Cream Keeps Rising
A season full of big-time winners bodes well for the year's first
This is an article from the March 24, 2003 issue
Idling in third place heading into the final round of last week's
Honda Classic, Chris Riley sounded like a fan as he discussed the
two players in front of him on the leader board. "Davis Love and
Justin Leonard, they're Hall of Famers in my book," Riley said,
"so I think they'll be the guys to beat."
Despite Riley's enthusiasm, Love and Leonard are not ready for
enshrinement--yet--but the young man hit on a larger truth: This
year the stars are in control, not the wannabes. In 2002 Riley,
29, was one of a record 18 first-time winners on the PGA Tour, a
freakish run that revealed either the Tour's depth or a malaise
among its stars. The rise of the randoms was particularly acute
in the early going; by this time last year five players (Matt
Gogel, Jerry Kelly, Matt Kuchar, Ian Leggatt and Kevin
Sutherland) had already won for the first time. Nice players, but
not a crowd that incites talk of a revolution.
This year, even at a middling tournament like the Honda Classic,
the cream continues to rise. Love was the only player in the top
10 of the World Ranking to tee it up at the Country Club at
Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and Leonard, 30, was one of
the few other recognizable names, but they lived up to Riley's
expectations--and everybody else's--with a spirited final-round
duel that Leonard won.
Leonard's eighth Tour victory means that in 11 tournaments this
year nary a first-time winner has broken through. The top two
golfers in the game, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els, each already have
a pair of wins, as does Mike Weir, another frontline performer
who has rediscovered his form after an off year. Majordomos Vijay
Singh (fourth in the World Ranking) and Love (seventh) have also
Leonard's victory was a testament to home field advantage. His
wife, Amanda, grew up in the Palm Beach area, and last week
Leonard stayed with her at his mother-in-law's home. Mirasol,
hosting its first Honda, was also a perfect venue for his brand
of ball control, as its short par-4s demanded precise positioning
off the tee and deft work with the short irons. Leonard made 29
birdies and finished 24 under, with the biggest birdie of the
week coming on the 572-yard 15th hole on Sunday, giving him his
first lead of the day.
Leonard will have to let out the shaft at this week's Bay Hill
Invitational on Arnold Palmer's brawny (7,239 yards) home course.
Bay Hill unofficially begins the run-up to the Masters, and how a
control player like Leonard will fare on toughened Augusta
National is one of the overlooked subplots heading into the
year's first major. With a newly lengthened 5th hole, Augusta is
now 7,290 yards and still has the scariest greens in golf. Last
year, the first Masters played since a major renovation at
Augusta, the course was softened by wet conditions. If it plays
hard and fast, only the best players will be able to navigate the
exacting conditions, which means the tenacious Leonard can't be
counted out and Love must be considered a favorite.
Yes, the 38-year-old Love was wobbly on the back nine on Sunday,
but his swing has never looked better. Last week he showed the
kind of talent possessed only by a short list of players. Playing
the 544-yard 9th in the third round, he hit a high, cut one-iron
from 252 yards to six feet, leading to an eagle that propelled
him to the 54-hole lead (by one over Leonard). On the same hole
on Sunday, Love blasted a 358-yard drive and then covered the
flag with a towering five-iron for a kick-in eagle.
He didn't win, but Love made a resounding statement, only the
latest in a season that grows more intriguing by the week.
Extremely low scoring is a bore. The 60 by Meg Mallon in Tucson
and the 62 by Jerry Kelly at the Honda were devalued by a rash of
almost equally low rounds. Pro golf is more exciting when a
single mistake can be decisive.
Where was Annika Sorenstam during the LPGA lid-lifter in Tucson?
In Fort Worth, Texas, preparing for the PGA Tour's May 22--25
Colonial. On Sunday, Sorenstam and her husband, David Esch,
joined 1997 Colonial champion David Frost and tournament chairman
Dee Finley for a friendly 18 at Colonial Country Club. The group
picked up on some holes, but Frost estimated that Sorenstam shot
a 75 from the back tees and said, "I don't think she could break
par out here." Sorenstam birdied the par5 11th and the par4 12th
holes, and her seven-wood got a workout at the Horrible Horseshoe
as she hit drivers and seven-woods on the par-4s (the 476-yard 3rd
and the 470-yard 5th) and used the seven-wood again to reach the
front fringe of the 246-yard par3 4th. She made par on all three
holes. "I haven't seen that many seven-woods in a long time, but
she hits it really well," Frost said. Playing a game called Wolf,
Sorenstam lost $2. Frost was the big winner, collecting $6.
