There was a perfect symmetry to the Sony Open last week, for just as one teen-aged, Hawaiian supernova, Michelle Wie, 17, was flaming out (again), she was replaced by another incandescent teen-aged talent, Tadd Fujikawa, 16.
Ty Tryon (remember him?) was an older 16 when he made the cut at the 2001 Honda Classic, which made Fujikawa, altogether now, the youngest player to make a cut on Tour in 50 years. But a wise man once said the ball doesn't know your age (lucky for Sony champ Paul Goydos, 42) and it's simply not true that if a kid is that good that young, then s/he will be off the charts in 10 or 20 years.
Tryon is not off the charts, he's off the Tour. Wie shot 43 for her first nine holes and posted 78-76 at Waialae. She looked better at 14, when she shot 72-68 and missed the cut by one. After playing with a sore wrist last week, and hitting to all fields, her only consolation was avoiding last place, as she finished six strokes ahead of the great David Chin and 11 clear of Abe Mariano. She also bettered, sort of, the DQ'd Tom Johnson and Stephen Ames. Good times.
You have to wonder how long it will take for the hype to stultify the lovable, 5-foot-1-inch Fujikawa, just as it's done to Tryon, Wie and, yes, Charles Howell III, who suddenly stopped making birdies at the Sony to notch his ninth runner-up finish. We've always been a country that values precocity of youth, but never have expectations risen so high with so little provocation. For that, of course, we can thank Tiger Woods, who won his first Masters not four months after he turned 21. He was the quickest to earn $2 million, doing it in 16 events in 1997. At 21 years, five months and 20 days, he was the second youngest to win five times, after Horton Smith. Woods has the most wins, 46, of any player in his 20s, which also puts him seventh on the all time victories list.
It's been a great ride for Tiger, but not great for those who have come after him. Howell, still stuck at one career W, is part of a generation of would-be Woodses mired in self-doubt and second-guessing, casualties of their rush to grow up and our willingness to push them along. We can all share the blame on this one, especially those of us charged with feeding the media maw.
As 2001 Rookie of the Year and the winner of the Michelob Championship the next year, Howell looked like a sure thing. Then he turned into the nearly man, and by the time he showed up at Waialae last week he was all but written off at age 27. So was Sergio Garcia, whose odometer rolled over to 27 last week, after his unsuccessful Sunday pairing with Woods at the British Open last July. Justin Rose was England's great hope when at 18 years old he pitched in at the last hole to tie for fourth in the 1998 British Open. He turned professional the next day and was an overnight flop, unable to make a cut on the European tour, but now, at 26, he might not be so bad after all, having recently won the Australian Masters. All three players have suffered comparisons to the greatest player of all time, Woods, at great expense to their psyches and careers.
Not that they can't turn it around.
Truth is they're just one good week away from the fan and media adulation that greeted their arrival, and one bad one from further scorn. It's a game of build-and-destroy, a silly exercise, but do they know that? Are they smart enough not to read their own press clippings, and if they do, secure enough not to believe them? Luke Donald, 29, was talking recently about the 2002 Q school, which he survived despite a few anxious moments, and said of his time at Northwestern University, "I just relied on the knowledge that I was a good college player and had the ability to do this. That's the point of going to college is to win all those events to feel like you belong."
Does Wie have that knowledge? Maybe she'll find it at Stanford, where she's been accepted but, as of last week, has not formally committed to attend next fall. If only she could regain her amateur status and play for the Cardinal golf team. Fujikawa, too, ought to plan on some higher ed, no matter how many times Nick Faldo tells him he's good enough to play on Tour right now.
What's the rush? Golf has always been the one sport in which 40- and 50-somethings can still compete. Just ask Fred Funk, or Goydos. You simply can't mature too late, but as the Sony reminded us, you can sure peak early.
|Cameron Morfit covers the PGA Tour as a Senior Writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. You can read his column every Monday on GOLFONLINE. E-mail him your questions and comments at [email protected].|