Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 1, 2010

This Year’s Tour Has Two Storylines

Late last Sunday afternoon at the TPC at River Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut, long hitting lefty Bubba Watson rolled in a three foot par putt at the second playoff hole to defeat Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin. In winning the three-man playoff for the Travelers Championship, he continued one of two remarkable trends on this year’s PGA Tour. After 182 starts, Bubba finally notched his first Tour win, becoming the ninth first-time winner in twenty-seven events.

At age thirty-two, Watson was just a bit too long in the tooth to continue this season’s second remarkable trend. Ten of those twenty-seven events have been won by golfers under the age of thirty.

The two trends really are distinct. This isn’t just a year when a lot of young guys happen to win for the first time. Only four golfers, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, and Derek Lamely are on both lists. So 2010 seems to be a season with two equally intriguing story lines. One is about journeymen finally breaking through on Sunday. The other is about an emerging, powerful youth movement on the Tour.

Watson is typical of the first-time winners. An accomplished amateur golfer, he turned pro in 2003 and spent three years on the Nationwide Tour. In 2005 he finished 21st on that tour’s money list, just good enough to earn him a PGA Tour card for 2006. As is the case with many pros, he had one aspect of the game at which he excelled. In his rookie year on tour, while finishing 90th on the money list; he led the Tour in driving distance with an average of 319.1 yards. To say that Bubba crushes the ball is a supreme understatement. His longest recorded drive is 416 yards. He nearly topped that mark on Sunday, although his 396 yard tee shot on #18 got a mighty assist from a cart path. On the other hand, the cart path was 330 yards from the tee, obviously well beyond where the course architect imagined anyone flying their drive.

But golf is not a one-dimensional game, and so Watson spent the past four plus seasons making a good living (more than $7 million in career earnings), while not putting together the complete game that’s necessary to win. But Bubba Watson was decidedly unlike some modern pros who seem content to enjoy the fact that in the Tiger Era purses have grown so large that winning is no longer a prerequisite to a very comfortable lifestyle. From the start he not only wanted to win but believed that he could, and continued to work on the finesse aspects of his game. That attitude led some to consider him aloof or arrogant when he first joined the Tour. But when he collapsed in full-throated sobs in his wife’s arms on Sunday, arrogance was the last thing on anyone’s mind. Bubba Watson had become just the latest feel-good story in a PGA season full of them.

While perhaps not as emotionally satisfying as the spate of breakthrough victories, this year’s rise of the twenty-something’s is arguably more important for the game. The list of young winners cements the international nature of modern pro golf, including as it does England’s Rose, Ireland’s McIlroy, Australia’s Adam Scott, and Colombia’s Camilo Villegas. Among the several American young guns, the one that stands out for me is Anthony Kim.

Kim celebrated his 25th birthday less than two weeks ago. Unfortunately he did so while recuperating from thumb surgery in early May. But before withdrawing from the Players Championship with the thumb injury, he had won his third Tour victory at the Shell Houston Open in April. The win put Kim in an elite field of just five golfers in the last thirty years to score three victories before their 25th birthday. You may have heard of the other four: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, and Adam Scott.

In his first year on Tour in 2007 Kim was known as something of a wild man, seemingly more interested in partying than playing golf. But he matured quickly and won twice in 2008. In September of that year he played a key role in the American team’s victory at the Ryder Cup, including thrashing European Ryder Cup star Sergio Garcia 5&4 in a pivotal singles match on Sunday. While he slumped somewhat in 2009, he finished the season with another strong performance in team play, posting a 3-1 record in the Presidents Cup as the U.S. team beat the International squad. And he wasted no time returning to the individual winner’s circle at the start of this season.

A hand injury necessarily raises questions, but Kim is reportedly recuperating well and just this week was given medical clearance to begin swinging a golf club again. He still ranks third in Ryder Cup points for this October’s matches in Wales, and has reportedly set making the U.S. team as his #1 goal for this season.

What stands out most for me about Kim’s play is not his ability, as great as it is. Rather it’s the sense of fearlessness that he displays. On the course he appears entirely unfazed by either the difficulty of a shot or the resume of an opponent. That’s an obviously valuable trait, and while Kim exudes it, most of the other twenty-something winners seem to share it to a large degree. That has to bode well for the PGA Tour. During much of the Tiger Era, too many opponents have seemed utterly intimidated in the presence of the world’s #1 golfer, and their play has shown it. I’m not for a minute suggesting that Tiger, or for that matter Phil or Ernie or any of the handful of other immediately recognizable PGA Tour stars aren’t going to continue to win plenty of golf tournaments. I’m sure that they will. But if they’re in the final pairing on some Sunday, and their fellow competitor happens to be one of the rising twenty-something’s, they may notice him humming an old Tom Petty tune as they walk down the first fairway. The one entitled “I Won’t Back Down.”

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