of the 18 new champs
are in their 30s, but players like Howell, Rollins (27), Jonathan
Byrd (24), Matt Kuchar (24) and Luke Donald (the 24year-old
winner of last week's rain-shortened Southern Farm Bureau
Classic) have big futures. They're all chasing Tiger, and after a
British Open in which Woods looked positively human against the
forces of nature and a PGA and an NEC Invitational in which he
proved beatable, by Beem and Craig Parry, respectively, the
gauntlet clearly has been thrown down. Game on, Tiger.
"Tiger showed us what was missing in our games," says Kelly, 35,
who broke through this year with a win in Hawaii and followed up
with another at the Western Open. He came in fourth at the Tour
Championship thanks to a hole in one on Sunday at the 11th hole.
"Tiger has such a complete game, we could measure ourselves
against him and see where our weaknesses were. I looked at my
scrambling stats--that's saving pars, at which Tiger is so darn
good. I went from 100-something last year to the top 20 this
year. You have to get better; otherwise you're not going to
mature on Tour. You're going to mature in your living room
watching Tiger and Charles Howell on TV."
The Tour has always been a dog-eat-dog world, but now there's a
palpable smell of fresh meat in the air. Only 15 of the 29
starters from last year's Tour Championship made it back to East
Lake. Fast-food restaurants have less turnover.
"The revolution that began a few years ago is in full swing,"
says Tour veteran Brandel Chamblee, 40, who last week was in
unglamorous Madison, Miss., for the Southern Farm Bureau. "As
golf became cool--and Tiger certainly accelerated that--better
athletes came into the game at a time when better instruction and
better equipment were available. Guys used to come out with a
modicum of ability and get better while on Tour. Now the young
guys come out and hit it farther than any of the veterans, and
their mental strengths are nearly as good. It used to take time
to learn the nuances of courses, but that's over. When you're
hitting driver-wedge, there are no nuances to learn."
Instruction has improved through the convergence of video and
computers. Players tape their swings, then email the video to a
world-class coach. Suddenly, a textbook swing can be had via
long-distance, and players with such swings are popping up all
over the world. "The guys I watched growing up--Ray Floyd, Jack
Nicklaus, Lee Trevino--all had something funny about their
swings, some unique characteristic," says Loren Roberts, who, at
47, was the oldest player at East Lake. (He came in dead last, 21
shots behind Singh.) "Now all the young guys swing the same. I
used to be able to recognize a player by his swing from 300 yards
away. Not anymore."
Lighter, longer shafts and bigger, more resilient clubheads allow
players to hit the ball farther. "You've got 12-and 13year-olds
who can hit it as far as Tour pros," says Bob Estes, this year's
Kemper Insurance Open winner, who was 11th at East Lake. "Younger
players can compete at a high level at an earlier age. It works
on the other end, too. Look at Loren [Roberts]. The equipment is
why all the Senior tour players say they're hitting the ball
farther than they ever have."
Another reason for the rash of first-time winners is the
increased number of conflicting events. The Tucson Open, for
example, is played opposite the Accenture Match Play, which
siphons off the 64 top players in the World Ranking, leaving an
opportunity for a less established player. There were six such
doubleheaders this year, including the Ryder Cup/Texas Open
conflict. Four of them produced first-time winners: Ian Leggatt
(Tucson), Spike McRoy (B.C. Open), Riley (Reno-Tahoe) and Donald
(Southern Farm Bureau).
While the additional events accelerated the trend, they weren't
the root cause. The arrival of players such as Byrd and Howell,
among others, signals the long-anticipated end of an era
dominated by the likes of Paul Azinger, Mark Calcavecchia, Fred
Couples and Greg Norman, all of whom are well into their 40s.
"The only thing we're wondering about Charles Howell is why he
didn't win sooner," Price says. "This is healthy for our Tour.
It's a hell of a lot better than Formula One racing, where
Michael Schumacher wins everything. We have young guys coming up.
We're in good shape."
Howell, who grew up in Augusta, has a playful personality. He
showed during postround interviews on Sunday night that it could
help make him a star. Asked about playing in Japan for the first
time, which he will do later this month, Howell said, "All I can
say is hello and goodbye, and I don't like sushi, so that doesn't
bode well." As for playing in the final group at East Lake with
Singh, behind Woods and Phil Mickelson, Howell said, "Today is
what I have dreamed about forever. Apart from walking up the 18th
green and winning, this is all I could ask for. I could've keeled
over on the 18th green and died a happy man."
