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FOCUS ON GOLF | Randy Harvey

PGA Tour Taking a More Mature Attitude

June 12, 2003|Randy Harvey

The PGA Tour was selling its "Young Guns." I was buying.

Aaron Baddeley, Luke Donald, David Gossett, Charles Howell III, Matt Kuchar, John E. Morgan, Ty Tryon. Out with the old generation. In with the new. These and other earlytwentysomethings would challenge Tiger Woods for the rest of this decade and beyond. Or so I wrote in February.

Well, it could still happen. Maybe even later this year.

But through the first 23 events of 2003, as they make the turn into the U.S. Open this week, the trend is toward those who in a few years can replace tour cards with AARP cards.

The average age of winners is 35. But five tournaments have been won by three players in their 40s: Fred Couples, 43; Kenny Perry, 42; Vijay Singh, 40. Davis Love III, who has won three tournaments, is 39. Jay Haas hasn't won this year, but he has had four top-10 finishes. He's 49. One-third of the top 30 money winners are in their 40s.

Young guns? These guys are muskets.

Who's going to win next?

Tom Watson?

Arnold Palmer?

Byron Nelson?

"I guess we're teaching the young kids how to play golf now," Singh said after winning the Phoenix Open in January.

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"New balls, please."

That was the ATP's marketing campaign a couple of years ago for its young players, but, for the most part, it has played better on Madison Avenue than in Flushing Meadow.

Men's professional golf and tennis suffer from the same affliction.

New, improved equipment has provided the players with more power, but the young ones are so infatuated with it they aren't learning how to play with finesse. Both sports are being robbed of their aesthetics.

In men's tennis, with Pete Sampras on the verge of retirement, it's Andre Agassi vs. the world.

In golf, at least, many older players are still around to remind us how their game should be played.

"The only surprise on the tour this year is that I won," Couples said last week. "I hadn't won in five years, and even I was beginning to wonder if I ever would again.

"But some of the others guys who are winning, that's not surprising. Vijay, Scott Hoch, Kenny Perry, these guys can play. Jay Haas. He's playing as well as ever."

Haas qualified last week to play in the U.S. Open. As did his son, who is 21.

After winning the Memorial two weeks ago, his second consecutive victory, Perry said Haas was his inspiration.

All of the aging players inspired Couples.

Considering their continued success, he had no excuse for not winning a tournament since the 1998 Memorial. That's what he was told by his caddie, Joe LaCava, who threatened to throw Couples off a cliff if he didn't start competing -- not just playing, competing -- again. He won the Shell Houston Open in April.

"I'm only 43," he said. "That's not old."

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Of the Young Guns, the only one among the top 30 in earnings this year is Howell, who is 23. He won once last year and lost in a playoff to Mike Weir in this year's Nissan Open at Riviera.

No one doubts his potential.

"He's an unbelievable player," Couples said. "As he ages, he's going to win a lot."

Baddeley, 22, has shown flashes. The only players in their 20s to win this year, though, have been Ben Crane and Rory Sabbatini, both 27. (Oh, I forgot Woods, who also is 27. But he doesn't count. He has always played beyond his years.) Otherwise, the world's most impressive young player is Michelle Wie.

Younger players hit the ball farther than ever, but the improvement in equipment -- clubs and balls -- has also enabled older players, who might otherwise be losing length, to increase distance. The baby boomers can still boom.

"I thought when I got old, the golf course was going to play longer," said Singh, whose average driving distance of 300.2 yards is seventh on the tour. "It actually is playing shorter. That shows you how much difference the equipment makes."

Golfers, old and young alike, are also more conscious of their physical fitness than previous generations.

With power more or less equalized, a player's ability to win is determined by his mastery of the subtleties.

"You don't see as many shotmakers as you used to," Couples said. "When I first came out there, the fairways weren't all great. You could get some bad lies. The ball's sitting in a hole, now that's a different kind of shot. You had to learn how to hit the hard cut shot and the soft five-iron.

"Most of the fairways are perfect now, so you don't have to learn how to hit a lot of different shots. The people considered shotmakers today are the trick-shot guys."

But you don't win on the PGA Tour with tricks.

Tricks are for kids.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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*--* PGA Tour in 2003 Ages of the golfers on the PGA Tour and how they have fared in victories this season: AGE 20-29 30-39 40-49 19 82 44 VICTORIES 20-29 30-39 40-49 5 12 6

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