This week has been a battle of ages, a war between the generations, the old coots unwilling to pass the torch, the brash youngsters snatching at it nonetheless. That's largely how the lines have been drawn in the Ryder Cup controversy, young guns wanting to play for pay, old guys proclaiming play for country. The old guys may hold their own in the increasingly nasty and public debate. But what's happening here on the golf course, at the final major of the century, is decidedly one-sided.
Tiger Woods is 23 years old, Mike Weir is 29, Stewart Cink is 26, Sergio Garcia is 19. That's the top of the leader board at the PGA Championship in suburban Chicago. They average 24.2 years. Golf's future? How about golf's here and now. So what happened to venerable champion Hale Irwin, 54? Shot a 78, dropped by the wayside. What about Jay Haas, 45, and the one-shot lead he took into Saturday's round? Gone, shot a 75 in the third round and now he's five strokes off the lead.
It has been a rough couple of weeks for the old duffers. First, Tiger and David Duval played for a small fortune in a made-for-TV shootout the purists despised, and now this.
Well, Duval's not really at this party; he is 3 under for the tournament but has no chance to catch Woods or Weir, who at 11 under are tied for the lead going into Sunday's final round. Duval may be No. 1 in the world, and I know he won four tournaments before the middle of April, but if he's going to be truly great and not just a trumped-up foil for Tiger, he had better start playing his best in the majors. At present, Duval is Karl Malone, right there but not really there. His aloof-guy persona doesn't play in an individual sport in which there's no team to hide behind. It's a serious problem Duval is sitting on, because as professional golf continues to attract new fans on an even bigger international stage, no wrap-around shades can block out lights so bright.
If Duval doesn't want to get with the program, not to worry, there are plenty of other young bucks ready to roll. We have to start with Tiger. It simply looks like it's his time. It seems he has grown about 10 years' worth over the last two. He's calmer, he manages a course infinitely better than he did when he won The Masters two years ago. You know those extreme-golf shots that used to get him in the highlights every weekend? When is the last time you've seen him have to try one? He had one of the great swings ever and has rebuilt it because he didn't think it was good enough to win the biggies. Only the fact that he's just an average putter prevented him from winning the U.S. Open and the British Open already this year. "If he keeps playing like he did today," Garcia said, "maybe we have to look for second place."
Woods is oozing confidence without being the least bit offensive. It's eerily similar to the kind of athletic arrogance his "big brother" and Medinah Country Club member M. Jordan always displayed. Coincidence? Nope. On the practice range early Saturday, Woods tried to hit a hole-in-one with a driver, launched the thing more than 300 yards, and aced it. "I was thinking if I could tighten up my swing," he said, "I'd be all right."
The thing that would make Sunday's final round riveting would be Garcia and Woods playing together. If there's a legitimate rival out there for Woods, it may very well be Garcia, the Spaniard with an engaging, even boisterous, personality and the bold and swashbuckling game to match. Garcia, though he would surely take offense to this, is Europe's Tiger. By the time the Ryder Cup comes to this golf course in 2011, there's every reason to believe Woods and Garcia will be the highest-profile sportsmen on earth.
Unlike Duval, who doesn't seem to have any sense of the thrill of confrontation, Garcia said matter-of-factly that he was watching the leader board to see how far ahead of the field Tiger might wander. "I was playing my best and couldn't catch him," Garcia said. "It was impossible. I'd make a birdie, and he'd come right behind me and make another one."
When he looked at the board and found himself "seventh or eighth" after nine holes, he said to himself, "Well, you have to do something here. You have to do better than this." So he did, firing birdies at 10, 14 and 17 to reach 9 under.
Cink, an all-American at Georgia Tech, was rookie of the year in 1997. At 6 feet 4 and 205 pounds, he makes Woods, Garcia and Weir look like stick-men. Weir, a Canadian whose parents live not far away in another Chicago suburb, is the least-known of the four; this is just his third major--all this year--and he is ranked 102nd in the world. But he played the final round of the Western Open (held at nearby Cog Hill) with Tiger, an experience that should help him Sunday. "I've experienced it once already," he said, "and there is a lot happening outside the ropes [because the galleries surge around Woods]. You've got to use mental techniques and block it out."
One of the people Weir passed Saturday was Nick Price, which was ironic because it was in the 1995 Canadian Open that Weir, standing next to Price on the practice range, said, "No way I can beat this guy unless I change some things." He did, and now the relatively late bloomer is hanging around with The Phenom on the final day once again. Asked if he sees any significance to the average age of the top four players after three rounds, Weir said there is a correlation between youth and how long players are off the tee. On a 7,401-yard course, that's critical.
Earlier this week, when Ryder Cup stuff threatened to take the PGA Championship hostage, U.S. team captain Ben Crenshaw said he wished everybody saw the world as he does, at 47. That would be the easy way, the comfortable thing for a sport that abhors anything new other than equipment. It's in golf's best interests that the young players see the world and their sport with the excitement and passion that accompany youth, especially when they can produce this kind of competition in one of golf's major championships.