At the International, where the air is thin and the milk shakes are thick, it's easy for the PGA Tour's finest to go a little soft. The tournament offers an alternate version of reality, and not just because a nine-iron carries 180 yards at the Castle Pines Golf Club, in the foothills of the Rockies outside Denver. The International is famous for pampering its players, providing everything from early-week fly-fishing expeditions to H�agen-Dazs fountain drinks.
"You know, you're not playing for a score here," said last week's wire-to-wire winner, Ernie Els, and his sentiments had nothing to do with the tournament's unique modified Stableford scoring system. "It's kind of like you're playing a game with your buddies." In short the International is a flashback to a more decadent era on Tour—the mid-1990s, say, when players got fat and happy on inflated purses and downsized expectations, when one win equaled a standout season and a couple of majors a great career. Tiger Woods has made a mockery of these old standards, and though he skipped the International, Woods hovered over the proceedings like the dark clouds that led to the tournament's annual weather delays.
The storyline at the International featured an intriguing mix of the old and the new, two generations of players measuring themselves against and being measured by Woods's achievements. At the top of the International's leader board throughout the final round was a trio that used to be the most glamorous names in the game. Watching Els, Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman duke it out for the championship, it was hard not to think back a few years, when Norman's two or three victories a year kept him comfortably atop the World Ranking, and when Els and Mickelson were precocious twentysomethings in a race to determine who would be the Next Nicklaus. Now these three glamour boys are little more than filler, no matter how many birdie putts they rained in at Castle Pines.
Norman, last seen shooting an 82 at the U.S. Open, was playing his first tournament since a June 28 operation to repair a torn labrum in his right hip, and he spent all week trying to convince observers—and, it seemed, himself—that at 45 his body is sound and his spirit unbroken. The Shark is winless since 1997, and his fourth-place finish at the International was a moral victory, but in the go-go 21st century no one cares about top fives. Mickelson was bidding for his fourth victory in 2000, which would have equaled his career high, set in '96. "I thought that was a great year," says the 30-year-old Mickelson, "but Tiger makes that look stupid."
In a world without Woods, Els could be chasing the ghost of Bobby Jones. Instead the International was his first Tour victory in a year and a half, hard to imagine given how effortlessly he blew away the field at Castle Pines. Having finished second to Woods four times this season, including at the U.S. and British Opens, Els, who's also 30, has been reduced to gallows humor. "With a little bit of luck I'll finish second every time in the majors," he said last Tuesday.
As Woods's victory total grows and his ostensible competition withers, a nation turns its lonely eyes to the next generation of players, hoping to find a suitable rival or at least an occasional challenger. Four exceptionally talented youngsters—David Gossett, Hunter Haas, Charles Howell III and Adam Scott—came to Castle Pines to further nascent pro careers, and if their golf wasn't particularly inspiring, their rhetoric was. "You are what you believe you are," said Gossett, 21, the reigning U.S. Amateur champ, who made his debut as a pro last week. "As far as being part of this new breed, I think that will be an advantage if we think it is. If not, we can find ways to be intimidated as well."
Gossett's pro career began with a bang—specifically, an opening drive of 354 yards—but it was all downhill putts from there. Ordinarily the most steady Eddie of players, Gossett blew his ball all over Castle Pines and missed the cut with a homely score of minus-9. (Under the Stableford format five points are awarded for an eagle and two for a birdie. A point is deducted for a bogey and three for anything worse.) Self-lacerating by nature, Gossett called his performance "very sloppy" and "disgusting," and vowed to self-flagellate at the practice range.
Howell, 21 and the reigning NCAA champion (from Oklahoma State), flew into town on the wings of a third-place finish the week before at the John Deere Classic, only his third Tour event as a pro. He'd produced some Woodsian final-round dramatics at the TPC at Deere Run. Howell holed out from the fairway for an eagle on the 14th hole, which propelled him into a tie for the lead. Though he missed the Michael Clark-Kirk Triplett playoff by a stroke, the rousing finish only strengthened the belief that Howell, with his mature game and almost unhealthy devotion to improvement, might be the guy to stand up to Woods. (The $176,800 payday also put him in good position to play his way into the top 125 on the money list and avoid Q school, the immediate goal of all these late-season rookies.) When asked about Tiger at the International, Howell didn't back off. "It's definitely motivating," the Augusta native drawled. "If you want to be the best, you've got to beat the best, so beating Tiger is my goal." Normally an explosive birdie-maker, a weary Howell never got it going at the International, closing his second round with nine straight pars to narrowly miss the cut.
Though he's the least heralded of this Fab Four, Hunter Jefferson Huck Finn Haas was the only one of the kids to play on the weekend, though in the International's quirky format he didn't make the second cut, which reduced the field to 36 players for the final round. As might be deduced from his name, Haas is a swashbuckling character. He was alone among his young contemporaries to take time out of his practice schedule to go on the fly-fishing expedition, and during a postround interview last Friday he was distracted more than once by attractive women who happened by. For all of that, Haas brings a suffocating intensity to the golf course. "I've always had to fight my way to the top," he said. "It's like I'm drowning and I've got to get a breath of air."
Even within his own family Haas, 23, has been a perpetual underdog, as four of his six older siblings have won a city, state or high school golf championship. He learned the game at the knee of Roland Harper, the longtime pro at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, but his family couldn't afford the club dues, and when he wanted to tee it up, Haas was consigned to public courses. After riding his wizardly short game to victory at the 1999 U.S. Public Links, thereby earning an invitation to the Masters, Haas wrote a letter to Arnold Palmer requesting a guided tour of Augusta National. During their practice round together Haas birdied the first three holes.