Clash of the Generations
The 2004 PGA Tour will continue to be a battleground between the Young Guns and the pop guns
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It's difficult to imagine that Fred Couples is 44. He's still got a Young Gun face, even with gray leaking into his mop of hair and bristling whiskers. He still can hit the ball like a Young Gun. That cannon of a driver has never deserted him.
But certainly his back woes qualify him as a Pop Gun and have for many years. Couples' back has been worse than most, limiting his ability to practice. He has to save himself to play in what have been a precious few tournaments from year to year, but the foundation of all good play is on the range, where Couples has been noticeably absent for years.
He managed to show up in Houston last season with his game intact to win the Shell Houston Open, his first victory since 1998. So much was expected of Couples after he broke through to win the 1992 Masters after beginning the season with two other wins and two close calls. While he had a decent career and is among the most popular players on the PGA Tour, he never did anything that would land him in the legendary category.
Couples' back has had a lot to do with that and will have a lot to do with his longevity. He has a dilemma: either he can practice regularly and play a lot of tournaments -- taking the chance of a career-ending injury -- or cut back severely to extend his career. The latter option, in all likelihood, means he would no longer be competitive.
"I'm just going to push it until I screw up," says Couples, who worked hard before Houston. "If I can play like this another year or two where I feel like I can play, then fine. But if I say I just want to take it easy and play a lot longer, play poorly, it's kind of wearing on me. It used to be OK. After two or three years it gets old."
So many other players, old and young, asserted themselves in 2003. Aaron Baddeley, a 22-year-old Australian who has twice won the Australian Open, lost in a playoff to Ernie Els at the Sony Open in Honolulu. Ben Crane, a 27-year-old, won at Duluth, Georgia. Hank Kuehne, the long-hitting Texas prodigy and 1998 U.S. Amateur champion, showed up on leaderboards with increasing frequency.
The month of September was dominated by players older than 40. Tommy Armour III -- who has carried around his grandfather's name as something of a burden -- at age 43 set a PGA Tour 72-hole record of 254, 26 under par. Kirk Triplett, Bob Tway and J. L. Lewis, all in their 40s, won. Heck, Vijay Singh turned 40 early last year and had a great season.
On the Saturday night before his victory in Hartford, Peter Jacobsen checked his cell phone for messages and found one from Craig Stadler, who had won the B.C. Open the week before. Stadler said that if Jacobsen won, they would mostly likely be paired together at the Mercedes Championships at Kapalua to start the 2004 season, since the pairings go by order of the tournaments throughout the season. The two veterans will be joined by a lot of other Pop Guns in the Mercedes, the tournament of champions that is scheduled for this January. The Pop Guns have proven that the Young Guns can't just move into town and clean out the saloon.
Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.