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Clash of the Generations

The 2004 PGA Tour will continue to be a battleground between the Young Guns and the pop guns
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Tyson vs. King, Jan/Feb 04

Ben Curtis, barely 26 years old and playing in his first major championship, won the British Open at Royal St. George's this past July. Craig Stadler, barely 50 years old, played that same week in the PGA Tour's B.C. Open and won it. Curtis and Stadler were separated by nearly 3,500 miles and nearly 25 years, but their victories spoke volumes about the nature of the game of golf. It's the story of the generational ebb and flow, of the charge of the young and the hungry against the determination of the old and the savvy. It's the story of the Young Guns and the Pop Guns.

Tiger Woods has led the charge of the Young Guns into the twenty-first century, though in truth he is an entity unto himself. At 28, Woods is not just a great player, he's the definition of the standards of the game. The Young Guns who closely followed him onto the pro golf stage, players like Curtis, Adam Scott, Chad Campbell and Charles Howell III, all hit the ball long, putt like magic and carry themselves with a steely edged demeanor and an abundance of faith in their abilities.

But Woods has also had an effect on the tour's older players: the Pop Guns, or veterans, who are counting down the years to a spot on the Champions Tour. Woods has raised the standards so high that all other players must elevate their games to keep up, especially if they want to take generous helpings of the enormous purse structure that Woods's success has helped to build.

The 2003 PGA Tour season perfectly outlined the abilities of the Young Guns and the Pop Guns. Neophyte Curtis won the British Open in stunning fashion. Champions Tour rookie Stadler did something that no player had ever done before: win an event on both the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour at the age of 50. Twenty-three-year-old Adam Scott won his first PGA Tour event and 43-year-old Kenny Perry played the best golf of his life, winning three times.

Another old-timer, Peter Jacobsen, won the Greater Hartford Open at the age of 49. Afterwards, he explained the phenomenon all quite nicely: how, when it comes to Young Guns and Pop Guns, the game comes down to the six inches between the ears.

"Tiger Woods is not the champion because he's so gifted physically," Jacobsen says. "He is gifted mentally and emotionally. He handles everything that is thrown at him. Now, you can laugh at Craig Stadler and say that physical condition is not a factor to him. It may not be a factor to him, but he knows what's going on in here, and he has it here."

Here, indicates Jacobsen by pointing his finger, is the head.

Young Guns carry around with them a spare lifestyle dedicated toward improvement and winning. They may have a wife or girlfriend, but they are unlikely to have children. There is little domestic clutter to trip over on the way to a tournament win. A Pop Gun is much more likely to have a family and interests outside the game. The chances of distraction are greater; the chances of winning, longer.

But when it comes down to Sunday afternoons and the chance to grab the trophy, the Young Guns and the Pop Guns both have it between the ears, entertaining the golf world with the battle of the generations. As the 2004 PGA Tour season begins, it's probable that the battle will continue. Here are some of the most likely combatants.

Charles Howell III: Young Gun

 

You would think that just by growing up in Augusta, Georgia, Howell would have the pedigree to be a professional golfer of the highest order. Born in the birthplace of the Masters tournament, Howell was a natural. In 2000, he won the NCAA Championship as a junior at Oklahoma State and was the Big 12 Player of the Year.

After turning professional in 2001, Howell broke through to win the 2002 Michelob Championship at Kingsmill. The 24-year-old had a steady 2003 season and finished second at the Nissan Open in Pacific Palisades, California, losing a playoff to the very hot Mike Weir. Howell also qualified for the U.S. squad in the Presidents Cup competition against the International team in South Africa.

Howell is 2-iron thin and driver-strong. At 5-foot-11 and less than 160 pounds, he can pound the ball out there with the best of them.

So what that he wears bad plaids and gives Jesper Parnevik a run in the design disaster department. When you have the strength, touch and desire of a Charles Howell, the only fashionable thing is winning.

When Howell won in 2002, he was one of 18 first-time winners on the Tour, which included many young players. He's acutely aware of how vulnerable the Young Guns are to the Pop Guns. "You know, [in 2002] everyone was saying it was the year of the young player and the first-time winners, and the older players are done," says Howell. "And they are writing all of these guys off, and now look what's happened. It's amazing."

Kenny Perry: Pop Gun

 

Kenny Perry had been a steady player over the course of a PGA career that began in 1987. But no one would have accused him of being a week-to-week contender. He won seven times, but he may be better known for how he went about losing the PGA Championship playoff to Mark Brooks in 1996. The gregarious Perry, playing in front of a home crowd at the Valhalla Golf Club near Louisville, warmed up for the playoff by chatting in the television booth.

He had good money-winning years in 2001 and 2002, but no one, not even Perry, could have been prepared for what he did in 2003. The 43-year-old had his career season and at one point was clearly the best player in the world. Yes, Kenny Perry was playing better than Tiger Woods, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh, Mike Weir and the whole darn lot. At 43 he was on fire, playing better than he had at 23 or 33.

In one eight-tournament stretch he won three times, finished third in the U.S. Open, eighth at the British Open and tenth at the PGA Champion­ship. Among his victories were the Annika Sorenstam–energized Bank of America Col­o­n­ial Tournament and the Memorial Tournament, Jack Nicklaus's event that annually has one of the strongest fields in the game. Speaking for himself, and doubtless for all the Pop Guns, Perry says, "I think the level of golf is just improving, Tiger's brought our level up a lot. My health is good and I've always been able to hit it far enough. I don't have any trouble with length and that's always been a big bonus for me."

Enough length, it seems, to put the Young Guns in their place.

Ben Curtis: Young Gun

 

When Ben Curtis held the Claret Jug on the 18th green at Royal St. George's last July, he joined not only a legendary group of champions who have held it before -- names like Old and Young Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus -- but a group of off-the-chart long shots that have won major championships, such as Jack Fleck, Orville Moody, Paul Lawrie and John Daly.

This 26-year-old from Ohio was playing in his first major championship, having qualified the week before with a ninth-place finish in the Western Open that got him up high enough in the world rankings to earn a spot. But win the British Open? Win a major on his first try? Did it have anything do to with the karma of being from Kent, Ohio, and playing in the county of Kent, England?

"I know the names that are on the trophy, just from watching it and growing up around the game," said Curtis after his victory. "I'm in great company, and I feel like I don't belong right now, but I knew in my mind that I did. Right now many people are probably saying, well, he doesn't really belong there, but I know I do, so that's all that matters."

His only previous professional victory was the 2002 Myrtle Beach event on the Hooters Tour. But there had to be something more to him than minor league tours and Monday qualifying. Golfweek magazine once ranked him No. 1 in its amateur poll while he was making All-America honors at Kent State and he was part of the American team that won the World Team Amateur in 2000.

"I never doubted myself. I was the number one amateur when I turned pro, so I knew I had the game. It was just a matter of time for me," says Curtis. "I figured once I got there, that I had the game for this level. It was just a matter of time."


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