From Hogan to Nicklaus to Woods, golf's superstars have always spawned copycats. When a player reaches No. 1, his pursuers look at what he's done and mimic his actions as best they can. It's not always the best idea.
At the start of 2005, we had a host of players on Tour trying to model themselves after Vijay Singh, who entered the year as the world's top-ranked player. Historically, the rank-and-file players have been the quickest copycats; now it's the upper ranks. Take Phil Mickelson: I watched him win earlier this year at Phoenix and Pebble Beach, and he's practicing just like Singh. He sticks a shaft in the ground to check his swing plane and has his caddie measure targets on the range to get exact yardages. In past seasons, Lefty's practice was never this meticulous.
Mickelson told me he's been working on distance control with his wedges because he'd be hitting a lot more of them. Then it dawned on me: He's copying Vijay, who uses driver all the time. Phil has bagged the fairway-and-greens strategy that helped him win the 2004 Masters. It's worked so far, but in the majors, the rough gets rougher and the fairways get tighter.
Tiger Woods is employing a similar philosophy. In 2004, Woods switched to a graphite-shafted driver with a larger clubhead. Now he's using the big stick all the time--just like Vijay. (And if Tiger can keep the No. 1 spot he reclaimed at Doral for the rest of the year, I bet we'll have players going back to copying his habits in 2006.)
My concern for some No. 1 clones is that they're firing at a moving target. To paraphrase a song by the rock group 3 Doors Down, players should "be somebody, not be somebody else." Because one man's medicine is another man's poison.
Some Assembly Required
While the Tour has no rivalries for the ages at the moment, it does have golf's current Fab Five: Singh, Mickelson, Woods, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, winners of 13 of the last 24 majors. But other than the majors, the quintet appeared in the same event only three times last year.
To have a real rivalry, these guys have to play each other more often. Tiger and Phil have come out in favor of a shorter season, and here's my solution: Reduce the PGA Tour schedule to four eight-week segments (32 events, down from 49), with one major per segment. Start the season in February and finish by September. Reduce the Top 125 exemptions to 100, and let the elite fight it out.
The outcry will be, what about everyone else? My answer: Invest in the Nationwide Tour, which has proven itself to be a breeding ground of future stars. Expand the money--in fact, weaker PGA Tour events could then be part of the new Nationwide Tour.
With fewer tournaments on the PGA Tour, we'd be more likely to see today's best players go head to head on the course, where these rivalries belong.