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You've Got to Believe the Gypsies!

By John M. Ross,
Firewheel at Garland's Lakes Course - No. 12
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This fall, more than the leaves are ablaze, writes John M. Ross. (Kiel Christianson/WorldGolf.com)

"This is the best time of the year for golfers," the big fellow in the checkered windbreaker was saying to no one in particular in the men's grill.

"You bet," a companion two stools down agreed. "The whole course is ablaze with color. The leaves are great this year."

"Yeah, they're great, but I really didn't mean the leaves. I'm talking about the tube. That's on fire too. All the big titles are up for grabs at this time of the year, and this is when you see those guys really play."

He scanned the bar for agreement, and he got it. Most heads were nodding. Mine, too. In fact, only minutes before my friend Bill was trying to persuade me that Tiger Woods shouldn't be named Player of the Year this time. And there are debates like that going on everywhere. Is Allen Doyle going to be top man on the Senior Tour? And how about the women? There are three of them bunched up at the top. How will that go? But, as the man said, there still are games to be played and numbers to be totaled.

The arguments being raised now about naming Tiger Player of the Year once again remind me of the period when Jack Nicklaus and then Tom Watson dominated the award. Over a period of 13 years from 1972 through1984, the super duo took the top honor ten times. Jack won it four times over a six-year stretch, while Tom took it six times in eight year, including four in succession - 1977-1980. And over that period the annual question would go forward, "Isn't there anyone else we can give it to?"

Needless to say, Woods has some powerful credentials going for him. He's No. 1 in the world rankings, and by a substantial margin. By winning this year's Masters he became the first golfer to hold all four Grand Slam titles at one time. And his record of five victories for the year (through the National Car Rental Classic) is the best of all, with one or two to spare. It should be an open and shut case on those features alone, but there are some who think the door should remain open.

The fact that Tiger didn't make much of a run in the three other majors of the year has provided some fuel for the debaters. Indeed, they point out that he hit his peak early in the season, winning the Bay Hill Classic and the Players Championship on successive weeks in March, followed by his big one at Augusta in April. After a good win in the Memorial in early June, his summer play was his dullest yet. He was not a significant factor in any of the three majors that followed - the U. S. Open, the British Open or the PGA. Along the way he finished out of the top ten in five consecutive starts for the first time as a pro, finishing as low as 29th.

Just when virtually everyone was wondering "What's wrong with Tiger?" he rebounded to win the NEC Invitational and silence - at least for a time - some interesting reports that had kept Tiger-watchers buzzing. Insiders said Woods had a new romance in his life that was occupying him heavily, and others reported that he had also fallen heavily for the lure of the Las Vegas casinos. Heavily in this instance meant dollars. Golf was no longer his total interest, they said.

But with only a handful of events left on the schedule he still sits rather securely atop the ladder with five wins for the year and the No. 1 spot on the PGA money list and the world rankings. And with that combination it would seem he has a lock on the Player of the Year award yet again.

Other categories are being debated with vigor, however. The personable Argentinean, Jose Coceres, has picked up a huge and vocal following in his first year on the U. S. PGA Tour, and they've started a chant to make him Rookie of the Year. It's a proposal that comes from the heart, I'm sure, for Jose's story is a touching one.

One of a family of 11 (just one sister), Jose got the bug for golf as a kid but there was no money for clubs. That didn't deter him. He fashioned a club from a limb of a guava tree and used this to hit small rocks. Some of that self-taught style remains visible today. His swing is described as unorthodox, and his putting stroke is still like the jab he had to use to get through the coarse grass of the greens back home. But it works!

He has had to overcome much in his unique journey - money problems, lifestyle, language barrier - but in his maiden go-round on the PGA Tour he has registered two triumphs and pocketed nearly $1.5 million in prize money. That's a dazzling rookie year, but is Coceres really a rookie? Many say he is not. He's played the European Tour for nine years, as well as numerous South American events, and is 38 years old. Detractors say that is not in keeping with the spirit of the rookie award.

They say Charles Howell III would be a better fit. Fresh out of college and a non-member of the tour, he has earned the whopping sum of $1,430,872 in 22 events. He hasn't had a win, but his bank account will confirm he has had an impressive collection of high finishes.

That will be a difficult call, especially for sentimentalists.

The scramble for top honors on the LPGA Tour could go down to the final strokes of the year. Through the Samsung Championship, the three-way hassle between Annika Sorenstam, Se Ri Pak and Karrie Webb, which has been ongoing most of the year, was nearing the boiling point.

Sorenstam, the smooth and steady Swedish veteran, has the edge thus far, with six wins for the year and the top spot on the money list. The other two are right on her heels. Se Ri Pak, of Korea, has visited the winner's circle five times, and Australia's Webb has been there twice. The stunning statistic here is that this threesome combined has won more than one-third of the events on the LPGA schedule.

Sorenstam, who also entered the all-time low score of 58 in the books earlier this year, stands to sweep the ladies' three top awards - Rolex Player of the Year, leading money winner and the Vare Trophy for the best stroke average. She's been leading in all three for most of the year, but with the schedule running through mid-November, there's time for some surprises.

There's been a similar sizzler on the PGA Senior Tour, but this is a four-way battle among Allen Doyle, Bruce Fleisher, Hale Irwin and Larry Nelson. The top prize here usually is upper perch on the money list, and this year there's an added incentive. The Charles Schwab Cup is on the line, and that's no small matter. It is conducted on a point standing basis. The quartet has been running in the above order for the past weeks, and if it stands up that way to the finish, the top money winner also will pick up a $1 million check for the Schwab Cup and that would make him the tip-top money winner!

As the man at the bar was saying, it's a great time of the year for golf.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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