On the eve of a masters that many hope will begin a new era in golf, consider this passage from Herbert Warren Wind's The History of American Golf: "...the new stars failed to make contact with the sympathies of the sideliners, and golf began to take on a flat, mathematical quality." Wind used those words to describe the state of golf in the early 1930s, but they also serve as an apt appraisal of the sport in the late 1980s.
Today, pro golf is an army of faceless young men battling for Nabisco points on the all-exempt PGA Tour, their disappointment at not winning buffered by the $135,000 they can pocket for finishing second. Even the four most promising of these players—Paul Azinger, Steve Pate, Chip Beck and Keith Clearwater—have as yet failed to identify themselves as champions of the first rank, either on the course or with the galleries. A victory by any one of them at Augusta this week would change all that.
Golf has lacked a "king" for four years, or since Tom Watson bogeyed the Road Hole at St. Andrews to lose not only the 1984 British Open but also the knack of winning. Such interregnums are not unusual in golf. The retirement of Bobby Jones in 1930 left the throne empty until Byron Nelson and Sam Snead emerged in 1937. Then came Ben Hogan, whose reign ended when Snead beat him by a stroke in the 1954 Masters playoff. Six years passed until Arnold Palmer took charge. Today's fans, treated to the smooth transition from Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to Watson—with some Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller mixed in—hunger for someone to name an era after.
Alas, the usual suspects, Seve Ballesteros, 31, and Greg Norman, 33, are becoming a little suspect. To leave an indelible mark they need to win some more majors in a hurry. Both fit the description of the kind of player that Watson, who separated himself from a very distinguished pack in the mid-'70s, thinks will emerge again to dominate. "It will most likely be a guy who hits it a long way, but above all, he's got to have the magic with the putter," says Watson.
Curtis Strange, 33, seems primed to win a major after 11 years of trying. Bob Tway may return to his 1986 Player of the Year form if he can grow comfortable with a starring role. Pure talents like Payne Stewart, 31, Dan Pohl. 33. and Joey Sindelar, 30, seem only to need a few more wins. Foreign stars such as Sandy Lyle, 30, Bernhard Langer, 30, and Ian Woosnam, 30, have power, guts and imagination. And even the old king himself, Watson, 38, shouldn't be ruled out.
Miller, who played some of the hottest golf in history for two years and then cooled off, says all of the aforementioned, with the exception of the 28-year-old Tway, have one inexorable element working against them—time. "If you don't do it [get to the top] in your late 20's, you probably aren't going to do it at all," says Miller, who interrupted Nicklaus's reign by winning the 1973 U.S. Open, when he was 26, and 12 more tournaments in 1974 and 1975. "That age range is when you are going to get the next guy who will dominate. That doesn't necessarily apply to Seve, because he had a prime in his 20's, and the really great players usually have two primes. But I think you have to look at the young guys."
Several players who have won tournaments in the last two years are on Miller time. Mark Calcavecchia, 27, Davis Love III, 23, and Fred Couples, 28, are all big hitters who can be brilliant. But the Tour cognoscenti are even more impressed with the skills of the four pros who together have won 10 tournaments in the last 15 months: Azinger, 28, Clearwater, 28, Beck, 31, and Pate, 26. Also mentioned, but with an asterisk because he is still winless in the U.S., is last year's scoring average leader, 28-year-old David Frost of South Africa. "You can't force it," says Frost. "It will happen. It's nothing I can control."
Somehow Azinger, Clearwater, Beck and Pate have been able to control it. Each could be nicknamed Robo-Pro for the efficiency with which he approaches the game. Of the four, only Clearwater, the 1987 Rookie of the Year, didn't rank in the PGA's Top 10 in all-around play last year. All are mechanically sound, can concentrate when the heat is on and are dedicated to the game. Each has paid his dues and then embarked on a pro career marked by steady improvement. None is awed by greatness.
The one who has had the closest brush with it is the lanky Azinger. He was Player of the Year in 1987, when he won at Phoenix, Las Vegas and Hartford and earned more than $820,000 in prize money. He nearly broke through at the British Open but bogeyed the last two holes at Muirfield to lose to Nick Faldo by one stroke.
Azinger had trouble gathering himself after that defeat, and cynics wondered if a fellow who had gone through the Tour qualifying school three times was ready to disappear back into obscurity. "I was feeling a lot of pressure from people comparing me to other guys who have had good years and then fallen off, plus I didn't want to admit that the British Open bothered me," he says. "Trying to disprove them was driving me crazy."