- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

In two weeks, Sam Snead will take the tee at Augusta National and the golf season will begin in earnest with the game's ultimate springtime ritual.
Though most of this year's storylines will begin to materialize at the 66th Masters, nearly three months of professional play has already hinted at what 2002 holds. So, pull your sticks out of storage, prepare to mainline a little Mastersmania and consider our somewhat whimsical predictions for golf's top stories of the season. Call it the front nine, and we'll meet again in September for some back nine reflections.


No. 1
AUGUSTA NATURAL - Amid a backdrop of whining from most of the field about the lengthening of the layout, Augusta native Charles Howell III becomes the first player since 1979 (Fuzzy Zoeller) to win the Masters in his first attempt.
Howell, a prodigious hitter who has played Augusta National on numerous occasions and broke 70 there for the first time at the age of 15, is no ordinary Masters first-timer. And with his length, local knowledge and native-son support, the 22-year-old authors the success story of the season.
As for the impact of the changes to the course, which has been lengthened by 285 yards, the average field score increases from 72.5 (last year's average) to 73.5 and Howell's winning score is 5-under (283), the highest since 1989.


No. 2
GRAND DAME - Trumping Tiger Woods' faux Slam, Annika Sorenstam wins all four women's majors in the same season, starting with this week's Nabisco Championship. As the first player to ever win four majors in a season, the 31-year-old Swede brings notoriety to the struggling LPGA Tour while at the same time exposing its complete lack of competitive parity.
Rumors abound that Sorenstam will attempt to join the PGA Tour next season despite an average driving distance of just over 252 yards.


No. 3
TEEN SPIRIT - Just days after completing his junior year at Orlando's Dr. Phillips High School, Ty Tryon joins the Tour on his 18th birthday (June 2) and becomes the youngest player to win a PGA Tour event. Our pick for Tryon's breakout venue: the John Deere Classic (July 22-28), which has produced three straight first-time champions.
The current record for the youngest player to win a Tour event is held by Johnny McDermott, who won the 1911 U.S. Open two months shy of his 20th birthday.


No. 4
DETENTE - In the face of rising pressure from equipment manufacturers, the world's professional tours and concerned consumers, the USGA and R&A; come together and form a commission to establish universal standards for equipment.
The commission decides to scrap the USGA's obsession with spring-like effect in woods, welcoming techno-renegades like Callaway's ERC-series drivers to the legal fold, and focuses on limiting advancements in golf ball technology. With longtime ball-regulation proponent Jack Nicklaus as its front man, the commission establishes exacting ball specifications intended to limit spin and distance and protect many of the game's most hallowed layouts from becoming obsolete.


No. 5
OUT OF THE WOODS - Tiger Woods snaps a six-major drought with a dominating performance at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine (7,360 yards, par 72), one of the longest Grand Slam layouts in history. The victory gives Woods seven major titles at age 26, one more than Nicklaus at the same point but still 11 short of the Golden Bear's career record.


No. 6
RYDER HICCUP - After a one-year postponement due to the events of 9/11, the Ryder Cup is finally held at the Belfry (Sept. 23-29). But the memory of the terrorist attacks has thrown a permanent bucket of perspective on the event's once-raging patriotic flames.
Uncle Sam's squad is thrilled by the event's dive in intensity and import, feeling suddenly relieved of the pressure of what they have long considered a no-win proposition. The event ends in a tie, but instead of retaining the cup, the U.S. team dedicates it to the victims of 9/11 and puts it on display in New York.
Nobody pumps a fist or tramples on anyone else's line all week. Putts inside of 5 feet are conceded by both sides. Many British fans carry both the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. And even Monty can't find a loud-mouthed critic. The whole week becomes an insipid hug-fest, all goodwill and forced sympathy without an ounce of the animosity that made the event fun.
In related news, the PGA of America announces that future Ryder Cups will be broadcast on Lifetime.


No. 7
EL NINO - Spain's Sergio Garcia emerges as Tiger's top rival, recording three top-10 finishes in the majors and collecting his first major hardware at the British Open at Muirfield. The 22-year-old Garcia is no stranger to Muirfield, having decimated the field there en route to victory in the 1998 British Amateur.


No. 8
MICKELSON AND MONTY - Golf's major-less superstars finish 0-for-'02 in the Slams, their streak of woe in the big four reaching a dual-career crescendo in the U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park. With the pair tied in the clubhouse and just one group left on the course, the world is thinking 18-hole playoff and a certain major breakthrough.
Instead, Canadian Mike Weir holes a 9-iron approach on the 72nd hole to surge from one back to a one-stroke victory, doubling Mickelson's grief by becoming the first lefty to win a major since Bob Charles (1963 British Open).
Monty responds by pointing his finger at the heavens and speaking in tongues. Mickelson, meanwhile, responds by winning the following week's Greater Hartford Open by a dozen strokes.


No. 9
FREDDIE'S FLOP - After months of negotiation, Fox announces it will broadcast the first event of Fred Couples' proposed Majors Tour, a series of events for major champions over 37 with guaranteed prize money and no cut.
Fox squeezes in Freddie and friends on the Tuesday afternoon following the Ryder Cup. Only Couples, Mark Brooks, Seve Ballesteros and a jet-lagged but dutiful Davis Love show up to compete.
After 17 interminable holes of searching for Seve's errant tee shots in 40-degree temperatures at historic Merion GC, play is suspended due to darkness with Love at 2-over and leading by four strokes. Fox winces at its sub-WNBA ratings and cancels its coverage. Couples calls in Vince McMahon, who suggests future events begin with the 8-iron epee, fencing for first-tee honors.


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