East Lake cemented Howell's role as the game's most promising
young American. "We've all known that Charles has the talent to
win big tournaments," Woods said after a closing 70 dropped him
into a tie for seventh. "He needed that shot of confidence to get
over the hump and get the first one. The first win is always the
Eighteen players got the hardest one out of the way in 2002.
Heads up, Tiger.
Fleck OR FOR REAL?
Some of the 18 first-time winners on Tour this year dominated the
events they won, while the victories of others seemed as fluky as
Jack Fleck's first W--a shocking upset of Ben Hogan at the 1955
U.S. Open. Here's how we rate the wins of 2002's first-timers
based on the Fleck Factor, with three Flecks signifying the
BEFORE WORLD RANK IN FLECK
FIRST WIN WIN AGE BEFORE WIN FIELD? FACTOR
Jerry KELLY Hawaii 199 35 82nd No [3 FLECKS]
When cellphone went off in John Cook's backswing
on 71st hole, he jerked tee shot, made bogey and
lost to Kelly by a stroke.
Matt GOGEL Pebble Beach 61 31 153rd Yes [2 FLECKS]
Tiger Woods stole title from Gogel in '00. In
'02 Gogel did same to Pat Perez, who lost temper
and lead on closing holes.
Len MATTIACE Los Angeles 219 35 157th No [3 FLECKS]
Up by three with seven holes to play, Scott
McCarron made four bogeys to allow Mattiace to
win by one.
Kevin SUTHERLAND Match Play 83 38 65th Yes [3 FLECKS]
Debuting a putting grip--the claw--he would
soon junk, Sutherland beat luckless McCarron in
Ian LEGGATT Tucson 45 37 N.A. No [1 FLECK]
With 64 top-ranked players occupied at Match
Play, he won equivalent of NIT in style, going
65--64 on weekend.
Matt KUCHAR Honda 27 24 149th No [2 FLECKS]
Kuchar hit only 11 greens on Sunday but had
three straight sand saves and just 11 putts
during brilliant final-nine 31.
Craig PERKS Players 66 35 203rd Yes [3 FLECKS]
Perks, who had two chip-ins and a long Drano on
final three holes, missed cut in seven of his next
K.J. CHOI New Orleans 73 32 149th No [1 FLECK]
Sweet swinger from South Korea backed up
four-shot win with seven-stroke victory at Tampa
Bay Classic later in season.
Chris SMITH Buick Classic 147 33 149th No [3 FLECKS]
While Perez had another meltdown on final nine,
Smith twice made stunning pars from deep fairway
Spike MCROY B.C. Open 114 34 349th No [2 FLECKS]
With most top players away at British Open, McRoy
made up seven shots on third-round leader with
Craig PARRY NEC 235 36 118th Yes [1 FLECK]
Wee Aussie had won 19 times elsewhere in world,
so stopping Woods's NEC win streak at three was
no great surprise.
Chris RILEY Reno-Tahoe 109 28 54th No [1 FLECK]
Playing against NEC-weakened field, Riley had to
putt just 97 times--fewest by a winner in six
John ROLLINS Canadian 26 27 142nd No [3 FLECKS]
Needing only a bogey on 72nd hole to win, Neal
Lancaster made brutal three-jack double to hand
title to Rollins.
Charles HOWELL Michelob 67 23 60th No [1 FLECK]
New new thing gets monkey off his back--and after
first-ever beer, at trophy ceremony, says, "I
wasn't missing much."
Phil TATAURANGI Las Vegas 150 31 166th No [1 FLECK]
Son of New Zealand All Blacks rugby player,
Tataurangi won with final-round 62, a record
low for first-time winner.
Bob BURNS Disney 27 34 241st Yes [1 FLECK]
Tiger who? Burns's smartly played, nearly
flawless 65 in final round just enough to
trump Woods's Sunday-best 63.
Jonathan BYRD Buick Challenge 30 24 189th No [2 FLECKS]
Two eagles and mile's worth of made putts
contributed to Sunday 63 and convincing victory
over David Toms and Phil Mickelson.
Luke DONALD Farm Bureau 36 24 163rd No [3 FLECKS]
Former NCAA champ from Northwestern (of all
places) took 54-hole lead, then title when event
called on last day of season.
over on the 18th green and died a happy man."