Granted, we haven't played a major yet. And granted, we've had eight different winners in the eight events played thus far on the PGA Tour. But Brad Faxon happens to be the early (let's emphasize early) pacesetter for Player of the Year honors.
Phil Mickelson and Davis Love and Mark Calcavecchia are each one win away from pulling ahead of the rejuvenated Rhode Islander, but for now, the man ABC-TV's Ian Baker-Finch (trying to be a bit more bold in his pronouncements, not unlike Johnny Miller of NBC-TV) said was a better roller of the rock than even his Magic Wandness himself, Gentle Ben Crenshaw, HAS had the best year. Yet until Fax uses that Itzhak Perlman sweep of his bow to, say, win the Masters as Crenshaw did TWICE, I'll have to disagree with the agreeable Aussie, Baker-Finch. Crenshaw's still the better putter.
But here's the thing: I see no reason why Fax can't be a modern-day Crenshaw at Augusta, considering the way he's now striking the golf ball. Previously wild and unreliable from tee to green, Faxon's shortened his swing, tightened a few screws, and come to the understanding if not the outright epiphany that if he can just find a way to consistently knock the ball to even 20 feet, he's bound to make his share of birdies. Or even eagles. The guy leads the tour with ten eagles already this year. That's incredible in just a handful of tournaments. Which makes a Faxon run at the Masters not that unfathomable.
What is Augusta but a chess game where you put the ball in the right spot and then let your putter keep you in the game? Why not a BETTER BALL-HITTING Faxon to win at Augusta National this year? He's focused. He's positive on and off the course with a new bride after a painful divorce. He's intent on fulfilling longer-term goals like a return to the Ryder Cup. The difference is now he's got the tools to re-build that dream. He's no longer just a guy who, as they say, skanks it and makes everything he looks at. He's a guy who hits it fairly decently--not Tiger or Mickelson-like, but decently. And he still pretty much makes everything he looks at.
That sounds like a Masters contender to me. If he gets it done there, I'll be happy to agree with the agreeable Mr. Baker-Finch that perhaps Faxon's a better putter than Ben.
By the way, Faxon failed to qualify for the Masters in 2000, the first time he's missed since 1992. In eight appearances, he's missed only one cut, posted five top-25s with a low finish of a tie for ninth and a high of a tie for 31st in 1993. By way of comparison, Vijay's best finish prior to his win last year was a tie for 17th.
In Praise of David Feherty
Speaking of announcers, a Baker-Finch counterpart at CBS, David Feherty, is already a young announcing and writing standout, perfectly teamed with Gary McCord. His slant on the world, either written or verbal, is uniquely and uproariously his own. Inimitable.
Back on the course, Joe Durant's long been a superb ball hitter and green finder, frequently among the leaders in those stat categories. It's no surprise that at the Hope he went scuba diving deep now that he seems to have tapped into a new reservoir of short game prowess that previously had eluded him.
His pleasant demeanor and simple swing action appear well suited for future success. Of course, it so often comes down to getting the ball in the cup. Putting. Even the best strikers must come face to face with that reality. Once they do--and Vijay's another good example--success really flows.
DOES RIVIERA HAVE A DEFENSE?
Hey, wondering whether Riviera's got an answer to all the low scoring? In recent years, it's yielded some eye poppers. Elk's record 267 in the '95 PGA. Ted Tryba's course record 10-under par 61 in 1999. Maybe they should tuck some pins, grow some rough and put the thought back into the process. These guys are absolutely fearless.
Southern California bred Tiger Woods, interestingly enough, has never won at Riviera, yet has played it quite frequently through his formative and early professional years.
TIGER IN 2001
In the bigger picture, Tiger's obviously not the ONLY one who's capable of winning golf tournaments. We've seen that in the early part of 2001. But in my mind, he's still also THE ONLY ONE capable of winning an event by fifteen shots (2000 U.S. Open.) Or a dozen (1997 Masters.) Or eight (2000 British Open.)
If he putts, he can run and hide like no one else. If he doesn't make all his putts, then he's capable of still contending and finishing eighth. Or fifth. He's going to chalk up his share of top-10s. And years from now that'll actually become another hallmark of his. His Nicklaus-like ability to never really be out-and-out terrible on the golf course.
From the time he turned professional in 1962 until 1978, Jack Nicklaus never, ever had less than 10 top-10s in any one season. 17 straight years. Starting with his first full season in 1997, Tiger's had four straight seasons with no less than nine. He's gone nine, 13, 16 and 17 for a four-year average of about 14 top-10s per year compared with Jack, who had a first four-year average of almost 17 top-10s.
A STORM ON THE HORIZON
Waiting for Tiger to break out is like waiting for a tornado. When it arrives, it'll be full of fury and power. And remember, Tiger's not opposed to tinkering with his swing in the short term if it means getting it straight at just the right time...at, say, the Masters, where he'd set off an avalanche of Grand Slam debating were he to win this April.
MUSING ABOUT BOBBY JONES
Speaking of the Masters and the Grand Slam for that matter...a friend showed me a photo of a young Bobby Jones, cradling the Claret Jug, face handsome and perfect and hopeful and smiling and full of all of the promise of the world. Jones walked away at the very height of it all. I wonder what he would have thought of capitalizing on endorsements, which is obviously a much more pervasive thread in the overall quilt nowadays?
Would Jones have done car commercials, ads for McDonald's or a credit card company? Doubtful. Perhaps one company of consequence, but it certainly wouldn't have screamed at you. Something to think about. Jones walked away from competitive golf before he was 30, yet quickly developed something else so lasting and alluring that it would come to rival his on-course feats of the 1920s and his unparalleled season of 1930. And that something else naturally was Augusta National.
And so when I saw that radiant face, that natural, heroic visage, it sparked pangs of longing for Augusta. Springtime. A time of hope, when brightness is something we preternaturally invite into our lives, be it the brightness of the outdoors, the brightness of a flower in bloom, the brightness of kids laughing and yelling at a little league baseball game, or the brightness of a dimpled white ball against a clear blue, April sky.
Forgive the romantic side trip. And I know some cringe at that sort of fawning, reverential, perhaps even trite view. But Augusta's like a play, like a time-honored show that's good in large part because it is what it has always been. This romantic sort of view of Augusta is what Jones has inspired. Not flashy. But certainly substantial. A certain dignity. A manner of acting. A definitely unspoken code of civility. Humility.
BACK TO FAXON
Which leads us back to Faxon. Think about him for a moment. Does he embody any of those qualities? Is his game suitable? Was Olazabal's on two occasions? Of course, the Tour hasn't even swung to Florida yet. Los Angeles and Riviera beckon for a fond West Coast farewell. And here I am ruminating on the Masters. The mind's prone to drift that way with spring an increasingly more visible specter in the distance.
Who are your early Masters Favorites?
Share your thoughts!
Full Coverage of the 2001 Masters Tournament