The 2002 PGA tour will be remembered not for Tiger Woods's five
wins, including his semi-Slam. The year will be remembered for
those whose names we can't remember, from Jonathan Byrd (winner
of the Buick Challenge) to Bob Burns (Disney) to John Rollins
(Canadian Open) and beyond--enough new champions to tax the
capacities of even the most ardent superfan. No wonder Sign Boy
took the year off.
A record 18 players won for the first time this season, beating
the old mark of 13 set in 1991, making 2002 a year of sweaty
palms and clumsy maiden-breaking, like one big John Hughes film.
All of these warm and peach-fuzzy moments bring a couple of
truths into focus. The bad news: The notion that we'll ever see a
serious, sustained rival to Woods--a Lee Trevino to his Jack
Nicklaus--is all but oozing embalming fluid. The good news: It
doesn't matter. With one exception, the gap is clearly widening
between Tiger and what we once thought of as the chase pack.
David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh--these guys are hardly
threatening regime change on the Tour.
While Woods has maintained his separation, Mickelson, the most
recent pretender to the throne, and Singh won twice in 2002, same
as K.J. Choi, Jerry Kelly and Len Mattiace, none of whom had a W
before this year. Still without a major, Mick the Stick is now
Mick the Stuck. He's unpredictable on Sunday, and his winning
percentage has gone down in the last two seasons.
At least he has a winning percentage. Duval, who once led the
second-tier elites, has completely cratered, failing to register
even a top three in '02 and missing the Tour Championship for the
first time. The highlight of Duval's year: a Ryder Cup halve with
Darren Clarke, after which Duval partied all night with the
Davis Love III and David Toms also took a bagel this year,
although Love once again led the Tour in sour grapes. Jim Furyk,
Sergio Garcia and Justin Leonard? They had one victory apiece.
These are the men who seemed to pose the greatest threat to
Tiger's waltz into history. Although they would deny
it--especially Garcia--they've been vanquished, reduced in the
win column to the equals of Spike McRoy (B.C. Open) and Phil
Tataurangi (Las Vegas).
Ernie Els is the lone exception, the only chaser who appears to
be ascendant. After two early-season victories on the European
tour he won at Doral--although it appeared Woods simply ran out
of holes--the British Open and, last month, the World Match Play.
Yet Els will have to string together two or three good years to
warrant consideration as a serious rival. The guess here is that
it won't happen. The big South African has a tendency to derail
without warning, and his deferential praise of Woods isn't the
kind of thing we remember Joe Frazier saying about Muhammad Ali.
But that's fine. Even if every would-be Watson or Weiskopf is as
overmatched as he looks, it doesn't matter. The makeup of the
Tour, with its flock of surprising first-time champions--Byrd
nearly broke the four-round scoring record at the Buick--suggests
the role of Tiger-tamer will continue to be filled almost
accidentally, in four-day-only cameos. Like Burns at the Disney
or Rich Beem at the PGA, players will defy the scariest player in
golf before they have a chance to process the paralyzing
immensity of the task.
Beem's victory, with Woods looming large, was the most
unblinking, impressive performance in recent memory, but it
probably doesn't portend future clashes between the erstwhile
stereo salesman and the greatest player ever. It's one thing to
beat Woods when no one expects you to; it's quite another to do
it when everyone, including Woods, knows you could.
In the meantime Woods should continue to be taken out once in a
while by the rogue little guy like Craig Parry (NEC), one of the
anonymous but able players who proliferated so in 2002. Think Bob
May at the 2000 PGA, but with even more surprising and amusing
results: Ladies and gentlemen, your new U.S. Open champion ... Ed
Burns! George Burns? Would you believe Montgomery Burns?
No, Woods doesn't have a serious rival, and he never will. As it
turns out, he's going to have a handful of them. Let's just hope
they wear name tags.
Golf Plus will next appear in the Nov. 25 issue of SPORTS
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGES TOP DOG Woods's five wins in '02 show the gap has widened between him and the pack.
The flock of first-time winners suggests that the role of
Tiger-tamer will continue to be filled almost accidentally.