Tiger Woods' recuperation from knee surgery will doubtless not have been helped this weekend by Ernie Els' antics in Hawaii. Indeed, the Tiger must be regarding the year ahead with apprehension. The Big easy has won the first two USPGA Tour events and set himself a comfortable early lead in the money Order of Merit. Furthermore, Ernie does not look at all self-satisfied and could well continue in the same vein for some time.
The Tiger may have watched Ernies' exploits in Hawaii with apprehension but he must also have noted the performance of several young guns with some concern. Not least of these were Aaron Baddeley who looked every inch the champion in waiting - as Els himself was quick to acknowledge after the event.
Els was, of course, referring to the challenge that the not yet 22-year-old had subjected him to even though the young Aussie has long since posted his intent. Winning the Aussie Open as an amateur in 1999 and showing that it was no fluke in 2000, he also took the Holden title in 2001. Although these wins were certainly significant, of much more importance was the way he won, for he was the front-runner on every occasion. This lad has nerves of steel and he has shown that they have not corroded in this, his first year on the US Tour.
Baddeley holed a crucial putt on the 18th green to take Els to a play-off. It was a doubly impressive performance on the 18th green because he had missed a three-footer on the 17th to fall a stroke behind. This missed putt was in consequence of some pressed person slamming a portaloo door behind the 17th green just as he was addressing his putt. There was no way that he could hole it after that interruption and it speaks volumes for the lad that he took it in his stride. One was unable to avoid the mental picture of Monty in the same situation assuming a facial expression uninterpretable outside the simian world.
Baddeley is also bold in the self-assurance of his ability. Obviously unaware of the saying that only a woodenhead takes a wood in a bunker, he not only played a wood from a bunker but he also halved the first extra hole from it with a birdie.
If the Tiger watched the on-goings in Hawaii with apprehension the PGA Tour officials must have regarded the leader board in Honolulu with horror. For some time in the last round overseas players, the South African, Els and the three Aussies, Baddeley, Appleby and Allanby, occupied the top four places. Chris Di Marco and Jerry Kelly crept in to spoil the party but for much of the last round it looked like an Aussie rout.
The Sony Open confirmed that there is a sea change in world golf. Without Woods, Mickelson and Love in the field one should perhaps be guarded. But golf has gradually become a young man's game and the younger Americans fail to compare with the young guns from Australia and Europe.
Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald failed to shine as expected in Hawaii, possibly distracted by hula dancers, but the action in South Africa last weekend showed that the youth of England is rapidly coming of age.
Mark Foster has taken longer than expected to come to maturity. Many will remember him as a Walker Cup player of great promise in the same team as Padraig Harrington in 1995. Many will also remember that he was considered the lad with the greatest potential. Pod, it may be ironically recalled, was not particularly well rated. After a long struggle with three qualifying schools, Foster has only arrived in the big boy's game after winning the Challenge Tour. Foster has finally fulfilled his potential and won a Tour event but only after five others did what they could to make it difficult.
Six man play-offs are not commonplace and Foster had a winning baptism of fire having to overcome the impressive South Africans, Immelman and Vaughan, Hanson the Dane, Paul Lawrie and his erstwhile Scots compatriot Doug McGuigan. But when he did it he did it with style, holing a 40-foot putt for an eagle.
As important as Foster's win was - possibly of greater significance was the 65 that Justin Rose returned in the last round after another impressive tournament, and Paul Casey's steady performance on the leaderboard yet again. Bradley Dredge fell to a final round 74 after leading for much of the tournament and Ian Poulter and David Howell continue to impress.
The fact that the European young guns are challenging week after week attests to their consistency, the most elusive property in golf and the best indicator of excellence in the game. Rose struggled long and hard to find it and now that he has got it he does not look likely to lose it for a while.
Woods' long driving conveyed a distinct advantage when he burst onto the scene but his contemporaries now match him and his juniors are clearly unimpressed. If Foster's 40 footer in the play-off for the Dunhill Championship or Els' 20-footer to take the Sony is an indicator of things to come, Woods' era may be shorter lived than we all feared it might be.
|| 21 - JANUARY 2003