The voice mail message was short but oh so sweet. "Welcome to the club," said Sergio Garc�a. Tiger Woods called too, leaving similar congratulations for Charles Howell after he had won last month's Michelob Championship. Howell is likely to remember those calls forever, because as H.L. Mencken wrote, "A man's first love is special. After that, he tends to bunch them." The same goes for Tour victories, which are just as elusive and every bit as hard-won. (Unless you're Woods, who piles up wins the way the rest of us pile up poker chips.)
Before this year, winning a tournament was considered a monumental achievement, on the order of slipping a hanging slider past Barry Bonds. Lately, though, winning has been as devalued as the Argentine peso. Tour winners in 2002 included a Who's Who of journeymen, rookies, late bloomers, international players and Q school grads. And, believe it or not, this phenomenon occurred smack-dab at the height of Tiger's Reign of Terror. Howell is among a record 18 players—most of them less recognizable than stereo salesman turned PGA champion Rich Beem—who snagged their first wins this season. Three first-timers, K.J. Choi, Jerry Kelly and Len Mattiace, took things a step further and won twice. Six of the first-time winners even cracked the top 30 on the 2002 money list and therefore qualified, for the first time of course, for last week's season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Joining Choi, Howell, Kelly and Mattiace at East Lake were Chris Riley and John Rollins.
Winning is not supposed to be this easy at the Show. It never has been before. What's going on? "You tell me," says Nick Price, 45, a 20-year Tour veteran. "These young guys have no fear."
"It's pure coincidence," says Howell, who at 23 represents a new generation of aggressive, confident, long-hitting players. He was ordained the Next Tiger by many hopeful, hypeful types when he turned pro after leading Oklahoma State to the NCAA title as a junior in 2000. In the last five weeks—and especially last week, at tradition-rich East Lake—Howell has begun to look like the guy who may lead the charge to close the gap on Woods. He was the only player at East Lake to shoot four rounds in the 60s, bookending 66s around a pair of 69s to finish two shots in arrears of winner Vijay Singh. Howell closed the season with 16 straight rounds in the 60s. He racked up more than half of his $2.7 million in earnings in the last month and, with the $540,000 he won in Atlanta, jumped to ninth on the final money list.
Howell was the only player to make a serious run at Singh on Sunday. He slammed a sand wedge shot into the cup on the fly for an eagle at the par-4 13th hole and added two more birdies before he was through, but the workmanlike Singh, who has led after 54 holes all three times the Tour Championship has been played at East Lake but had never won, was uncatchable. After opening the final round with a bogey, Singh hit 16 of the last 17 greens in regulation. He demoralized the competition by birdieing three holes midway through the round, then cruised home to a three-under 67—he was 12 under for the week—to hold off Howell and win $900,000, plus a $500,000 bonus for his play in the last 12 events of the season.
"I'm really proud of this one," said Singh, 39, who had won earlier this year in Houston. "It's a good achievement, especially as old as I am."
Nosing out Howell may someday be considered noteworthy if this year's first-time winners prove as formidable as some of them looked in victory. Big-name players such as David Duval, Davis Love III and David Toms failed to win this year, but some lesser-known first-timers did so impressively (chart, page G20).
Nonwinners and newcomers are supposed to hum Never on Sunday. Instead, many of this year's newbies went low. This phenomenon is not strictly a generational shift, since 12 of the 18 new champs are in their 30s, but players like Howell, Rollins (27), Jonathan Byrd (24), Matt Kuchar (24) and Luke Donald (the 24-year-old winner of last week's rain-shortened Southern Farm Bureau Classic) have big futures. They're all chasing Tiger, and after a British Open in which Woods looked positively human against the forces of nature and a PGA and an NEC Invitational in which he proved beatable, by Beem and Craig Parry, respectively, the gauntlet clearly has been thrown down. Game on, Tiger.
"Tiger showed us what was missing in our games," says Kelly, 35, who broke through this year with a win in Hawaii and followed up with another at the Western Open. He came in fourth at the Tour Championship thanks to a hole in one on Sunday at the 11th hole. "Tiger has such a complete game, we could measure ourselves against him and see where our weaknesses were. I looked at my scrambling stats—that's saving pars, at which Tiger is so darn good. I went from 100-something last year to the top 20 this year. You have to get better; otherwise you're not going to mature on Tour. You're going to mature in your living room watching Tiger and Charles Howell on TV."
The Tour has always been a dog-eat-dog world, but now there's a palpable smell of fresh meat in the air. Only 15 of the 29 starters from last year's Tour Championship made it back to East Lake. Fast-food restaurants have less turnover.