Money Players' Follies Are Golf's Gains in 2003

By Jeffrey A. Rendall, Editor.  Photos Courtesy of ESPN.com and PGATour.com

 

You certainly had to admire Shaun Micheel, the unlikely PGA Champion who held up like a seasoned winner under what must have been unbearable pressure to defeat Chad Campbell and a host of challengers at this season's final major.

 

Micheel is the final entrant on 2003's major champion's list, which includes the predictable two occupants in golf's world top ten rankings, but refreshingly also names two players who'd never previously won big tournaments -- heck, they'd never even won a PGA Tour event before.  The CBS announcers seemed to run out of superlatives while describing Micheel's choke-free march to glory, perhaps because all the 'unbelievables' and 'unthinkables' were expended last month on Ben Curtis.


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Jim Furyk, with his US Open trophy.

 

2003 was the first time since 1969 that all four major championships featured first-time major winners, and the first time in however long that two non-PGA Tour winners achieved their first victories in a major (couldn't find the statistic).

 

No, Tiger Woods won't be making a December journey to Hawaii to participate in the annual PGA Grand Slam of Golf, the silly season event pitting winners of the season's major championships against each other.  The event's television advertisers certainly bank on Woods or one of the Tour's other big draws being there -- though this year, we'll see a two-day match between wildly popular (in Canada, at least) Mike Weir, steady though entertainingly unspectacular Jim Furyk (a perennial Ryder & President's Cup team member, though a good many fans probably know him best through his caddy, Fluff), Ben Curtis (who?) and Shaun Micheel (again, who?).

 

So there won't be the usual star power at the event.  And there's a 2003 sized hole in the annual journey of the game's best players towards immortality.  In addition to Tiger's lack of success, Ernie Els failed to add either The Masters or the PGA Championship towards his stated goal of winning the career slam. 


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Shaun Micheel looked like a natural holding the Wannamaker trophy. Photo Courtesy of ESPN.com.

Davis Love III, who's played an otherwise impressive season, missed the cut at the PGA and the US Open.  And Phil Mickelson still hasn't hoisted the winner's trophy at a major.

 

Call me a fool, but this season's Cinderella story outcomes are good for golf.  That's right -- golf benefits from the failures of its premier players to gobble up all the goodies for themselves.  In football, half the world wants Dallas to win another Super Bowl, or there's certainly a large contingent of baseball fans who'll skip tuning-in if the Yankees aren't competing for another World Series title.  Dynasties are the rage in major teams sports.

 

Golf, however, is an individual quest (with a few significant 'team' competition exceptions).  Tour players pay their own travel expenses, caddies, coaches and tournament entrance fees.  Everything they achieve, they earn for themselves -- not that players in other sports don't.  It's just that golf's ultimate fame rewards are for the relative few, despite a bottomless ocean of talent in the game.

 


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Ben Curtis received a hero's welcome after capturing the British Open. Photo Courtesy of ESPN.com.

In a season where several of the game's greats have already taken the lion's share of the tournaments (reversing the recent trend of large numbers of first-time winners), it's good to submit some fresh names for engravers to etch onto the big prizes.  The quality of depth on Tour is too deep to merely pay attention to those with the big endorsements or best track records.

 

It's also been a year where female golfers have taken still more coverage from the lesser-known players in men's professional golf.  Annika Sorenstam stole the show at The Colonial, Suzy Whaley earned a spot (and a lot of exposure) in Hartford and 13 year-old phenom Michelle Wie will tee it up against the men next month in Boise on the Nationwide Tour (and also on the Canadian Tour this month), but these are mere distractions from the real story in 2003.

 

It was an interesting case study examining this year's TV network coverage of the major championships.  Tiger still received a disproportionately large chunk of face time, despite the fact he made only six birdies in four days at the PGA and was realistically out of the tournament at mid-day on Thursday, before the television folks even strapped on their microphones.  His performance at the other majors was similarly un-notable, save for a close call at the British Open.

 


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Tiger Woods helps Mike Weir with the Masters' Green Jacket. Photo Courtesy of PGATOUR.com

Woods' heavily recognizable glare was largely absent on Sundays, however.  Instead, we've had the opportunity to see several 'newer,' if never seen before faces contending at the finish.  Even the runners-up were remarkable.  Who'll forget Len Mattiace battling it out at The Masters?  How about Stephen Leaney's career tournament at the US Open?  Or Thomas Bjorn's performance (and fatal mis-steps) at the British Open?  And finally, Chad Campbell's unruffled work at the PGA, challenging Micheel to the end?

 

In other words, even if the eventual winners hadn't held up, there still would've been plenty of good ‘new face’ stories to go around.  In the end, good for the fans, good for golf.

 

We all understand that professional golf's a business, just like any other, and people come out to the 'ballpark' to see the big names.  But for those of us who've ever purposely arrived at a tournament early or late in the first two days of an event and followed some players we've never even heard of from the far-off reaches of the country or world, we've seen some pretty solid play that's only waiting for an audience.

 


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Tiger's doffed his cap four times thus far in 2003, yet not in a major. Photo Courtesy of ESPN.com

'These guys are good,' means more than the chance to see familiar faces.  It's taken a season like 2003 to demonstrate the fact -- every player out there deserves to be there, through time-tested and competition honed golf games.  John Cook said it earlier this year, when discussing the 'Tiger factor' on TV ratings:  "What people fail to realize is that yeah, when Tiger's in an event, the TV ratings go up.  But even in a non-Tiger event, the ratings go up as well.  There's a lot of good product out there if people just want to go watch."

 

"There's more to the Tour than just Tiger Woods," Cook added.

 

Now, thanks to 2003, the world's finally discovering it.


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E-mail Jeff Rendall, Editor:
jrendall@golftheunitedstates.com