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Dealing with the Young and the Old

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
Sergio Garcia
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All in all, it's been a fruitful year for Sergio Garcia. (.)

As the season winds down to its final days, it seems odd that the focus of conversation is on the future of the very young and the older echelons of the game. The 17-year-old phenom, Ty Tryon, commandeered the headlines when he became the youngest ever to earn a card to play the PGA Tour. And while everyone was speculating on how long it would be before he challenged Tiger Woods, the Tour bigwigs were setting up plans that will make it profitable for him to be a tour player 33 years from now.

Young Tryon put his stamp on this piece of history after he conquered one of the most grueling tests in golf - the PGA Qualifying School. It's commonly called Q-School - the gateway to the PGA Tour, but it also picks up names like "Who Wants to be a Millionaire Tech." That's appropriate, too; a playing card for the Tour could be a pass to great riches.

The TV cameras were on Tryon through all six rounds of tension-packed play, and that was understandable. Ty first attracted attention as he set another record last spring when, at age 16, he became the youngest player in 44 years to make the cut in a PGA Tour event in the Honda Classic. He finished tied for 39. He repeated this feat by also surviving the cut in the B.C. Open in July. As a result, all eyes were on him at Q-School, but he handled the pressure with the calm of an old pro.

A high school junior in Orlando, Ty showed impressive poise in breezing through his final round without a bogey. And at that point, pressure for some could have been unbearable. With 18 to play, Tryon was standing in 50th place, and since only the top 35 would get playing privileges for 2002, the moment of truth was at hand. He replied decisively.

He played controlled, error-free golf, and unlike other youngsters in the field, kept his emotions under tight control. That is, until he played the par-5 3rd hole. Here he put a 220-yard 3-iron to within 12-feet, and the eagle putt almost lifted him out of his shoes. That was enough to propel him to a closing 66 - his best of the tournament - and move him up to a tie for 23rd in the final standing with an 18-under par 414.

The Floridian really doesn't get his playing card right away, like the other qualifiers. In September, the PGA Tour put a new regulation in effect that requires potential members to be 18 or older. But that won't stop Ty. He'll be allowed to play in seven tournaments under a sponsor's exemption, and up to a total of 12 overall by the time he turns 18 on June 2. By then it's unlikely that he'll be dependent on his weekly allowance. Predictions are he'll be in demand by sponsors everywhere.

When Tryon turned pro last summer, he was realistic enough to know that only a small percentage of players get through the stress-filled test the first time around. And those who do make it, often have to return to Q-School when they don't live up to performance requirements on the Tour (like finishing among the top 125 on the money list each year). Some players have been back to Q-Schools six or seven times - some even more. They continue to try because it's an opportunity unlike any other in pro sports.

Besieged by prodding media for his reaction to earning his card at such a tender age, Ty, somewhat shy and unemotional, smiled and simply said, "I guess I've shown I can hang out here."

Almost immediately, some pundits were predicting Tryon would be the ultimate challenger to the ongoing reign of Tiger Woods. Not necessarily tomorrow, mind you, but down the road apiece after the tough Tour competition provides the necessary seasoning. Golf promoters already are drooling over the potential billing - Ty versus the Tiger.

But before that happens we might see an even stronger bid to rock Tiger's throne from 21-year-old Sergio Garcia. Ever since he almost caught Woods in that memorable 1999 PGA Championship at Medinah, the young Spaniard has been tabbed by many as "the next Tiger." And with the blazing form he has fashioned in recent weeks that prospect is brighter than ever.

He just missed the Tour Championship after that four-way playoff, and his spectacular win at the big-bucks Sun City shootout in South Africa had to be one of the best finishes of the year. He came home with a final-round 63 to draw abreast of leader Ernie Els, and then on the first playoff hole he chipped in from off the green to take all the marbles. Two million marbles, to be exact.

All in all, it's been a fruitful year for El Nino. He's won five times, including his first on the PGA Tour, and he has taken at least $6 million to the bank. Best of all, Sergio hasn't heard very many critics suggesting the he change his swing these days.

TV's spotlight on golf's youthful talent didn't stop there in the closing days of November. The Father and Son Challenge, as always, added a tender touch that none of the other events provide. The only negative is that it makes me feel too old. It seems as if most of the young fellows I now see playing with their dads were mere tots just a few years ago.

Of course this event has been turned into a family picnic for Ray Floyd and his boys. They have won five of the seven events played and there is little evidence that they have any intention of giving up this very nice end-of-year stipend. It's like cashing in a $200,000 Christmas Club fund for the family's holiday shopping. Big Brother Ray, Jr. joined with dad to win the first three, and now Robert has come along to share in the last two. Incidentally, Ray and Junior also pulled this off at a higher level, winning the pro-am segment of the Pebble Beach Classic in 1994.

Not all the young fellows are budding tour players. Indeed, some have already tried and simply put that dream aside. But every one of them shows the result of learning a sound golf swing at an early age and each one still looks upon his father as his idol.

TV directors must find this event a total joy to cover: scenes of father and sons hugging after winning a hole, even a kiss on the cheek here and there. And the all-out rooting of the family teams, and the camaraderie - and fun. You can't stage that!

It's a great event, and I hope it runs forever. It's a stroll down memory lane with all your old heroes and their kids - and it's good for the heart, too.

Tour officials, however, are beginning to worry about how many hears are being tugged by the stars of yesterday. A study of attendance and TV audience statistics has given indications that interest in the PGA Senior Tour is declining - and they're now moving to correct it.

Starting next year, efforts will be made to make the old fellows more fan-friendly. More players will be hooked up with microphones so they can respond to questions that are offered up by the fans and viewers. The players also will be called on to do more pre-tournament clinics and to mix better with the paying guests in the pro-am events. And they'll even let the gallery trail the players down the fairway over the last four holes.

All that sounds great, as long as it isn't too upsetting to the player who is trying to hold onto an aging concentration and make the cut.

The Senior circuit, now 20 years old, got off to a running start and just kept climbing as long as Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Trevino and the other really big names were out there and winning. When age and health problems slowed them down, they were upstaged by players who never were marquee names on the PGA Tour. Fellows like Bruce Fleisher, Allen Doyle, Jim Thorpe and Doug Tewell, who have sat atop the money list in recent years, are fine players all, but they never were significant names or drawing cards on the regular tour. And they made little impact as Senior attractions when they turned 50.

That's the problem in a nutshell. As one observer noted the other day, "It's too bad they can't put 25 years on Tiger Woods. That would solve all their problems.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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