Why Johnny can't play

2004-07-20 12:37
Two years ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion that a gang of players in their early 20s was on the verge of taking over golf. They were power-hitting, videotape-studying, iron-pumping, clean-living, flag-hunting, bold-putting, big- endorsement-signing flatbellies close on the trail blazed by Tiger Woods. Competitively tough from playing tournament golf since grade school, the benefactors of the best technical, physical and mental training, there was little question their tools quickly would be superior to those of their predecessors. The idea of the youth movement was reinforced by the precocity of Ty Tryon, Aree and Naree Song, and of course, Michelle Wie.

The most ballyhooed members were and remain Sergio Garcia (24), Adam Scott (23), Charles Howell III (24), Justin Rose (23) and Aaron Baddeley (23). Gaining status recently have been Trevor Immelman (24), Paul Casey (26) and Geoff Ogilvy (26), while Jonathan Byrd (26), Luke Donald (26), Matt Kuchar (25) and David Gossett (25) all have one PGA Tour win. In the wings are Ricky Barnes (23), Kevin Na (20) and Tryon (20).

But it appears golf jumped the gun on the latest group of young guns. As impressive as these players are to watch, they have not supplanted the best in the game. While Woods has been the most successful player in his 20s in history, it has become more apparent that he is more matchless than model. Excluding him from the equation, the average age of winners has gone up, not down, as the twentysomethings have been outplayed not just by players in their 30s - the perennially normal pattern - but by those in their 40s. Of the last 71 events on the PGA Tour, 18 have been won by players in their 40s, compared to 15 by players in their 20s, or just nine not including those won by Woods. Among the current World Ranking top 50, players in their 40s outnumber players in their 20s, 11 to eight.

"Golf has never been about the young guys taking over," says Jay Haas, 50 and ranked 21st in the world, whose 22-year-old son, Bill, will become a young gun the moment he turns pro this year. "Golf isn't about the strongest and the fastest and all that. It's more like other things in life, where the longer you are at a job, the better you get."

"Let's face it," sums up David Leadbetter, whose pupils include Howell, Rose, Baddeley and Tryon. "We all got a little carried away."

As a result, only Garcia among the young guns was considered a favourite at the US Open at Shinnecock Hills. Shinnecock's old-world design challenges and wind make patience, finesse and control more important than power. In the last two Opens there, the winners and most contenders have been savvy veterans, with only one player under the age of 26 at the time - Phil Mickelson with a T-4 in 1995 - able to finish in the top 10.

The trend extends beyond the US Open to majors in general. Sure, there have been some recent bambino eruptions at majors. The most notable, and surprising, was Ben Curtis - who was never considered a young gun and still isn't - winning last year's British Open at age 26. Garcia has an impressive eight top-10s in majors, his latest a T-4 at the Masters in April. And this year Scott won the Players Championship in Grand Slam-type conditions. But otherwise, the majors have been where the young guns have fired mostly blanks. Other than Garcia, the rest of the 26-and-under crowd noted above has a collective six top-10s in majors, with the best still the then 17-year-old Rose's T-4 at the 1998 British Open as an amateur. In fact, including two top-10s last year by the now 29-year-old Fredrik Jacobson, players currently under 30 besides Woods and Garcia have only a combined 11 top-10s in majors.

Suddenly, all the assumptions that veterans would be overrun by a youthful power game are being revised. Nick Price at 47 has had to stop complaining about how he can no longer compete with young bashers armed with high-tech equipment, since he continues to beat most of them. The best example is Mickelson, who a year ago was defending his "force-it" style by saying it was required to remain competitive with the imminent ascension of long ballers such as 28-year-old Hank Kuehne. This year Mickelson has altered his swing and equipment to emphasize control over length, tacitly admitting he had overestimated the potency of youthful aggression. "Why didn't somebody tell me golf is easier to play from the fairway?" joked Mickelson, finally seeing the folly in his Peter Pan approach.

The cold truth is that after early successes, the young guys simply haven't won very much. Consider that among all players under 30, only Woods (with 40 victories), Garcia (four), Scott (two), and 28-year-old Rory Sabbatini (two) have multiple wins on the PGA Tour. (Chad Campbell, who turned 30 last month, has two, while Scott, Rose, Casey, Immelman, Jacobson and Ian Poulter, 28, all have at least two victories each on the European Tour.)

Contrast those totals with the generation of stars who came up in the 1970s: Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Hubert Green, Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and Jerry Pate all had at least three victories each by age 26. Collectively, those seven players won 74 tournaments in their 20s.

The relative lack of victories fuels the suspicion that something subtle is missing in the makeup of the celebrated young guns. Some observers make a case that could be entitled "Why Johnny can't play."

"It seems like more and more young players are satisfied with high finishes rather than winning," says Wadkins. "I know that's a function of depth, but in the end what separates a top player is the ability to win. It takes a little something special, and I wonder if it's being lost." Wadkins believes the reduction in the amount of match-play experience among junior and college players has taken a toll. "In match play you have to beat somebody, not just post a decent number," he points out. "Match play also requires players to make more strategic decisions under pressure. I guarantee you Tiger developed faster because the tournaments he wanted to win most as an amateur, the US Junior Amateur and the US Amateur, are match-play events. I just don't see that real hard edge like Tiger has among a lot of the young guns."

Wadkins may have a point, but his evoking of Woods brings up a bigger one. Rather than a beacon of what's possible for a young player, Woods' feats have become the baggage of unfair comparison.

"Tiger is not a trend," says Arron Oberholser, 29, who while at San Jose State played against Woods often during his college career. "He's the kind of incredible talent that's only going to come around once in our lifetimes. Just because the young guys can learn from Tiger's example doesn't mean they will be like Tiger."

