Monday, June 28, 2004

All you can ask of a golf tournament like the Booz Allen is that the final round provide at least a dollop of drama. No reputations are going to be made at Avenel, no cherished trophies carted off. It’s all about the play on the last day … the quality of the play and the pedigree of the participants.

Adam Scott and Charles Howell III certainly delivered in that department yesterday. Two of the world’s most promising 25-and-under golfers showed us what they’ve got — Howell turning a runaway into a tight duel with an Avenel-record-tying five straight birdies on the back nine, Scott answering with three birds in four holes to cement the championship. It didn’t quite achieve White Knuckler Status, but it was a fine show nonetheless.

Especially since we figure to be hearing plenty from these fellows in the next decade or so. They’re not Tiger Woods — who is? — but they’re the next best thing. Scott has won three events on the PGA Tour in just under 10 months, including the Players Championship, and Howell, a one-time winner, is edging ever closer to stardom. They faced off in the Presidents Cup last November (Charles prevailing 5 and 4), and they’ll likely encounter each other on a few more occasions as they grow into their games.

“I think we’re getting closer,” Howell said. “In 2002, when I think we had 18 first-time winners [Charles among them], everybody jumped on the Young Guns, so to speak, bandwagon — maybe a bit prematurely. … You didn’t have any young players win last year, barring maybe once or twice.

“There’s still something to be said for experience, learning your own game, learning your own recipe for success. We’ve got plenty of talent, I know, and that’s speaking across the board for a lot of younger players. There’s plenty of guys, even guys you haven’t mentioned such as David Gossett, Bryce Molder, Aaron Baddeley — there’s loads of them.”

With Tiger busy planning his wedding, Scott and Sergio Garcia have walked off with two titles each this year, and Howell might be the next to make his Big Breakthrough. He’s been the runner-up at the last two Tour Championships and has the length and all-around ability to be a threat anywhere. How often, after all, do you see a player string together five birdies coming down the stretch of a tournament, reducing a seven-shot deficit to two with a handful of holes to play?

The only time Howell could remember doing anything like that as a pro was in the 2002 Greater Milwaukee Open, when he birdied 15 through 18 to force a playoff with Shigeki Maruyama (which he lost). Granted, it is, as he said, “nice to play golf with nothing to lose,” but it was still a fabulous run, one that definitely got Scott thinking.

And what the 23-year-old Aussie did next was every bit as impressive. He drained a 15-footer for birdie at 14, knocked a wedge to four feet for another bird at 15, rolled in a sweet 10-foot par saver at 16 and dropped a 7-iron 10 feet away for yet another bird at 17, putting him up by five (What, you expected Scott to, uh, throw in the towel?)

“It’s nice to be able to respond to a little bit of pressure,” he said, “… and it’s nice to make some putts when it counts.”

It’s happened so quickly for Scott, more quickly than he ever imagined. Seems like just yesterday he was swallowing his pride and heading off to the European tour because “when I first turned pro [at 18], I wasn’t good enough to play” in the U.S. Then he won the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston last September, and everything began falling into place.

“Guys can play really well out here for years and never get a win,” he said. “I mean, Craig Parry was out here, what, 10 years or something, and then he finally broke through [last year in the NEC Invitational]? There’s a lot of luck involved in winning.”

Then, too, he added, “you can get stuck in the position of finishing high up and not quite [winning]. I think when you finally get that win, you know you can do it. And Craig won again this year [at Doral], and I’ve managed to keep it going a little bit.”

A little bit? The kid is now the No.5 money winner on the PGA Tour with $2,915,670, less than $35,000 behind the pre-nuptial Woods. He has victories in South Africa, Qatar, Scotland, Sweden, the U.S. — he’s a world-class player. And now he’s appropriated much of the Booz Allen record book; he’s got the low 36-hole score (14 under), is tied for the low 54- (18 under) and 72-hole (21 under) scores and also shares the mark for the best back-to-back rounds (66-62, 14 under).

Best of all, he won the tournament — and Howell took second. That virtually guarantees they’ll be back at Avenel, again and again.

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