How low did they go? The field's scoring average of 69.07 at
the Honda Classic was the lowest on a par-72 course since 1970,
and the 2,082 birdies were the most at a four-round event since
the Tour began keeping track of such things, in 1983.
Yes, top-ranked Tiger Woods and No. 2 Ernie Els will play in
the same stroke-play event for the first time in 2003 this week
at Bay Hill, but Arnold Palmer's tournament is no longer a
must-play. More than 20 players have withdrawn from the
tournament amid complaints about the course setup. (Last year
the green on the par-3 2nd hole was so firm that only four
players could stop their balls on it in the final round.) The
noshows include Mark Calcavecchia, Jim Furyk, Retief Goosen,
Padraig Harrington, Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Phil
Mickelson (wife Amy is about to have a baby), Mike Weir and
even Orlando residents John Cook and Chris DiMarco. "They've
lost me, and they're going to lose a lot more," Calcavecchia
Notah Begay III's younger brother Greg, a U.S. Marine stationed
in Kuwait, comes from a long line of soldiers. Begay's
grandfather was a code talker for the Marines in World War II
(as seen in the Nicholas Cage movie Windtalkers), and Begay's
father also did a hitch in the Marines.
VOTE AT GOLFONLINE.COM
THIS WEEK: Do you think LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw's personal
relationship with tour player Sophie Gustafson is appropriate,
wrong or none of our business?
LAST POLL: Did you agree with Scott Hoch's decision to suspend
his playoff with Jim Furyk at Doral because of darkness?
--Based on 4,842 responses to our informal survey
What Would BOBBY Think?
With the news that Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer will be paired
at this week's Bay Hill Invitational in what is being billed as
perhaps their last Tour event together, a disquieting trend is
now a full-blown epidemic: Pro golf is being overrun with
synthetic sideshows that are usually reserved for the Silly
Season. Here is SI's rating of how objectionable these spectacles
will be, based on who has strayed the most from the values of
that timeless traditionalist, Bobby Jones.
[Three heads] A Grand Slam
[Two heads] Could Be Worse
[One head] A Calamity, Jane
BAY HILL INVITATIONAL, March 20--23 Remember when Nicklaus, in
the early '90s, used to say he would never be a ceremonial
golfer? Remember last year's Bay Hill, when Palmer retired from
the PGA Tour? Oh, well, enjoy this farewell ... until they do it
again next year.
RATING: [Two heads]
MASTERS, April 10--13 Inside the gates it should feel like any
other Masters, although Jones wouldn't recognize the retrofit
Augusta National. But the Emperor founded the club to be his own
private kingdom, and this year it's going to be the subject of
the biggest media circus in golf history.
RATING: [One 1/2 headS]
BMW CHARITY PRO-AM AT THE CLIFFS, May 1--4 Nicklaus again, this
time playing a Nationwide tour event with his four sons. Let's
see, the old man is 63; Jackie, 41, is a burned-out pro turned
course designer; Steve, 39, is an amateur with a four handicap;
Gary, 34, is a journeyman pro; and Michael, 29, is a fledgling
mini-tour pro. First one to break 80 wins!
RATING: [One head]
COLONIAL, May 22--25 It will be fascinating when Annika Sorenstam
tees it up against the boys, although there will be plenty of
rubberneckers hoping for a car wreck. Bonus points to Sorenstam
for pulling off one of the alltime publicity stunts, but she'd be
better off focusing on the LPGA majors, of which she has won only
two in the last six years.
RATING: [Two heads]
GREATER HARTFORD OPEN, July 24--27 Poor Suzy Whaley was set to
get her Billie Jean King on, and then Sorenstam had to steal her
thunder, which is too bad because, unlike Annika, Whaley played
her way in.
RATING: [Three heads]
BATTLE AT THE BRIDGES, July 28 The latest installment in ABC's
quest to prove that golf doesn't belong on prime time will pair
Tiger Woods and Ernie Els against Phil Mickelson and Sergio
Garcia. Good names, sure, but these guys combined have the
charisma of Lee Trevino's rubber snake. And why pair the world
No. 1 with the No. 2? Because Woods, who is obligated to play in
this thing, finds both Garcia and Mickelson irritating.
RATING: [One head]