The 2002 PGA tour will be remembered not for Tiger Woods's five wins, including his semi-Slam. The year will be remembered for those whose names we can't remember, from Jonathan Byrd (winner of the Buick Challenge) to Bob Burns ( Disney) to John Rollins (Canadian Open) and beyond—enough new champions to tax the capacities of even the most ardent superfan. No wonder Sign Boy took the year off.
A record 18 players won for the first time this season, beating the old mark of 13 set in 1991, making 2002 a year of sweaty palms and clumsy maiden-breaking, like one big John Hughes film.
All of these warm and peach-fuzzy moments bring a couple of truths into focus. The bad news: The notion that we'll ever see a serious, sustained rival to Woods—a Lee Trevino to his Jack Nicklaus—is all but oozing embalming fluid. The good news: It doesn't matter. With one exception, the gap is clearly widening between Tiger and what we once thought of as the chase pack. David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh—these guys are hardly threatening regime change on the Tour.
While Woods has maintained his separation, Mickelson, the most recent pretender to the throne, and Singh won twice in 2002, same as K.J. Choi, Jerry Kelly and Len Mattiace, none of whom had a W before this year. Still without a major, Mick the Stick is now Mick the Stuck. He's unpredictable on Sunday, and his winning percentage has gone down in the last two seasons.
At least he has a winning percentage. Duval, who once led the second-tier elites, has completely cratered, failing to register even a top three in '02 and missing the Tour Championship for the first time. The highlight of Duval's year: a Ryder Cup halve with Darren Clarke, after which Duval partied all night with the victorious Europeans.
Davis Love III and David Toms also took a bagel this year, although Love once again led the Tour in sour grapes. Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and Justin Leonard? They had one victory apiece. These are the men who seemed to pose the greatest threat to Tiger's waltz into history. Although they would deny it—especially Garc�a—they've been vanquished, reduced in the win column to the equals of Spike McRoy (B.C. Open) and Phil Tataurangi ( Las Vegas).
Ernie Els is the lone exception, the only chaser who appears to be ascendant. After two early-season victories on the European tour he won at Doral—although it appeared Woods simply ran out of holes—the British Open and, last month, the World Match Play. Yet Els will have to string together two or three good years to warrant consideration as a serious rival. The guess here is that it won't happen. The big South African has a tendency to derail without warning, and his deferential praise of Woods isn't the kind of thing we remember Joe Frazier saying about Muhammad Ali.
But that's fine. Even if every would-be Watson or Weiskopf is as overmatched as he looks, it doesn't matter. The makeup of the Tour, with its flock of surprising first-time champions—Byrd nearly broke the four-round scoring record at the Buick—suggests the role of Tiger-tamer will continue to be filled almost accidentally, in four-day-only cameos. Like Burns at the Disney or Rich Beem at the PGA, players will defy the scariest player in golf before they have a chance to process the paralyzing immensity of the task.
Beem's victory, with Woods looming large, was the most unblinking, impressive performance in recent memory, but it probably doesn't portend future clashes between the erstwhile stereo salesman and the greatest player ever. It's one thing to beat Woods when no one expects you to; it's quite another to do it when everyone, including Woods, knows you could.
In the meantime Woods should continue to be taken out once in a while by the rogue little guy like Craig Parry (NEC), one of the anonymous but able players who proliferated so in 2002. Think Bob May at the 2000 PGA, but with even more surprising and amusing results: Ladies and gentlemen, your new U.S. Open champion...Ed Burns! George Burns? Would you believe Montgomery Burns?