"The revolution that began a few years ago is in full swing," says Tour veteran Brandel Chamblee, 40, who last week was in unglamorous Madison, Miss., for the Southern Farm Bureau. "As golf became cool—and Tiger certainly accelerated that—better athletes came into the game at a time when better instruction and better equipment were available. Guys used to come out with a modicum of ability and get better while on Tour. Now the young guys come out and hit it farther than any of the veterans, and their mental strengths are nearly as good. It used to take time to learn the nuances of courses, but that's over. When you're hitting driver-wedge, there are no nuances to learn."
Instruction has improved through the convergence of video and computers. Players tape their swings, then e-mail the video to a world-class coach. Suddenly, a textbook swing can be had via long-distance, and players with such swings are popping up all over the world. "The guys I watched growing up—Ray Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino—all had something funny about their swings, some unique characteristic," says Loren Roberts, who, at 47, was the oldest player at East Lake. (He came in dead last, 21 shots behind Singh.) "Now all the young guys swing the same. I used to be able to recognize a player by his swing from 300 yards away. Not anymore."
Lighter, longer shafts and bigger, more resilient clubheads allow players to hit the ball farther. "You've got 12-and 13-year-olds who can hit it as far as Tour pros," says Bob Estes, this year's Kemper Insurance Open winner, who was 11th at East Lake. "Younger players can compete at a high level at an earlier age. It works on the other end, too. Look at Loren [ Roberts]. The equipment is why all the Senior tour players say they're hitting the ball farther than they ever have."
Another reason for the rash of first-time winners is the increased number of conflicting events. The Tucson Open, for example, is played opposite the Accenture Match Play, which siphons off the 64 top players in the World Ranking, leaving an opportunity for a less established player. There were six such doubleheaders this year, including the Ryder Cup/Texas Open conflict. Four of them produced first-time winners: Ian Leggatt ( Tucson), Spike McRoy (B.C. Open), Riley (Reno-Tahoe) and Donald (Southern Farm Bureau).
While the additional events accelerated the trend, they weren't the root cause. The arrival of players such as Byrd and Howell, among others, signals the long-anticipated end of an era dominated by the likes of Paul Azinger, Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples and Greg Norman, all of whom are well into their 40s. "The only thing we're wondering about Charles Howell is why he didn't win sooner," Price says. "This is healthy for our Tour. It's a hell of a lot better than Formula One racing, where Michael Schumacher wins everything. We have young guys coming up. We're in good shape."
Howell, who grew up in Augusta, has a playful personality. He showed during postround interviews on Sunday night that it could help make him a star. Asked about playing in Japan for the first time, which he will do later this month, Howell said, "All I can say is hello and goodbye, and I don't like sushi, so that doesn't bode well." As for playing in the final group at East Lake with Singh, behind Woods and Phil Mickelson, Howell said, "Today is what I have dreamed about forever. Apart from walking up the 18th green and winning, this is all I could ask for. I could've keeled over on the 18th green and died a happy man."
East Lake cemented Howell's role as the game's most promising young American. "We've all known that Charles has the talent to win big tournaments," Woods said after a closing 70 dropped him into a tie for seventh. "He needed that shot of confidence to get over the hump and get the first one. The first win is always the hardest one."
Eighteen players got the hardest one out of the way in 2002. Heads up, Tiger.