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."
Craig Stadler: Pop Gun
The same week Curtis was winning the British Open in extraordinary fashion, Craig Stadler was doing the same thing at the B.C. Open in Endicott, New York. Stadler had turned 50 in June and the week before the B.C. Open he won his first Champions Tour event, The Senior Players Championship. Not having an exemption to play in the British Open, he elected to take a spot in Endicott, where his son Kevin was playing. And the Pop Gun won, shooting a final-round 63.
It was his first PGA Tour victory since the 1996 Nissan Open and it surprised him almost as much as it did the Young Guns he was playing against. "I can still hit it out there pretty much with everybody," says Stadler. "My problem has always been getting the ball in the hole. I just don't make enough putts. That week I hit them and the hole kept jumping in the way. The last round it jumped in the way a whole lot."
Putting is one of the first things to deteriorate as a player gets older. In Stadler's case, it started to deteriorate when he was at the peak of his game, right after he won the 1982 Masters and three other tournaments that year. Then he went eight years with only one victory. In the '90s he won four times, but late in the decade he was showing up less and less on the leaderboard.
With his Champions Tour eligibility looming, Stadler worked harder on his short game. With typically droll humor, Stadler placed the key to his success elsewhere. "Turn 50 and get a good bottle of wine and you'll play better," he says.
Adam Scott: Young Gun
Everywhere Adam Scott goes in the game of golf, Greg Norman is staring him in the face. From pictures on the walls of locker rooms to names inscribed on trophies, Scott takes inspiration from Norman's career and advice from the Great White Shark himself.
This 23-year-old Australian is taking a career path that parallels Norman's rise to prominence. He's playing both the European Tour and the PGA Tours. On the European Tour he is hardening himself to difficult and often drastically changing playing conditions. On the PGA Tour he is honing his competitive edge against the best players in the world. The strategy is paying off. After winning three times in Europe over two seasons, Scott won the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston last year, with one Tiger Woods in the field.
"It seems that everywhere we go in Europe, Greg's name is on the champions list," says Scott. "There's Greg's name on this one and there's Greg's name on that one. I thought I'd kind of like to really set that same presence over there that Greg did and have a lot of wins. Greg means the world to me. I have modeled my golf game after him since I was seven, eight years old."
It was Norman, along with famed golf coach Butch Harmon and Scott's longtime coach, Tom Crow, who suggested a "forget about America" strategy. "They said, ‘Let's go to Europe and get some good grounding over there, says Scott. "That makes me appreciate a lot more what is over here and how good it is."
Peter Jacobsen: Pop Gun
This Pop Gun is going to turn 50 in March and become eligible for the Champions Tour. But expect him to play in several PGA Tour events, especially after his stirring, if not to say shocking victory in the Greater Hartford Open last July.
Jacobsen had not won since a hot streak at the beginning of the 1995 season when he won at Pebble Beach and San Diego. But by the following year his game had deteriorated to the point where, home in Portland, Oregon, with a bad back, he had to give up his caddie, Mike "Fluff" Cowan, to the beckoning of a superstar, Tiger Woods. Jacobsen struggled to make it into the top 125 money winners each season, though occasionally showed a flash of brilliance. But on the whole, he was doing a better imitation of golfers (Arnold Palmer, Craig Stadler, and Fred Couples are comedic parts of his exhibitions) than he was of being a PGA Tour player.
Then he shot a 63 in the opening round at Hartford, and the memory bank kicked in. For a man who spent more time working on his events management company than he did playing competitive golf, this was heady stuff, and he knew he had the head for it with 26 years of being a PGA Tour pro. "I thought I had another win in me, I really did," says Jacobsen. "I've been so motivated by Craig Stadler's play, Kenny Perry's play, Tom Watson's play. The key out here is not [to] limit yourself with either inexperience or age. I don't think about age when I tee it up. I know Stadler didn't. Ben Curtis didn't at the British Open. I didn't think that coming down the stretch on Sunday."
Jacobsen thought what all Pop Guns think, that when there's a chance to win, and they've done it before, they can do it again.
Chad Campbell: Young Gun
How is this for fanfare? Last June, Sports Illustrated put Chad Campbell, a 29-year-old former University of Las Vegas player, on the cover of its magazine. Chad the lad had yet to win a PGA Tour event. In 2002 he had one third-place finish and one fourth. He had won three Nationwide Tour events in 2001 that gave him a "battlefield promotion" to the PGA Tour, where he notched a second-place result. The way his game was maturing, many players saw him as the real deal and were waiting for him to close on it. Sports Illustrated called him "The Next Big Thing."
At the start of 2003 he had two more second-place finishes, then a highly visible runner-up finish at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill, where he was denied a chance at a playoff when Shaun Micheel hit his approach to the 18th hole stiff for a birdie and the win.
Campbell failed to get his PGA Tour card at the qualifying school five times. But he was a successful small-tour player, winning 13 times on the Hooters Tour over four seasons. He was taking the route best for him, learning something at every stage along the way. And holding to an ample supply of his small-town upbringing in Andrews, Texas. There is confidence in his game and humility in his demeanor, even after Sports Illustrated turned the spotlight on him. Unlike many of the other Young Guns, he didn't just pop onto the PGA Tour with a bag full of expectations.
"There's guys that you know, kind of came out and the first thing they get right on the PGA Tour, so they don't know anything different," says Campbell. "They don't know how you go to little towns and play not the best of courses and you don't get everything for free like you do out here. Everything is not just given to you."
Certainly victories aren't handed over for free on the Tour, but expect Campbell to be there for the taking.
Fred Couples: Pop Gun
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.