It has come to our attention that 1998, the year in golf that couldn't miss, the year with the lob-wedge lofty expectations, is having a midlife crisis. Perhaps someone should organize an intervention. After six months Tiger Woods has won one tournament—same as Michael Bradley, Joe Durant, Trevor Dodds and J.P. Hayes. Our two major winners, Mark O'Meara (Masters) and Lee Janzen (U.S. Open), seem wooden after Woods, and their Q ratings are more Taylor Made than tailor-made. The most thrilling story of the year—USGA BANS TITANIUM—turned out to be all sizzle, no steak.
We were spoiled silly by last year's embarrassment of riches. Ernie Els won a great wide Open, which was more than a two-horse race on the back nine on Sunday. Justin Leonard shot a final-round 65 at the British to blow past the field like Texas tumbleweed. Some charmer up in graphics projected a rainbow over the head of Davis Love III as he won the PGA. Europe retained the Ryder Cup in a giant upset. All of which conveniently filled the downtime between Tiger, Augusta, history, meaningful social dialogue and Oprah.
By comparison this year was bound to seem flatter than a Magic Johnson monologue. Weekend TV ratings for the Open were down 18% from last year. (Masters ratings were down as well.) Woods, the MJ of the PGA, the man who would be King, the man who would be Jack, is in irons. Callaway's grumpy because somebody sneezed on its stock, and the equipment industry as a whole is listing ever so slightly after a stormy six months, both literally and figuratively. (See: El Nino, volumes Pebble Beach through Memorial.)
Nobody is questioning the game's future. On the docket for '99: Tim Finch em's new world tour; winners' checks on creatine; a new TV lineup; Greg Norman shedding his great white bathrobe and coming back on Tour; Tom Watson defibrillating the Senior circuit; and Monty bringing his bluster to Brookline, Mass., for another Ryder Cup.
No, the problem is the here and now. Golf needs a compelling story, something more than David Duval and a pair of Oakleys. The new World Golf Village? It's a building. Two 59s? They were on the Nike tour. Casey Martin? Fine legal drama while it lasted—carried us all the way to the Masters—but the story is idle until either Martin joins the Tour or he starts winning again. Matt Kuchar? Great kid. He has filled the PC (Post Casey) gap and saved '98 from needing a charisma transplant. Still, call us when he's playing every week.
Recent disputes, real and imagined, speak to the relative dearth of excitement in golf. Peter Kuchar vs. Justin Leonard? That barely detectable rift became an afternoon oasis in an otherwise dry Open. Jarmo Sandelin vs. O'Meara? Even when compared to other recent mumbo jumbo du Jarmo—he took an octuple-bogey 12 in the South African PGA and wore spiked snakeskin cowboy boots during the Volvo PGA—his rants about O'Meara's mismarked two-foot putt seem silly. The People vs. Monty? Not bad, but getting his goat is getting old.
What's aggravating about '98 is how close it has come to providing the one impossibly wonderful tale, the one defining moment, that would make the season the equal of its predecessor. Jack Nicklaus rode a retro rocket against age as he surged into contention on Sunday at Augusta. Alas, he couldn't make enough putts. The colorful Helen Alfredsson—one wag has described her as fluent in four languages: English, Swedish, body and blue—won twice in the first two months but has been shut out since. Tom Lehman, the perennial bridesmaid at the Open, was again in the last pairing on Sunday and again came up short.
Can '98 be saved? Of course. Root for more Kuchar at the British Open. While you're at it, root for 18-year-old amateur Sergio (the Next Seve) Garcia as well as congenial 45-year-old '97 British Amateur champ Barclay Howard, the recovering alcoholic who's so honest he DQ'd himself from last summer's U.S. Amateur. Root for Senior tour journeyman John Jacobs, who, after winning the Nationwide Championship, revealed that he likes to float on a pontoon boat and talk to the ducks. Root for Casey at this week's Greater Hartford Open and for Annika Sorenstam to win her third Women's Open in four years. Most of all, root for Tiger. Last year never looked so good.