2005: PGA Tour: The Big Four and plenty more

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Kapalua, Hawaii

The 2005 PGA Tour season began here in paradise with considerable promise. As if on Ponte Vedra’s cue, star power picked up where it left off: High on the marquee all week.

So pull up recliner and refreshment and tune in because the top shelf of professional golf hasn’t been in better competitive condition since the Big Three days of the 1960s. Four decades later we have, what, a Big Four, a Goose and maybe more?

This delectable fare, of course, can be credited mainly to Tiger Woods. The six-time Player of

the Year and notable swing tweaker has slipped back toward the field. Inspired and sometimes embarrassed by Woods’ setting of a high curve, others, most notably new No. 1 Vijay Singh, have improved. The result, finally, is powerful parity at the top.

Three, four, five years ago we wondered when Woods would have competition. Golf had a gap nearly as wide as the Kapalua Plantation Course’s 18th fairway. Woods used to win major championships by double-digit margins. Now, having gone through a second swing reconstruction, he hasn’t won one, period, since June 2002.

We now have at least an elite handful hitting stride at the same time. Besides Singh and Woods, the protagonists are Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen and a pack that includes Davis Love III, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington, Mike Weir, Stewart Cink, Adam Scott and several others like Mercedes Championships repeat winner Stuart Appleby who could step up.

“It would be like having the best of the ’70s, the best of the ’80s and the best of the ’90s all happening at one time,” Joey Sindelar, who joined the Tour in 1984, said of the modern guns.

At Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., the current state is fodder for yet another house ad and, of course, to keep fees from falling as the Tour enters a renegotiation year with television networks.

Even Goosen showed a pulse when discussing the 2005 possibilities. And the Goose doesn’t seem to usually flash a heartbeat, even when winning U.S. Opens and probably lotteries.

“This year is going to be exciting,” Goosen said. “There will probably be a No. 1 player a few times this year.”

Great seasons are defined by dramatic duels involving big names in major championships. There’s no reason all four majors, like last year, won’t feature at least one of the top four players in a stretch duel.

Golf grew because of Mickelson-Els at the Masters, Goosen-Mickelson at the U.S. Open, surprise winner Todd Hamilton vs. Els and Mickelson at the British Open, and Singh against Justin Leonard and Chris DiMarco at the PGA.

“You’ve seen the era of (Jack) Nicklaus, (Arnold) Palmer and (Gary) Player, (when) those guys were at their best,” Singh said. “You’re seeing the same thing now. There’s not just one guy dominating. There’s three, four, five guys that can win the Player of the Year any year coming soon.

“Everybody is geared up. Everybody in the top 10 or 15 is looking to play really good golf. It’s going to be a great season. There won’t be too many new faces winning golf tournaments.”

Singh, of course, won nine times last year, once thought unthinkable in the Woods era for anyone but Woods. Singh came to Hawaii not looking back but saying he thinks he can improve upon 2004. As it happened, he led each of the Mercedes’ first three rounds and was tied until he lost his drive and triple-bogeyed No. 13 on Sunday.

Woods, 29, is enthused about his 10th Tour season because his swing changes paid off in November and December when he won the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan by eight strokes and his own Target World Challenge despite poor putting. Woods said his swing is better than ever, which is saying a lot considering he won 17 Tour events in 1999-2000 and only once last year.

Woods had an “I’ve got it!” moment in November, similar to the one he had when overhauling his swing in 1997-99. This one occurred while he was hitting 8-irons at Big Canyon in Southern California.

We’re not sure exactly what clicked because Woods is as secretive about his swing changes as Donald Rumsfeld is about troop deployment in Iraq. He says “zero point zero” of the many who have dissected his swing have correctly diagnosed what he’s working on with instructor Hank Haney. But he declined to enlighten. He seems to enjoy the cloak of mystery surrounding his laboratory.

Suffice it to say, Woods’ swing is more rounded off around his body and probably squarer at the top. He says the club hasn’t gotten “stuck” behind him on the downswing in months. He says his upper and lower body finally are matching up and that he can be better than ever. For the most part, Woods controlled his shots well at Kapalua, leading the field in most accurate approach shots. But he had trouble on the slow, grainy greens and tied for third with Els, two strokes back.

Because Singh spends half his life on a practice range, he knows a thing or two about the swing. But he took a humorous pass when asked if he has noticed a difference in Woods’ action. “I’m not a swing coach,” the Fijian said. “You’ve gotta ask Butch that.”

The reference, of course, was to Woods’ former coach of 10 years, Butch Harmon, whose comments about Woods’ swing last year rattled his ex-star pupil.

What’s more, the jab shows that Singh not only is golf’s best player, he might be trying to become its funniest after years as a weak quote.

As for the others, Masters champion Mickelson came eight strokes from winning the Grand Slam, evidence he has tightened his game and focus. Els is Els, a man for all seasons. He too contended in all four Grand Slam tournaments and is hungry to win more majors after they painfully eluded him last year. The unflappable Goosen claimed his second U.S. Open in June, charged to take the season-ending Tour Championship, then won the Nedbank Challenge. He could be on the verge of a breakthrough season.

Bottom line, the traveling circus is doing all right. And the cast knows it.

“Golf’s very fortunate,” Garcia said. “It’ll be exciting to see what’s going to happen.”







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