Americas Best?


To quote the immortal Jeff Spicoli, a 10th-place finish on the PGA Tour is worth righteous bucks: roughly $150,000 on any given week, depending on the purse size and how many others also wind up 10th. There was a five-man tie for 10th at Doral last week, a pileup that included Tiger Woods, and though it was Tiger¹s first top 10 since last June's U.S. Open, some top 10s are a lot better than others.

A pop-up, a snap-hook, a bushel of missed putts, then a 66 on Sunday. It all added up to $129,000, good work if you can get it but not exactly a billboard heralding the return of the Woods Dynasty. Top 10s can be very misleading – Woods and his fellow T-10ers ended up eight strokes behind Nick Watney. In Tiger's case, he teed off Sunday with basically no chance of contending, so that 66 probably deserves an asterisk.

He calls it progress. I call it a nice round played under zero competitive duress, which makes the Dude in the Red Shirt one heck of a warmup act.

Anyway, a T-9 was worth $150,800 at Torrey Pines and $163,800 at Pebble Beach. If Uncle Sam gets a third of that money, so should Sir Eldrick, whose extended stretch of greatness is the only reason everybody is playing for more than $5 million a week.

Not that you noticed or really care, but 'Top 10 Finishes' is now an official statistical category on the PGA Tour. I hear people talking about top 10s as if a four-way tie for seventh is better than a week in Cancun with Halle Berry. I hear people wondering aloud if Matt Kuchar, with his three career victories and an enormous collection of top 10s, has become America's top golfer.

Excuse me? Does past performance count for absolutely nothing when discussing the identity of our nation's finest? Once upon a time, Tiger Woods was the Greatest Golfer Who Ever Lived, and though he's still alive, I¹m guessing his brilliance will grow exponentially after he's gone. We love to glorify the past and hasten to the future, and thus, we rush to judgment on everything and everybody. Nowadays, the present is just a reason to look back and hurry forward.

You have to win tournaments to be the best – not just this week and next, but in the big picture as it is debated in taverns and clubhouses from coast to coast. Kuchar might be America's most consistent player, but calling him the best is a leap of nearsighted perspective. I understand the need to view this world in the here and now, but a slew of solo eighths does not a superstar make.

That said, the game's competitive landscape definitely is changing. At one point last Sunday, the top four spots on the leaderboard were occupied by young Yanks. Woods and Philly Mick were gassing up the jets, and more than on most weekends, you could feel the game's balance shifting. Out with the gold, in with the kinda new, but Kuchar hasn¹t come close to doing what Steve Stricker did for three years, and nobody referred to Stricker as America's best.

Woods hasn't looked very good in recent months, and at Doral, there were several swings that came straight from the land of the 12 handicap.

Compared with the glory days, it's easy to think that his best golf is far behind him, but that doesn't mean he can't win three or four tournaments a year and continue an honest pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' all-time record of 18 major championships.

The British oddsmakers have made Woods and Mickelson their co-favorites for next month's Masters, which ought to tell you something. Personally, I think Dustin Johnson has the best chance of winning, and if he were to wrap his chiseled shoulders in one of those snazzy green jackets, I still wouldn't consider him decorated enough to earn the label as America's best. Now and for the foreseeable future, that title belongs to Tiger.

It¹s not all about what you've done lately, but the entire body of work.

If the future is the great unknown, if the present is a work in progress, the past must count for something. Especially when your past features 14 majors and 71 Tour victories. By the way, that's a lot of top 10s.