As one who knows the sting of being mocked for owning a pair of
two-toned golf shoes with kilties, I find it strange living in a
world where, all of a sudden, people seem to think golf can do
no wrong. I believe golf is the greatest game, but I know that
it's nowhere near the greatest sport.
Sure, 18 players won more than $1 million on the PGA Tour this
year, but that's nothing compared with what the top baseball,
basketball and football players make. Besides, golfers' getting
flush on prize money is a recent phenomenon. Back in the '50s,
the elegantly overdressed Tommy Bolt reduced the Tour pro's
plight to its essence during a rain-drenched round in Houston.
"I'm out here ruining a $100 pair of golf shoes, a $110 cashmere
sweater and a $65 pair of pants," Bolt told the gallery. "I'm
wearing more than I can win."
O.K., that was then and this is now, but the point is, golf's
recent prosperity and popularity shouldn't blind us to the fact
that the pro game could stand some fixing. The Tour's primary
concern is that many tournaments have become irrelevant. Events
in places like Coal Valley, Ill., Hartford and San Diego have
long been the backbone of the Tour and vital for the
rank-and-file players who, week in and week out, make up the
bulk of the fields. These tournaments, though, have become
nothing more than an afterthought for the world's top players.
Pockets bulging with more money than they could ever spend and
with little to gain from winning one of these second-tier
events, guys like Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Tiger Woods
channel their energies elsewhere.
This dynamic has made the major championships golf's glue, a
role for which they were not designed. Had they been, there
would have been more than four, and Ben Hogan would have played
in more than one British Open.
Identifying the best golfers based on their play in only four
tournaments is folly. They need to play against one another more
often, and the recent formation of the World Golf
Championships--three elite-field events beginning in
1999--assures that they will.
Some say the new tournaments, which have purses of $4 million
each, are a ripoff of Norman's aborted attempt three years ago
this week to start a world tour of eight events with
predetermined fields of about 40 pros playing for first prizes
in excess of $500,000. But PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem's
World Championships are founded more on meritocracy than
Norman's tour. Finchem's fields, which will range from 48 to 64
players, will be mostly determined either by the World Ranking,
adding legitimacy to that much-maligned standard, or by
membership on the latest Ryder and Presidents Cup teams.
The real attraction of the World Championships, though, and
their main difference from Norman's version, is that they
enhance the existing tours, particularly the U.S. Tour, instead
of working against them. To qualify for the new events and to be
prepared for them in February, August and November, the top pros
must play more, not less, during what are normally the quiet
times of the season. That should add the needed relevance to
some of those weak sisters on the Tour schedule. By extension,
increasing the incentive to play in official events reduces the
allure of the unofficial Silly Season in November and December,
which in turn helps the ailing West Coast tournaments, in
January and February, attract better fields.
Suddenly, the heretofore staid world of golf is spinning very
fast. As the millennium nears, the game has never had so many
good, young, hungry players ready to fight it out in such a
gilded arena. If a golden age is in the offing, the greatest
game might yet become the greatest sport.
That's when it'll be safe to break out the kilties.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK 1 [Tiger Woods]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND 2 [David Duval]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER 3 [Davis Love III]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK 4 [Jim Furyk]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK 5 [Justin Leonard]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND 6 [Scott Hoch]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER 7 [Greg Norman]
COLOR PHOTO: JACKIE DUVOISIN 8 [Steve Elkington]
COLOR PHOTO: JACKIE DUVOISIN 9 [Ernie Els]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND 10 [Brad Faxon]
COLOR PHOTO: JACKIE DUVOISIN 11 [Phil Mickelson]
COLOR PHOTO: JACKIE DUVOISIN 12 [Jesper Parnevik]
COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN 13 [Mark O'Meara]
COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN 14 [Mark Calcavecchia]
COLOR PHOTO: JACKIE DUVOISIN 15 [Loren Roberts]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG 16 [Vijay Singh]
COLOR PHOTO: JACKIE DUVOISIN 17 [Nick Price]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND 18 [Stuart Appleby]
These players made more than $1 million on Tour in 1997. Can you
name all of them? (Answers below.)
1) Woods, 2) David Duval, 3) Davis Love III, 4) Jim Furyk, 5)
Justin Leonard, 6) Scott Hoch, 7) Norman, 8) Steve Elkington, 9)
Ernie Els, 10) Brad Faxon, 11) Mickelson, 12) Jesper Parnevik,
13) Mark O'Meara, 14) Mark Calcavecchia, 15) Loren Roberts, 16)
Vijay Singh, 17) Nick Price, 18) Stuart Appleby.