Golf, Sport

Tee time: golf continues to boom with the explosiveness of a Tiger Woods tee shot, and 1998 promises more of the same

The 1998 golf season is likely to continue with Tiger Woods dominating many of the tournaments, despite the media attention he continues to receive. Young players such as David Duval may be prominent, as many veterans such as Tom Watson. These and other personalities and events are discussed.

The question on every golf fan’s mind as the 1997 season began was whether young Tiger Woods was really as good as the speculation and spectacle surrounding his fuming pro promised he would be. The answer was a definitive and resounding “yes,” as Woods not only won the Masters but set a scoring record in the process. The excitement surrounding Woods served as an example of the increasing popularity and growth of golf both in America and worldwide.

Golf, the late Ben Hogan once said, is the most fickle of games, so predicting its future requires more than a crystal Titleist, Top-Flite or Maxfli. With that in mind, let’s consider some of the most pertinent questions the 1998 season will potentially raise, and some of the answers that only time will provide.

P.G.A Tour

What does Tiger do for an encore?

Had Tiger Woods been an “ordinary” kid who stayed in school, he today would be a new Stanford graduate looking for a job. Instead, what everyone wants to know is, “Where does he go from here?” Will all the corporate endorsements and attention Woods continue to receive keep him from reaching his almost unimaginable potential? Probably not. Tiger’s greatness lies as much in his heart as in his swing, and the always find a win.

Will youth be served?

Last year saw the emergence of several other talented young players who will give Tiger and anyone else on the tour all they can handle. Davit Duval (26 years old) finished the ’97 season with three consecutive victories, Justin Leonard (25) captured the British Open and “old man” Davis Love III, at 33, won his first major, the PGA Championship. With 26-year-old Ernie Els’ victory at the ’97 U.S. Open, the members of golf’s youth brigade asserted themselves not as a supporting cast but as a group of leading men worthy of top billing. As the 1998 season unfolds, also keep your eyes on second-year man Stewart Cink (24), who won the ’97 Canon Greater Hartford Open, the affable Paul Stankowski (26), already a proven tour winner, and Ryder Cupper Jim Furyk (27), who annually improves by leaping strides. And don’t forget that Phil Mickelson, also 27, had yet another million-dollar-plus season. Look for him to capture his first major in ’98.

Who are the Vets’ best bets?

Tom Watson, 48, won in 1997 and could win again if he can solve his putting woes. With Ryder Cup captaincy behind him, Tom Kite, also 48, showed year-end sparks that should strike feat in, or at least gain the attention of, those fun-loving “flat-bellies.” Greg Norman, 43, hits the ball as far and straight as ever, and there’s no sign of the “yips” setting into his silky smooth putting stroke. Nick Faldo and Mark O’Meara, both just past the 40 mark, were tournament winners in 1997. And don’t forget about 38-year-old Tom Lehman, who slipped from first on the money list in 1996 to 19th in 1997, but who has worked too long and hard to remain below the top 10 any longer. With the emphasis, today on physical fitness and training, don’t look for the tour’s 30- and 40- something set to pass quietly to the 19th hole just yet.

Can we expect even more of a foreign Invasion?

In addition to tour mainstays such as Norman, Nick Faldo, and Steve Elkington, the U.S. PGA Tour more and more will find its field occupied by foreign players. Europe’s leading golfer for the last several years, Colin Montgomerie, is committed to playing the American circuit full time, and we can expect to see England’s answer to Tiger Woods, 21-year-old Lee Westwood, playing stateside more frequently as well. Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik won more than a million dollars last year on the PGA Tour, countryman and ’97 tour rookie Gabriel Hjertstedt won the ’97 B.C. Open, and 31-year-old Per-Ulrik Johansson has emerged as one of golf’s best young players, making the Swedish contingent one worth more than a casual notice. Frank Nobilo from New Zealand captured the ’97 Greater Greensboro Open and will be joined on tour in ’98 by fellow Kiwi, 26-year-old Phil Tataurangi.

Will 1998 be the year of the comeback?

