Kostis: Tiger's real rivals are just arriving

Kostis: Tiger’s real rivals are just arriving

Anthony Kim, 22, has explosive skills rarely seen in his age bracket.
Fred Vuich/SI

As he was growing up and dreaming of becoming golf’s greatest player, Tiger Woods had Jack Nicklaus’s records posted next to his bed. Every morning and every night he saw his goal — 18 majors.

Today on the PGA Tour, we’re seeing the first wave of players who grew up idolizing Tiger. Anthony Kim, who won the Wachovia Championship in impressive fashion two weeks ago, is not the same generation as Sergio Garcia and the rest of the older 20-somethings. He is the beginning of the next generation, which also includes Australia’s 20-year-old phenom Jason Day and USC sophomore Jamie Lovemark. If you haven’t heard of them yet, trust me, you will.

Like Tiger, Kim hails from Southern California. He was 12 when Woods won the Masters in 1997. He’s got power to spare, he can hit every shot in the book and he exudes confidence and fearlessness.

But what will really separate Kim is his mindset. Because Tiger Woods was the world’s top-ranked player while Kim was growing up, his idea of what it takes to be “great” is different from the guys who turned pro in the late 1990s. Going into this season, Woods has averaged five wins a year over his 12-year professional career. He’s also winning at a one-major-per-season clip. Kim, who will turn 23 during the U.S. Open, knows these results are achievable with hard work and talent.

Tiger’s main 20-something rivals like Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia also admire Nicklaus, who obviously put up the loftiest numbers imaginable. But their main role models were Greg Norman, Nick Price, Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, the best players of the late ’80s and early ’90s. A great season to them was a couple of wins, maybe three, with one of those wins a major.

Childhood dreams are an important part of a player’s perception of what’s possible. Stars like Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Steve Stricker and Retief Goosen (all in their late 30s or early 40s) never dreamed of winning the way Tiger does. While they will challenge Tiger at various times, in my opinion it will be very tough for them to supplant Tiger at the top of the rankings .

It’s tough to change your childhood dreams when you are older than 25. So instead of asking which of today’s top players will challenge Tiger Woods for the No. 1 spot, maybe we should be asking if Woods’s rival is even on Tour yet. He might still be in high school, dreaming of 10 wins and 3 major championships a year.

Get real on the greens
It’s time for a rule change. Tournaments seem to be competing in a constant game of one-upmanship to see who can make their greens the toughest. In both the Masters and the Players Championship, players were penalized when their balls moved in windy conditions after they had grounded their putters. With greens rolling to 12 or 13 on the Stimpmeter and 35 mile-per-hour gusts blowing, it’s going to happen. Folks, there is a reason why the greens at St. Andrews never roll very fast.

It’s not fair that players have to adjust their pre-shot routines or risk getting penalized. The USGA should change the rule so a player can ground his putter and not be penalized if the wind moves the ball. The player would simply putt from the spot where the ball comes to rest. The current rule makes windy conditions a no-win situation for the players. Not grounding the putter can be just as dangerous because the wind can push the putterhead into the ball.

Tournament officials are making things hard enough by pushing greens to roll this fast. How about giving honest athletes a chance to make a good putt when things get tough?

Is Phil outfoxing himself?
Phil Mickelson recently switched from a 33 1/2-inch putter to a 35-inch putter because he said he’s grown taller thanks to his fitness and stretching regimen. He is definitely in a better posture, but Phil being Phil, he just can’t stop analyzing things. Before Sunday’s final round at the Players Championship, he switched putters again because he felt the alignment aid on the putter he’d been using might interfere with his ability to putt well in windy conditions. In hindsight, he realized that maybe it wasn’t the best decision.

When Mickelson is playing well, he’s one of the most creative shotmakers the game has ever known. But he’s also very analytic. Talking with his caddie about every little subtlety of a putt or running through a list of options before hitting an approach shot is fine, but he needs to switch to his creative side when he hits the shot. Phil must let his artistic side, his right brain, take over. When he does, he is really impressive.