History, mystery, head and heart. That's a good shorthand
description of this year's majors.
At the Masters in April, Tiger Woods rewrote records and
rearranged the social landscape. He had the deep thinkers
dipping their quills in Rae's Creek, trying to write lines
linking his birdies at Amen Corner to the more lasting
accomplishments of Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X and Martin Luther
The U.S. Open, won by Ernie Els in June, raised issues more
puzzling, if less profound. In the weeks before his triumph at
Congressional, Els had missed several cuts and finished no
better than in a tie for ninth at Greensboro. After the Open he
would win the following tournament, the Buick Classic, and
finish no worse than 10th in his next three starts. Neither Els
nor anyone else can explain these streaks. Mystery.
Then we have the British Open, won in July at Royal Troon by
Justin Leonard. Most analysts agree that the young Texan won by
keeping his head while Jesper Parnevik was losing his.
Finally, there's our affair of the heart, last week's
rainbow-graced finish at Winged Foot. When the son of a teaching
pro honors his departed father by winning the only major hosted
by America's club pros--hey, a few tears are bound to fall.
At first glance it seems difficult to make a shamrock of these
four green leaves. The victories of Woods, Els and Leonard--all
bachelors in their 20s--signaled a youthful assault on golf's
gray countenance. Davis Love III, on the other hand, is a
33-year-old father of two who has played in more than 300 Tour
events. Other attempts to make a foursome of the four fall
equally short: Love, Leonard and Els are impassive types, while
Woods emotes like a Barrymore. Swing signatures? Leonard's
follow-through sends the club head toward the third base dugout,
while Els's club winds up dangling like a back scratcher over
his shoulder. Their games may be on the same lofty plane, but
their swings are not.
The picture gets sharper, though, if we give Love his due. His
11-under-par performance at rough-choked Winged Foot is at least
the equal of Woods's 18-under romp over the shorter and
wide-open Augusta National. Furthermore, Love's record in the
'97 majors was the best of the four, his worst finish being a
tie for 16th at Congressional. He just needed a major win to be
recognized as a major talent.
Maybe it's folly to search for meaning in tournament results. If
Tom Lehman had not snagged the toe of his seven-iron on the 71st
hole at Congressional, we would be connecting different dots to
complete our picture of the '97 majors. If Leonard, instead
of Love, had shot 66 on Sunday, we might be arguing that the
Texan, not Tiger Woods, deserves to be player of the year.
Instead, we have Love's victory and a few meager conclusions to
hold us until the Ryder Cup in late September.
Woods is still the big story of '97. Mental errors and putting
lapses undid him at Congressional, Troon and Winged Foot, but
his worst finish in a major was 29th in the PGA. A week shy of
the first anniversary of his pro debut, Woods has won six Tour
events, finished first in the Ryder Cup points race and achieved
the top spot in the World Ranking. He has yet to miss a cut.
"The best player never to have won a major" eventually wins a
major. It can take 12 years (Love, Paul Azinger and Fred
Couples), 13 years (Corey Pavin) or 20 years (Tom Kite), but the
big prize finally falls in the basket. Phil Mickelson and Colin
Montgomerie will someday silence their critics.
Greg Norman is still playing the '96 Masters in his head. The
Shark struggled in the majors, missing the cut at the Masters
and the U.S. Open and finishing 36th at Troon and 13th at Winged
Foot. When an errant shot by Paul Stankowski landed a few feet
from Norman on the 17th tee last Saturday, Norman glared at the
ball as if it had intentionally broken his concentration. Soon
he'll be talking to trash cans.
These insights come in little parcels instead of one big
package, but that should not surprise us. History is mystery
when it's written with the head instead of the heart. Even with
Love's against-the-grain triumph thrown in, the majors of 1997
provided the clearest indication since 1975 of where golf is
headed. That year Jack Nicklaus won the Masters and the PGA and
Tom Watson won the British Open. If Love proves to be not the
least of our four recent champions but merely the slowest to
find himself--in the tradition of Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer,
who didn't dominate until they were in their 30s--then we may
remember '97 as the year the game renewed itself as never
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Despite rough going at Winged Foot, Woods ruled in '97. [Tiger Woods]