Last year saw some of the game’s best players fall considerably from their previous form. Suffice to say, these guys have too much talent and pride to stay out of the winner’s circle much longer. So look for the likes of John Daly, Corey Pavin, Paul Azinger, Billy Mayfair and Chip Beck to make significant comebacks.

Senior PGA Tour

A riddle: What adds as it takes away?

The answer, of course, is the Senior PGA Tour. Just ask Hale Irwin, who won nine tournaments and $2,343,364 in 1997, the most ever earned by a professional golfer on any tour. If not convinced, confer with Gil Morgan, who with six victories banked $2,160,562, or nearly half of what he made in 23 years on the regular tour. Considering they’re 50 years old and counting, Senior PGA Tour players represent some of the world’s most remarkable athletes. Having said that, this tour also reminds us that athletes are human, not gods. Arnold Palmer and Jim Colbert have both successes. fully recovered from prostate cancer surgery, and Larry Gilbert and Bruce Devlin were also diagnosed with cancer in 1997.

Can the rest of the tour compete with Irwin and Morgan?

Clearly, Irwin and Morgan lead the pack, but the likes of David Graham, Raymond Floyd, John Bland, Colbert, Bob Murphy, Graham Marsh, Dave Stockton, Lee Trevino, Dave Eichelberger and, of course, Jack Nicklaus (though he plays a limited schedule), among others, aren’t far behind. Even the likes of Chi Chi Rodriguez, Gary Player, Bob Charles and Bruce Crampton, all over 60, remain competitive and can step up and win on any given weekend. And look for better 1998s from Trevino, Floyd, and Nicklaus, and for Colbert to return to his presurgery winning form.

Who are this year’s key “graduates”?

Four newcomers will graduate to the Senior Tour this year. Former Ryder Cup standout Peter Oosterhuis (turns 50 in May) was, in his prime, second only to Tony Jacklin as England’s best player. John Mahaffey, a 10-time winner on the PGA Tour, including the 1978 PGA Championship, also turns 50 in May. Oosterhius will join the CBS golf broadcast team next year, which will certainly limit his tournaments on the Senior Tour. The same dilemma confronts the popular Gary McCord, who may be playing the best golf of his life. Look for McCord to tee it up with the Seniors whenever his TV schedule allows for a break. Mahaffey has the kind of game (very straight, a good short game and a fine putter) that translates to victories on the Senior Tour, and Bruce Fleisher is the kind of talented player who, while not excelling on the “junior tour,” could cash in big with the Seniors.

LPGA Tour

What’s new?

The 1998 LPGA Tour schedule will consist of 42 events, with a record $31.3 million purses. Twenty-five tournaments have upped the ante, with five events having $1 million purses, including all four majors.

Who are the women to watch in ’98?

The American LPGA Tour has become the premier tour for the world’s top female golfers. Witness 27-year-old Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, who has, for the past few years, truly dominated this tour. After Sorenstam won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1995 and 1996 and won six events in ’97, there was the question as to who would rise out of the pack to challenge her. Australia’s Karrie Webb (23) answered the call, and a growing rivalry between these two superb players energized and further popularized the LPGA Tour. England’s Laura Davies and Sweden’s Liselotte Neumann have maintained their extremely high level of play in recent years. Two “offshore” players even won America’s two national championships in 1997, with England’s Alison Nicholas taking the U.S. Women’s Open and Italy’s Silvia Cavalleri winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur title. American golf fans need not despair. The fine play of native-born Michelle McGann, Kelly Robbins, and Tammie Green each multiple winners in 1997, should carry over into ’98. Don’t count out a late charge by Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Betsy King, Patty Sheehan and even Pat Bradley. Lopez and King won in ’97, and Sheehan and Bradley remain extremely competitive. Also look for rebound seasons from Meg Mallon and Dottie Pepper and a continued return to top form from Juli Inkster, who won for the first time in five years in 1997.

Who are the ones to watch in the LPGA?

The future of women’s golf is here, with so many brilliant young players already becoming bona fide stars and big draws. Those brand new to the circuit (i.e. players earning spots on the LPGA Tour at the annual LPGA Qualifying Tournament) include a trio of 20-year-olds: Se Ri Pak from Korea and Americans Christie Kerr and Kelli Kuehne.

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