The only people likely to connect 1997 and Steve Jones are those who incorrectly guess which year he won the U.S. Open. Still, one of Jones's recent musings perfectly characterized the past golf season.
Jones was wondering how in the heck he had won the '96 Open, and he came up with this insight. "Usually, I'm nice to everybody and always worried about snubbing someone," he said, "but that week I avoided eye contact and walked right past people. Basically, I was a real intense jerk, and I never played better. It's not in me to be that way all the time. As a golfer, though, I wish it was, because that's what it takes."
Mothers, Montessori school teachers and Mister Rogers might have a problem with this formula for success, and even Jones, who won twice this year as nice-guy Steve, offered a rebuttal, but golf's principals are embracing the hard line. The evidence was everywhere this year. The European Ryder Cup committee, wanting to win in the worst way, dumped an injured Miguel Angel Mart�n so that Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal and Jesper Parnevik could both make the team. On the Senior tour, hard case Hale Irwin pushed past a herd of mostly sated roundbellies, while the PGA Tour put out the word that, beginning in 1999, only those tournaments rich enough to sign five-year commitments—rather than the traditional one-year deal—will secure a place on the schedule. Those who don't ante up should get the hell out of the way.
Yes, 1997 will be remembered as the year that golf got tough. Nowhere was that more apparent than among the game's best players. For David Duval, Justin Leonard, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, an on-course mean streak is as essential as a sand wedge. Colin Montgomerie is openly combative, Ernie Els secretly so, and Davis Love III is working on it. Even Greg Norman, the erstwhile Shark, has been revitalized by all the new blood in the water. The result is that more is riding on everything, whether the contest is a major championship or a silly-season conceit like the recent PGA Grand Slam, which Els and Woods turned into a compelling showdown by jousting rather than jesting. It's not the money. This is about turf, ego and pride—the good stuff, the stuff that has been missing in recent years.
The argument that the old guys were better golfers is dead, but the claim that they played harder still has legs. Hogan, Nelson and Snead sometimes had to win just to stay solvent. Arnold Palmer came up through the same school of hard knocks. Jack Nicklaus didn't, but his cold-blooded sense of destiny made him the greatest winner ever. Tom Watson took note of the merciless way in which Nicklaus dispatched Palmer and executed a heartless succession of his own. In this version of King of the Hill, ambivalent types like Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf were left behind. Speaking for the killer elite, Lee Trevino simply said, "Hey, we're all hard bastards."
Somewhere along the line things changed. Fuzzy Zoeller departed from the grim norm by waving the white towel at Norman at Winged Foot in 1984 (although he drilled Norman in the playoff); everybody started getting rich and, even worse, friendly. By the early '90s, top players like Fred Couples, Love and Nick Price worried that becoming a world-beater might mean that they would no longer be considered nice guys.
Now, nice is over, terminated this year by the emergence of Woods. Like Nicklaus, Woods has a vision of greatness, the talent to make it real and the tenacity to see it through. His passion is to improve, to win and to make history. Woods's effect on golf is like that of the stranger who infiltrates a cozy pickup basketball game and immediately proves himself the best player. Before you know it, the other players have raised their games, and friends are competing more fiercely than they ever would just among themselves.
Of course, the gifted stranger usually engenders resentment. On the Tour the bad-mouthing is kept private because Woods is such a lightning rod, but there's no one the other pros would rather beat. A lot of players resent him for being self-assured, for being rich and famous, for his ethnicity, for, at 21, kicking butt. Locker-room conversations about Woods are spiced with sarcasm. Sometimes those feelings seep out in public statements. At this year's season-ending Tour Championship, for example, when Woods was on the verge of losing the money title, and probably the player of the year award, to Love, Norman seemed a little too happy when he said, "It shows that unbridled confidence is not always an asset."
That it always seemed to be one to the ultraconfident Norman is a small quibble. Human foibles often surface in fierce competition, and Norman's assertion and Woods's club-slamming only validate the notion that a new era has begun. Like Jones when he won the Open, the times call for real intense jerks. The winners will be hard bastards, and the golf will be the best ever.