Majors Deserve Major Winners


What a weird year! The under-50 set comes within a playoff of having three shocking winners for its four major tournaments. Only because Len Mattiace was finally subdued by Mike Weir in a playoff at the Masters did that one escape the upset trend. The British Open and PGA Championship had winners who were - mildly put - shockers.
By contrast, the final major of the Champions Tour was played last week, and what a public relations coup. The JELD-WEN Tradition was won by Tom Watson, with the cream also rising to the top for second place. Finishing one stroke behind Watson was Tom Kite, who certainly was supposed to be there; Gil Morgan ' no surprise there; and Jim Ahern, a minor surprise but one who has played very well this year.
And what did the Champions Tour do to prepare the Reserve Vinyards course near Portland, Ore.? Obviously, not much, at least in the way of configuring near-impossible holes. No 490-yard par-4s; no par-5s which were changed to par-4s just for this tournament; no USGA or PGA heavy-handed tactics to grow the rough knee-high, no R&A craziness to effect fairways which were impossible to hit. The Masters committee wasnt invited to trick up the greens. Just play the course as it was designed, and sit back and let the best players do their thing.
And what do you know? One of the par-5s was only 500 yards ' shocking news to the USGA gents who wouldnt hear of such foolishness. Another stunner - the winning score was what it is at the normal tournament ' 15-under. And they got a winner ' and runners-up - who are the shining lights of the Champions Tour.
Theres a message somewhere in there. This isnt to say the Ben Curtises, Shaun Micheels and even Masters playoff loser Mattiace dont deserve their kudos. They played the best that week, against the courses that every one of the entries had to play, and with the exception of Mattiace, they won their championships. Curtis and Micheel may well prove in the near future that they will win again.
But when a course is set up too difficult, a winner usually occurs who comes from nowhere. Look at the British Open at Carnoustie in 1999, generally perceived to be the worst set-up of modern time. Jean Van de Velde would have won except for a triple bogey on the last hole. Paul Lawrie was the eventual winner in a four-hole playoff, and the golf world has been trying to live down the Carnoustie reputation ever since.
The British Open, though, usually has the most playable of all set-ups. And its champions are almost always of high pedigree, and the scores are almost always double-digits in relation to par. Look at the lineup in the 90s ' Nick Faldo won twice with scores of 270 and 272 (par is normally 288). Nick Price won with a 272, then a 268. Greg Norman won with a 267, Tom Lehman with a 271, Justin Leonard with a 272, Tiger Woods ran away with a 269.
And look at the men who finished second. Payne Stewart and Mark McNulty finished second to Faldo once, then John Cook was runnerup in Faldos next stroll to the victory celebration. Faldo finished second the year that Norman won. Jesper Parnevik was second to Price in 1994, then Parnevik and Darren Clarke were second to Leonard in 1997. In 2000, Tiger finished on top while Ernie Els and Thomas Bjorn finished second.
The U.S. tournaments have gotten a bit overloaded towards the plight of the underdog ' though there certainly is a sizeable portion of the audience that is for the underdog. The majority of the majors, however, should by definition feature the best players. A major championship generally should begat a major player who wins.
The JELD-WEN Tradition ' and the Reserve Vinyards - certainly delivered. The coure owners didnt get their feelings bruised because the course gave up a few birdies. After all, this isnt supposed to be a glorification of the near-impossible course. It is supposed to be a test of a champion, and Tom Watson proved at Portland to be a most worthy champ.