Any golf tournament based near Chicago but known as the Western Open would figure to be pretty old. It is. The Western and the British and U.S. Opens are the only three Tour events in the world that date back to the 19th century. "Really?" says 26-year-old Stuart Appleby. "I had no idea."
In fact, for many of those early years the Western was considered one of golf's major championships. "That's interesting to know," says Jim Furyk, 27. "When it comes to the history of the game, I'm not exactly a buff."
It must be a generational thing, because Appleby and Furyk's twentysomething contemporaries have shown a similar disregard for tradition throughout this season, running amok on a Tour that is supposed to be dominated by older guys. After Tiger Woods won last week's Motorola Western Open, at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club, eight of the Tour's top 20 money winners were under 30, and these whippersnappers had won 10 of the season's 26 tournaments, most notably the Masters and the U.S. Open. Though these young guys don't know much about history, they do know how to make it. Should one of the lads win next week at golf's oldest event, the British Open (which began in 1860. 35 years before its U.S. counterpart and 39 years before the Western), players under 30 will have swept the first three legs of the Grand Slam for the first time since 1936.
"There's a changing of the guard right now," says the wise old man of the Tour, 47-year-old Tom Watson, one of six players, including Appleby, who finished six shots behind Woods at the Western in a tie for seventh. "They're not running roughshod because they're young. We're being overwhelmed by their talent. It's not a surprise that this younger generation of players is winning like this. They should be. Once you've seen them play, you expect them to win tournaments and you expect them to win major championships."
The Western Open is a good place to take the measure of the young guys' growing superiority, not only because of the event's long history but also because the tournament is the last Stateside tune-up for most of the American pros who will play in the British Open at Royal Troon. This Western confirmed what we've suspected for months: Who's hot and who's not can be broken down neatly along age lines. At the top of the list of favorites heading into the British are four players, none of whom is older than 27.
After a much-needed week off, Woods, 21, returned with a bang at the Western, showing the fire and focus that have been missing since his stunning win in April at the Masters, his first major as a professional. Woods will head to Troon comfortable not only with his game but also with links-style golf, for as an amateur his best showing in a Grand Slam event came last year at the British Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, where he shot 66 in the second round and finished 22nd. Woods's stoutest challenge figures to come from 27-year-old Ernie Els, who skipped the Western so that he could decompress after back-to-back wins at the U.S. Open and the Buick Classic. Els, fifth on the money list at $959,055, finished tied for second at last year's British and had two top six finishes in the previous five years.
A pair of dark horses who have been quietly sizzling are Furyk and Justin Leonard, 25. With his sixth-place finish at the Western, Furyk has six straight top 10s, including a tie for fifth at the U.S. Open. He's seventh on the money list. Leonard has been on a tear since his win at the Kemper Open in early June and had another strong showing at the Western. With the $104,000 he earned by tying for third, Leonard jumped to 14th on the money list. He also has been impressive in recent majors, tying for fifth at the '96 PGA and seventh at this year's Masters.
What makes these players so dangerous is not just their grooved swings—it's their youthful insouciance. Woods and Els have already won their majors for the year, so what's to stress about? Furyk and Leonard can cross the ocean under the radar of the hypemongers and most of the debilitating expectations, as can 27-year-old Phil Mickelson (18th on the money list), who is about five years overdue to seize a major; 27-year-old Paul Stankowski (10th), whose famously streaky game won him the Hawaiian Open in February; and 25-year-old David Duval (20th), who already has three top five finishes this season. "It's gravy if you win a major in your 20s," says Appleby, a blue-eyed Australian who came out of nowhere to win the Honda Classic in March and is up to 11th on the money list, "so maybe we don't get so frightened, so caught up with that It-all-starts-on-the-back-nine-on-Sunday stuff. We can just play the game. We can be in the attack mode."
"You're dead right," says New Zealand's Frank Nobilo, who was second, three strokes behind Woods, at the Western and probably rates as the hottest player among the over-30 set. "With older players there is so much more pressure because you know you're running out of opportunities. If you let one slip away, there's no telling when you'll have another."
It's this kind of baggage from accumulated disappointments that makes a number of the more experienced players iffy. Greg Norman, 42, won two weeks ago at Memphis, but it was his first victory since his evisceration at the '96 Masters. In the majors he's damaged goods until proved otherwise. Norman's status as golf's hard-luck loser is being threatened by 34-year-old Colin Montgomerie, who has suffered a series of train wrecks in recent majors and now has the added pressure of playing at Troon, where his dad is the club secretary. Even stalwart Tom Lehman, the 38-year-old defending British Open champion, is looking shaky after missing, for the third straight year, an opportunity to win the U.S. Open. Throw in the travails of the two Nicks—40-year-old Price, who's coping with the death of his caddie, Squeeky Medlen, and a shoulder injury that forced his withdrawal from the Western, and 39-year-old Faldo, who shot an 81 to miss the cut at the Masters and has been MIA ever since—and things look grim for the usual suspects among the older guys.