Critics also are ignoring the fact that no group of young guns ever has had to deal with such a well-preserved group of old ones. Veterans have greatly refined the process of extending their careers, and in some cases, their primes.

"Obviously, the prize money getting so good has re-motivated a lot of us," says Haas. "We're keeping ourselves in better shape, making the subtle adjustments like I have with my putting that can make a big difference. I'm sure I would have lost a lot more distance to the younger guys if we were still playing with wood and steel, but the new equipment has allowed me to be more attack-oriented. And being established has given me the mindset to go ahead and free-wheel like I might not have when I was younger. There are a lot of factors, but add them all up and instead of losing ground, it's almost like the older players have gained."

In short, being a young gun on today's tour is more than a casual ride in a convertible filled with beautiful women, to borrow an image from Baddeley's latest MacGregor commercial. The most difficult hurdle may be an increased level of expectations on young stars. Not only are they measured by a Woodsian standard, there is constant measuring. "The young player today might be more ready with his game than we were," Haas says, "but he's also in the glaring spotlight."

With all the attention comes advice and information that can distract focus. "It's gotten very hard for a good young player to control his moment out there," says Dean Reinmuth, who coaches Sabattini. "Tiger has been great at it, but it takes a lot of focus and the ability to shut things out. Every week these guys are bombarded with tons of information about swing theory or equipment or deals. They get overloaded until all their bodies want is quiet. It's like the minute they hit the spotlight, the glass goes from half-full to half-empty."

Some suspect the young guns aren't quite as ready as they appeared to be. The reasons, ironically, might be the very developmental intensity commonly presumed to foster more excellence. While full-time coaches using video have produced a generation of mechanically sound swingers, more young players are prone to playing "golf swing" rather than playing golf.

"Kids are very well trained today, but often overtrained," says Jim McLean. "There's so much emphasis on mechanics, they start believing very early that the answer is in the golf swing. Too many of them think, 'If I just do this and this, I'll have the secret.' But the golf swing is only one factor in what makes a great player, and in the big picture they aren't getting exposed enough to the other factors."

One of those factors is the short game. To many observers, Howell and Scott lack sophisticated short-game skills, while Garcia, who is marvelous around the greens, is often an indifferent putter.

"Most of the short games I see in young players are fairly rudimentary, more manufactured and formatted rather than creative," says Reinmuth. "There is nowhere near as much sensitivity to it among the talent pool as there is to ballstriking. The thing is, by the time a player gets out on tour, he doesn't have time to spend hours just chipping. The older you get, the harder it becomes to develop a good short game."

"It's kind of like young players in the NBA being weak on free throws or mid-range jump shots," says Haas. "Some of these really talented kids get so good at hitting the ball at a really young age, they don't worry much about little shots and putting. It was different in my generation, because we all missed greens and knew we had to be able to get it up and down. Also, the big practice facilities hadn't been invented, so we'd hang around the putting green for hours playing little games. Maybe that extra structure they have today takes away some of the inventiveness and fun."

An equipment revolution also has conspired against well-roundedness. For the most part, today's young guns learned the game with a ball that curves less than its predecessors, drivers more forgiving of mishits, perimeter-weighted irons that promote a uniform flight and 60-degree wedges that produce quick-stopping shots with little effort.

"All of it's made the game more standardized, I'm sure," says Oberholser, who considers himself lucky to have grown up on tight, often poorly conditioned public courses in the damp and windy San Francisco area where, "it seemed like you never had a normal shot. It's like the launch monitor, which gets you dialed in for 'high launch, low spin' perfect shots. It definitely helps, but in a way it hurts you because golf isn't just about perfect shots. A lot of it is making up shots. And a lot of guys in my generation don't really think that way."

The ripple effect becomes apparent in course management. With the PGA Tour combating the length players are hitting the ball with more rough, firmer greens and more difficult hole locations, a premium has been placed on shotmaking and judgment. "The new setups have become a great equalizer for veterans," says 45-year-old Dan Forsman. "If you go pin-hunting you are going to make a mistake, and the young guys tend to do more pin-hunting."

Older players acknowledge they also had to learn how to throttle back, but note a difference in these twentysomethings. "Young players today, even more than when we were young, are just 'go, go, go' all the time," says three-time US Open champion Hale Irwin. "Being one-dimensional hurts you most in the wind, or on older courses with a lot of subtleties, and especially in major championships, when the pressure and the prestige are greatest."

When all is said and done, the lesson is an old one: Experience and patience still rule in golf. Only the supremely gifted seem to cheat time.

"Looking back, it's just amazing how Tiger jumped the experience factor," says Leadbetter. "Historically, except for Jack, that's never really been the case. Both of them just have these amazing golf brains. But overall, no matter how technically advanced in knowledge we get, the biggest underlying factor in winning tournaments is going to remain experience."

Says Oberholser, "You are never going to see young guys dominate golf. Maybe the most important thing in tournament golf is really knowing how your body reacts in certain situations and what it's capable of. That's experience, and that takes time and patience. I also think the faster life gets, the more it works against young guys. I mean, I grew up in this instant-gratification cyberculture with e-mail, while Joey Sindelar [to whom Oberholser lost in sudden death at Wachovia] grew up waiting for letters with stamps. His generation is more used to being patient."

If the young guns have been frustrated by the complex realities at the pinnacle of the game, it doesn't mean they have lost the ambition to do whatever it takes to get to the very top. "I think we are all in this for the long run, and I'm willing to be patient," Baddeley says. "I'll get to know the courses better, get to know myself better. The biggest thing I've learned is that there's so much to learn. And probably that in golf you never stop learning."

It's still just a matter of time for the young guns - but a longer time than originally expected.


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2010-11-21 18:15

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