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2001: The Year (in Golf) that Was.

By John M. Ross,
Correspondent
David Toms
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David Toms finally broke through for the best year of his career. (Courtesy of davidtoms.com)

With goodwill and tranquility in the air as we move closer to the holiday season, the grillroom generally acquires a softer atmosphere - fewer debates and rarely a put-up-or-shut-up challenge. But just a few days ago, it was as raucous as ever. The Golf Year 2001 was passing in review.

"I thought it was an off-year," Richie declared, by way of getting things started. "Tiger didn't do what we expected."

"Oh, no, he didn't do much at all," the sarcastic response came. "He only won five times and pocketed more money than anyone else. And don't forget, he became the first to win four majors in a row when he took the Masters."

"Richie thinks if Woods doesn't win every time he tees it up, he's not trying," his chum, Charlie, chipped in.

"Tiger's still the best player out there," a voice from the other side of the bar piped up, "but I think there are a few fellows who are catching up to him."

"And that's going to make it a better game to watch," another added. "You don't want the same guy winning every week!"

The discussion of Tiger's season went on and on, and this was understandable. Of course he had a good year by normal standards, but he has dominated the game so heavily over the past few years that some might judge his 2001 performance a step back from his best. He was not in contention in more tournaments than ever, including a couple of majors. And his back problems later in the year could be the first signs of stress from his all-out pursuit of the game's highest rung.

Seeing Woods squat down to tee up his ball or retrieve one from the cup was a sobering sight for many, and the TV analysts even zeroed in on Tiger's swing in attempts to pick up the adjustments he had made to offset the back pain. It is to be hoped that the adjustments have no long-term negative effect on the million-dollar swing.

Incidentally, squatting to tee up the ball reminds me of a story I heard from an old friend, Max Elbin, longtime head pro at the Bethesda Country Club on the rim of the nation's capital. Many of Washington's leading dignitaries played there, including Richard Nixon, who was president at the time. Nixon was not much of a golfer. He apparently had taken up the game when Dwight D. Eisenhower was his boss, and golf was a byword in the White House.

According to Elbin, a lot of members were razzing Nixon behind his back for the way he squatted at the tee and again at the hole. The wags and Nixon naysayers had a field day about the wimpy image the nation's leader was presenting, and Elbin wondered how he could help him. You know, you can't tell the president of the United States that he looks like a wimp on the golf course.

Happily, Elbin got the opportunity shortly thereafter when Nixon remarked in passing that golf was a tough game on the back muscles. Max readily agreed and then went on to impart what he shaped as a tip from the head pro. He suggested to Nixon that if he bent over to tee up his back ball, this would stretch the back muscles and prepare them for the swing off the tee. And bending over to fish out the ball from the cup would provide an extra stretch. "You'll notice that most of the fellows do that," Max added at the finish.

Nixon brightened at Elbin's tip, like "Wow, what a good idea." But Max had the feeling that the president saw through the veil of subtlety.

But the bottom line was that Nixon never squatted again, and the one-liners in the lockerroom once more returned to party lines.

Getting back to the significance of the game in 2001, I thought it was a highly interesting year. Not necessarily wildly exciting, but it did bring many new faces and factors to the forefront, including who, according to the Supreme Court, is entitled to use a golf cart in championship play.

The U. S. Open at Southern Hills brought us a relatively new hero in Retief Goosen of South Africa as our national champion, but it also put on display the worst putting seen in recent years over the final holes. At one point it seemed as if nobody wanted to win!

Goosen, who also became the first non-European in 26 years to win the European Order of Merit, is slated to spend more time in the U. S. next year to cash in on his new reputation.

After looming as a threat for a couple of years, David Toms finally broke through for the best year of his career. His gutsy decision to layup and go for par was just the right ticket for beating Phil Mickelson in the PGA Championship. Everyone didn't agree with him, but at the end he was there with the big trophy and the big check.

Mickelson was coming close, but at the end of the year he still was looking for his first major championship. He did have a good year, nevertheless, and remains in the No. 2 spot behind Woods in the key stats and rankings. While he doesn't have the knack for lifting his game in the crucial homestretch, the consistency he shows indicates he eventually will be breaking through for the Big One - perhaps in 2002.

David Duval showed some of the fire he has lacked in the past when he took charge of the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. Some thought the big win would be a springboard to a gala year, but after the impressive British victory he accomplished little. Indeed, he was a weak partner for Woods in the World Cup of Golf, costing the U. S. a T-3 finish after being the overwhelming favorite.

I thought the ladies outgunned the men in achievement this year, even though the media barely gives them a tumble. The LPGA's new Big Three - Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, and Se Ri Pak - dominated play and took charge of the money like they were in a three-handed poker game. Of course, Sorenstam had one of the greatest years in LPGA history. She not only became the first to shoot a 59, but she also was the first to go over the $2-million mark in earnings. And to this record she added eight victories and Player of the Year honors once again.

Perhaps the biggest excitement came from the 17-year-old Ty Tryon, who fired a closing 66 in the six-round grueling Qualifying School tests. He can't get his PGA Tour card until he's 18 under PGA rules, but there are enough loopholes to get him out on the tour before that. And when he tees it up, he'll automatically become the new threat to the Tiger.

He made 2001 more memorable when, after his Q-School heroics he rushed home to write a book report for his next day class.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

 
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