Although it is hard to see beyond Tiger Woods for the Majors, 2003 will surely be the year that Peter McEvoy's babes come to maturity. The man who has overseen two consecutive Walker Cup wins for GB and I has developed his young players into potential world-beaters. In consequence the hunter may well find himself hunted not only by the familiar faces of Els, Garcia, Singh and Mickelson, but also by a new and wild bunch hungry for the accolade.
The quartet of hugely talented golfers that showed their mettle at Nairn in 1999 and again at Ocean Forest in Georgia in 2001, have already established themselves in the professional game. From Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Nick Dougherty and Graeme McDowell, the best is yet to come.
Luke Donald chose to stay in the States after establishing all sorts of collegiate golfing records, surpassing even that set by Woods and Mickelson. Although he has already won in his first year on the US Tour and accrued more than $1 million, Donald will undoubtedly be disappointed in not making it into the top-50 on the Tour and thus gain automatic admission to the Masters and the other Majors as well as the four big money events of the World Golf Championship series. Donald is not long by Tour standards but he is unerringly straight, a magnificent long iron player in the Woosnam mould and an inscrutable putter. He stands 95th in the world rankings.
Paul Casey, Donald's unforgettable Walker Cup foursomes partner, has the gift of astonishing length off the tee coupled with a brilliant short game. Routinely driving the ball 300 yards he has finished in the top-10 four times on the European Tour in which he chose to cast his lot after a distinguished US collegiate golfing education. Also winning in his rookie year he lies 46th in the Volvo Order of Merit after his second year on the Tour, and 92nd in the world rankings.
Nick Dougherty was last year's rookie of the year in Europe and although he has not yet triumphed on the Tour it is certainly not for want of trying. He entered 32 events last year and ended up 36th in the Volvo Order of Merit. It is inconceivable that he will not win in 2003.
Graeme McDowell has already had a win on the European Tour and you can be sure that there are many more to come. At 23 he is one of the real prospects with an all round game that can match the best with a swing that makes a mockery of the gurus of swing convention. He finished a disappointing 56th in the Volvo Order of Merit after tinkering with the swing that had got him this far - such is the pressures of pro play. Like the others of this remarkable quartet he has the ambition and resolve to be the best and you can be sure that he will be up there challenging.
Of those that spurned the amateur and chose instead the rough route to the top, Justin Rose stands supreme. He won four time last year and twice on the European Tour, joining the elite group of Woods, Els and Scott to do so. But the 22-year-old's best performance was on the world stage at the World Golf Championship event in Oregon when he finished in the top-five of a field that could not have been more potent. Turning pro at 17after making headlines in the Open, he had to earn his Tour place and specialised in missed cuts before entering his stride with some style. Rose has learned the hard way; a Major almost certainly beckons and it may well come in the next two years. Occupying ninth place in Europe and 46th in the world he has automatic passage into all of the Major events which will make the going somewhat easier.
2003 will certainly provide numerous supporting roles for the likes of Els, Garcia, Singh and the unpredictable Mickelson, but the star part will continue to be played by Tiger Woods.
He will certainly have the grand slam in his sights again. Last year can only have whetted his appetite for it simply served to confirm his continuing supremacy. Despite two Major wins and second place in a third, Woods will have recorded 2003 as an anus miserablis for he has long since set out his stall and made it clear that he is really only concerned with the record books and the figure of Jack Nicklaus towering over him.
For Woods the man, 2002 may have been a disappointment but for Woods the golfer it was nevertheless outstanding. He won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest stroke average for the fourth year in a row and was the leading money winner in both Europe and America. What more can a golfer do? Well, he can win the Masters in April and be the first player to win at Augusta three times in succession. He can also go on to win the grand slam and with the odds on offer at the bookies it is a bet worth a bob or two.
For me personally the event of 2003 will be the Walker Cup at magnificent Ganton in the first week in September. Can we win it three times in succession for the first time ever? I doubt it but it will certainly raise the pulse rate one way or another.
2003 should also confirm that golf, and European golf in particular, is on the cusp of its most remarkable era ever. The US Tour had 38 different tournament winners last year - 18 recording their first victory. The European Tour was equally diverse but showed its overall supremacy in depth by taking the Ryder Cup. Japan showed its golfing stature by winning the World Cup. World golf has never been so exciting or so good.
The golfing stage has never seen such a broad spectrum of talent and after four glorious years one can sense that Woods is finally and realistically challenged. Certainly, if Els and Garcia can steal a scene or two and McEvoy's chorus line, augmented by Rose and Scott can really sparkle, Tiger Woods might well find himself sharing the star's dressing room.
|| 7 - JANUARY 2003