An American Trifecta Was a Team Effort
IN EARLY September the beautifully comported U.S. Walker Cup team went to Ireland and defeated a team of fellow amateurs from Great Britain and Ireland, 12 1/2 to 11 1/2. A week later the American women went to Sweden to play a European squad for the Solheim Cup and came back victorious, 16--12. Then in late September the American men, led by Tiger Woods and loosely managed by Captain Jack (Nicklaus), went to Canada for the Presidents Cup and won handily over Gary Player's International team, 19 1/2 to 14 1/2. The last time U.S. golfers had such a trifecta? Never.
For Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Annika Sorenstam and a few others, playing in these team events is a sacrifice. On any given off week, they could be making big bucks doing something somewhere. In September 2007 they instead spent a week helping the public identify new stars (Morgan Pressel), new characters (Woody Austin) and keeping some legends in the spotlight (Messrs. Nicklaus and Player).
The real stars of the Presidents Cup were David Toms (4-0-1), Scott Verplank (4--0) and Austin. The latter went only 1-1-3, but he looked like a man possessed doing it, falling backwards in a chilly pond after trying too hard on a shot, then donning goggles the next day. With the U.S. victory, one golfing mystery only deepened: The Americans are 5-1-1 in the seven Presidents Cups (the U.S. versus the rest of the non-European world) and 1--5 in the last six Ryder Cups (the U.S. versus Europe).
The Solheim Cup, the women's version of the Ryder Cup, was a showcase of homegrown American talent. Most notable was Florida's Pressel, a millionaire to her accountant but a teenager at heart and on her birth certificate. (She's 19.) Also making a mark, both at the Solheim Cup and over the course of the year, were Natalie Gulbis, Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer and Britney Lincicome. The LPGA has never had so much talent or so many compulsively watchable players.
As for the Walker Cup team, it's not like it was in the old days, when all the Americans had to do was beat a bunch of scratch golfers named Nigel. Compounding the difficulty for the Americans was that for them the Walker Cup was a genuine road game, played on the bouncy turf of Royal County Down. You can't play the American, golf-by-numbers game and win on a true links. It takes patience, imagination and a certain degree of wit. Reports of the demise of those qualities among American golfers, we now know, are premature.
Is Anyone Ready to Take on Tiger?
FOR MEN'S pro golf to be interesting, you need players who can consistently challenge Woods. In 2007 most of the leading candidates—Els, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen—took a step back. The only reason Mickelson is not on that list is because of his delicious win over Woods in Boston during the FedEx Cup playoffs. The guys who won the year's first three majors, Zach Johnson at the Masters and √Ångel Cabrera at the U.S. Open and Padraig Harrington at the British Open, are likely one-offs. Where are the Arnold Palmers, the Billy Caspers, the Lee Trevinos, the Hale Irwins, the Johnny Millers and the Tom Watsons, multiple-major winners who helped define Nicklaus's career?
Woods won't win every time out, or anything like it, but for his record to have more luster—more magic—he needs real challengers.
The Lost Year of Michelle Wie
WHO WOULD have guessed that Michelle would be a better golfer at 14 than she is now, at 18? Four years ago she was a prodigy. This year she graduated from high school, enrolled at Stanford and played eight LPGA events as a pro, earning $23,000, missing the cut three times and finishing with a 76.4 stroke average.
It's hard to say what's wrong with Wie. She said she broke her left hand in a fall last February and has had tendinitis in her right wrist, but the injuries were never described as significant by Wie, her parents or various (and often changing) representatives. Wie has endorsement deals said to be worth more than $12 million a year, and with big money comes high expectations and demands, and a kind of pressure few teenagers would be equipped to handle. But the expectations and demands were part of Wie's life in 2006, too, a year in which she contended in three majors.
In 2008 Wie is unlikely to get exemptions to play in PGA Tour events, based on her recent track record. She can play in six LPGA events on sponsors' exemptions, and she probably will. In the meantime the mystery of Michelle Wie deepens.
8 TIMES TIGER WOODS HAS TOPPED THE PGA TOUR MONEY LIST ($10.9 MILLION IN '07), TYING JACK NICKLAUS'S RECORD
.3 TENTHS-OF-A-YARD DROP IN AVERAGE DRIVING DISTANCE (288.6) ON TOUR, THE FIRST DECREASE SINCE 1993
MAKING A DIFFERENCE | Lorena Ochoa
AT THE foot of Huentitàn Canyon in an impoverished community outside Guadalajara, Mexico, La Barranca Elementary School is a beacon of hope. Several of its 240 students have earned medals at national judo championships, others have won academic competitions, and all have the benefit of a nontraditional curriculum. Such achievements would not have been possible without two-time LPGA Player of the Year Lorena Ochoa (right, with a La Barranca student). Two years ago Ochoa, a Guadalajara native, was captivated by the La Barranca kids she met at a charity golf tournament. Since then she has given generously to the all-scholarship school, which provides students with two meals a day in addition to opportunities to explore theater, art and athletics.
Earlier this year Ochoa's foundation took full control of La Barranca; it has developed plans to construct a high school in 2008. "Golf has allowed me to help all these children," says Ochoa, 26, who has earned $10.4 million on the LPGA tour. "They have so little, and a good education is what they need the most in order to succeed." Her long-term goal: to develop schools like La Barranca across Mexico. She has already improved the lives of children such as eight-year-old Érika Ruiz Hernàndez, who wants be a teacher. "I'm learning so much more at this school than my last one," she says. "And thanks to Lorena, we all get to eat breakfast every morning."
PREDICTIONS FOR 2008
TIGER WOODS will win the Grand Slam. He owns Augusta National. Ditto for Torrey Pines, the muni in San Diego where the U.S. Open will be held. Royal Birkdale rewards shotmaking more than any other British Open course. And the PGA Championship, in the steamy heat of Detroit in August at aptly named Oakland Hills, will reward fitness.
NOT A single U.S. golfer, male or female, will flunk a drug test.
THE AMERICANS will win the Ryder Cup. The event is in the U.S. (Valhalla, in Louisville), and the captains will make a difference. Paul Azinger (U.S.) has a passion for team play that will infect his squad, whereas Nick Faldo (Europe) made his career by playing the lone wolf.
THEY SAID IT
"It's different eating here than at the house. Ain't got no sweet tea and ain't got no fried chicken."
BOO WEEKLEY, the American pro playing in his first British Open, on restaurant food in Scotland.
TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
BROTHERS IN ARMS Tiger provided the team spirit while Toms topped all scorers during a decisive U.S. Presidents Cup win.
FUNDACION LORENA OCHOA
JOHN BIEVER (MICKELSON)
WAITING FOR LEFTY Among the top-ranked players, only Mickelson could claim a modicum of success versus Woods.
TODD BIGELOW/AURORA (WIE)
TEEN ANGST Wie's slump (76.4 stroke average) remains an unsolved mystery.
DAVID WALBERG (WEEKLEY)
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG
JASON LEE (HANDS)