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A Noisy Year In Golf

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One word best describes the year in golf: NOISY.
 
Hootie and Martha shouted across the nations sports pages. Bethpages U.S. Open reverberated louder than a Giants/Eagles game in late December.
 
People screamed at Curtis Strange. Catrin Nilsmark blasted the U.S. Solheim Cuppers. And plenty of pundits sounded off on Suzy Whaley.
 
Doesnt anybody read those signs that are so ubiquitous at tournaments'Quiet Please?
 
Tigers early mission was to make golf look like America. Thats a work in progress, but golf does sound like America these days. LOUD.
 
Whos right - Hootie or Martha? Should Suzy play? Did Curtis blow it? Let us know what you think. Vote now.
 
Its the surest sign that golf has arrived as a major sport'the discourse has reached ear-splitting levels.
 
The sport used to hum along rather quietly, even blissfully, but no longer. Not with a multi-cultural, hotter-than-J.Lo superstar, and not with its propensity to cling to old practices in a new and different world.
 
Alas, the racket has subsided just a bit during the holidays, enough so that I can hear myself think. Here now some thoughts on the season gone by:
 
The man of the year is Rich Beem. Thats right, Rich Beem. Oh sure, Tigers the player of the year and will be for the next 10 or 15. But Rich Beems one of us, and he won a major. In an era of ubergolfers who train like Drago from Rocky IV, Beemers a rare gem, a throwback to Hagen and a time when guys let loose.
 
Back home in New Mexico after winning the PGA, he treated 20 of his closest pals to Taco Cabana at 2 A.M., this after a raucous night of dice and cards in a smoke- filled room at El Paso Country Club. Six years ago the game was clamoring for its next star and got Tiger Woods. For some time golfs been in need of a genuine character. Thats Rich Beem.
 
The woman of the year is Annika Sorenstam. Please, spare me this nonsense that proclaims Martha Burk golfs most important woman of 2002. Burk fired plenty of missives, but she didnt hit a single golf shot. Sorenstam won more tournaments in a single season than any female since 1964. And shes come closer than anyone, male or female, to achieving what every high-level player seeks'the ability to repeat a mechanically sound golf swing again and again and again.
 
The years biggest mystery was David Duval. Who didnt think his 2001 British Open victory would springboard him to greater glory? But personal problems dulled his passion, and he finished 80th on the PGA Tour money list.
 
The biggest loss was Sam Snead. As much as his magnificent swing, Ill remember a moment under the oak tree two years ago at Augusta. Snead, not long after launching his ceremonial tee ball, discussed his health with a group of maybe 20 reporters. He began to talk about some recent dental work, and without warning, removed his teeth to show to the pack of dumbstruck scribes. It was one of the funniest things Ive ever seen. Talk about legendary characters. That was Sam.
 
Ironically, Sams old nemesis, Paul Runyan, also passed away this year. Runyan, despite giving up whopping distance off the tee, routed the Slammer, 8-and-7, in the 1938 PGA Championship final. He remains one of the best examples that in golf the little guy can compete.

We also said goodbye to, but certainly havent lost, Ken Venturi and Nancy Lopez.
 
The best surprise was obviously Craig Perks. His Players' Championship was an upset on the order of Villanova over Georgetown. The guy was 203rd in the world, for crying out loud! And his pitch-in, birdie-bomb, pitch-in finish was one for the ages.
 
The sweetest smiles belonged to Jeff Julian, Fred Funk, Juli Inkster, Ernie Els, Patty Sheehan and Sam Torrance.
 
I watched Julian, bravely fighting ALS, make a long birdie putt at Pebble in February, and a happier man in the world youd have been hard pressed to find. I was instantly reminded of what Lou Gehrig, ravaged by the disease for which there is still no known cure, said to 60,000 fans at Yankee Stadium in 1939, Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Over the summer, Julian was celebrated in his native Vermont at one of the most emotional parties Id ever attended, alternately joyous and tear-filled.
 
Meanwhile, Funk danced his way around Hazeltine, proving a little personality goes a long ways. Juli breathed fire at the U.S. Women's Open and melted Annikas icy calm. Ernie hugged the Claret Jug, Muirfields setting sun illuminating his still handsome face, the strain of all those days in Tigers shadow washed away. And Patty and Sam roared with the kind of joy and exuberance that have become the hallmark of those riveting team competitions, the Solheim and Ryder Cups.
 
Heading to 2003, several sagas play on. Phil Mickelson is 0-42 in majors. To end the drought, hell need to cut down on missed putts from short range and ease off the gas pedal in general. Mistake-free, predominantly conservative play wins majors.
 
Tigers proven that, and, overall, his supremacy remains totally unchallenged. While the pool of occasional challengers may have grown, the gap between Tiger and the pack is as wide as the Grand Canyon. And hes getting better.
 
Looking ahead to April, The Masters might well be the all-time media mess. Tiger going for an unprecedented third straight jacket? A mere sidebar with Hootie and Martha in the squared circle. The balls in Hooties court, and apparently hes just going to take the air out of it. Good, old-fashioned, North Carolina four-corner stall. No 35-second clock in this game.
 
Golf marches on, the drumbeat ever louder.