Time to Get Serious
What happens in the second half will define the 2003 season
The modern golf season has no end, but it does have a midway
point--the giddy, anticipatory week before the U.S. Open. The
heat and humility that come with the Open usher in the year's
frenzied second half, which is crammed with the major
championships that define how a season is remembered. The week
before the Open brings the McDonald's LPGA Championship, which is
major in every way, thanks to the grueling DuPont Country Club in
Wilmington, Del. The game's biggest star, Annika Sorenstam, will
again dominate the headlines as she stalks her first LPGA
Championship title, but this week we get a double dose of Grand
Slam mojo, as the Champions tour's first major of the year, the
Senior PGA, kicks off at Aronimink, outside Philadelphia. From
now through the end of August, 12 Grand Slam events will be
played, including five that make up the Champions tour's Super
It is this concentration of big-time events that reduces the
first half of the season to little more than preamble. And the
story lines of this year's first half have been even more muddled
Phil Mickelson has been only the third-best lefty in golf, while
the game's most taciturn superstar, Vijay Singh, has issued the
most inflammatory quotes. The biggest story on the PGA Tour was
an LPGA player, while the spring's most anticipated event wasn't
the Masters but rather a protest that occurred across the street.
Tiger Woods has played some brilliant golf, but just as notable
have been his long absences. Last week he played a Tour event for
the first time in seven weeks but was improbably overshadowed by
down-home Kenny Perry, who also stole some of Sorenstam's
headlines the week before at the Colonial.
The majors are supposed to provide clarity, but in this
squirrelliest of years, who knows what to expect? History offers
few clues. The site of next week's U.S. Open, Olympia Fields,
hasn't hosted the national championship since 1928, when Bobby
Jones lost a 36-hole playoff to Johnny Farrell. Even the Masters
has given us mixed signals. This April the azaleas budded in
Augusta, but it was U.S. Open golf that bloomed. Heavy rain made
mowing impossible at the National, so what was supposed to be a
bombers' paradise was suddenly choked with gnarly rough. Thus the
Masters came down to a playoff between two ball-control players,
Mike Weir and Len Mattiace, who currently rank 95th and 166th,
respectively, in the Tour's driving-distance stats.
If the same kind of reverse form holds, the U.S. Open should play
like the Masters, perhaps decided by a couple of freewheeling
sluggers. Anybody care to watch a Ricky Barnes-Hank Kuehne duel?
Of course, trying to pick favorites is folly. Perry is proof that
golf defies predictions. Three weeks ago he was a 42-year-old
grinder with four career victories and a Q rating near zero. Then
he nearly shot a 59 during his runaway win at the Colonial, and
last week he was equally overpowering in winning the Memorial,
running up a six-stroke lead on Sunday before getting a little
sloppy at the end. "This is the time of my life," he says. "I've
never played golf like this."
The problem is, every month a different player has said as much.
The last man to win back-to-back tournaments on the PGA Tour was
Ernie Els, who was so overpowering in January that it seemed
plausible he might end Woods's reign atop the World Ranking.
Since then, Els has been all but forgotten, as an astonishing
number of other players (five) have rung up multiple wins. What
happens from here is anybody's guess, but one thing is
certain--the season now gets serious.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT HALLERAN/GETTY IMAGES (WEIR) GRAND PLAN Weir finished a strong third at the Memorial and is primed for next week's Open.
COLOR PHOTO: ELISE AMENDOLA/AP (JOHNSON)
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOFEST (BRAVEHEART)
B/W PHOTO: UNDERWOOD AND UNDERWOOD/TIMEPIX (BARRISTER)
COLOR PHOTO: HENRY GROSKINSKY/TIMEPIX (CHICKEN)
COLOR PHOTO: ROSS KINNAIRD/GETTY IMAGES (CLUBHOUSE)
It will be another 75 years before the U.S. Open returns to
Olympia Fields. It's the least imaginative kind of national
championship venue--tough, oppressive, yet utterly unmemorable.
THE NEW MATH
The R&A separates its rulemaking body from its men's club
(AUGUSTA NATIONAL x SCOTLAND) + THREAT OF LITIGATION +
COMPROMISE = [St. Andrews clubhouse]