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The 2004 Hot List


The way today's hot balls are soaring, you can see the vapor trails. If they flew any farther they'd need passports. Titleist mocks the issue in its NXT ads, but is this nuclear ammo good for golf?With Jack, Tiger, Tim Finchem and much of the American Society of Golf Course Architects calling for a governor, is it time for the USGA to drain the juice from the balls?Or will we just trust Hootie, who annually threatens to unveil a "Masters ball" to guard the integrity of Augusta?Reach for your earplugs. As balls get hotter, so will this debate.

With nineteen players, Australia remains the prime bed of overseas talent on the PGA Tour, but when you add Denmark's Thomas Bjorn to the now nine card-carrying members from Sweden—and, no, that doesn't include Annika—Scandinavia has surpassed South Africa as runner-up. Is it the water?The midnight sun?Or a progressive social system that keeps greens fees low, club dues and junior memberships affordable, and national subsidies available to teaching pros for every young player taken on for the long haul?Bikini-modeling nannies aside, it appears most Swedes would rather be a golfer than marry one.

As good as the guys with the clubs are, the guys with the storyboards may be better. Since 1998, the dawn of the "These Guys Are Good" campaign, the team at Austin, Texas-based ad agency GSD&M has managed to top itself annually with creative and—are you listening, Champions Tour?—memorable ways to showcase Tour talents: David Duval knocking over a range cart, Charles Howell III and Scott McCarron's elevator one-upmanship, and David Toms wreaking havoc with the satellite dish.

The crop for 2004's $20 million campaign—featuring Ernie Els (and his daughter), Chad Campbell, Jerry Kelly, and Jesper Parnevik and Duffy Waldorf—is heavy on the charity but still light and loopy on its toes. Might "Vijay Goes to Charm School" be next?

Let's see. The golf ball still hops like a runaway bunny. No one's put persimmon back in his bag. The players are stronger than ever. Yet, through the West Coast swing, Tour driving distance is down from top (Hank Kuehne, 321 yards in 2003; 306 in 2004) to bottom (Loren Roberts, 266 to 260) to average (287 to 283). Singh's down. Mickelson's down. Even Daly's down.

Could it be . . . the pendulum tester?

Make that the threat of the pendulum tester. This test of a clubface's springlike effect, albeit voluntary, is like a backwater speed trap all the locals have been clued to. Its mere existence says that players and club makers can't be trusted—and that message has been heard. If Big Brother isn't exactly watching, he's certainly lurking in the bushes with a radar gun.

33-7 The rule covering golf's tournament disqualification, toughened this year to give local committees the latitude to disqualify a player for a "serious breach of etiquette." Which is all well and good until John Daly is DQ'd for tossing his driver in the drink—and passion on Tour succumbs to politics.

In the game of golf, the one thing that's certain is that nothing is certain. One month's Cinderella story is next month's Ben Curtis, rendering rankings such as these as precarious as a sidehill lie. But as the year heats up, these are the hot, the not, the warming and the cooling of 2004.

Tiger Woods *****
Number one in the world for a ridiculous 242 straight weeks . . . and counting. He should get back to Butch, but until proven otherwise, Eldrick is still—as the guys in the gallery say—The Man.

Vijay Singh ****1/2
He and Tiger should simply wear matching XFL "He Hate Me" jerseys each round they're paired together. Why the war?Vijay wants what Tiger's got.

Phil Mickelson ****
He's dialed back his driver?He's putting the ball in the fairway?He's laying up on par fives?Who is this guy and what's he done with Phil Mickelson?Turned him back into a winner.

Adam Scott ***1/2
He's got Tiger's old swing, Tiger's old coach and—judging by the swooning girls in the gallery—Tiger's old mojo. With his Player's Championship win, this Tiger cub has come of age.

John Daly ***
From 299th to fifty-third in the world, Daly's feel-good revival actually began last year with two silly-season victories. Still, pardon us if we don't bet the house that his latest salvation will stick.

Sergio Garcia **
How do you say "dropped from fourth to forty-fourth in the world rankings" in Spanish?In trying to follow Tiger's tracks by revamping his swing and lessening his lag, Sergio has proven that not all change is good.

David Duval *
Even in a sport noted for career-ending collapses, Duval's precipitous plunge to 308th in the world still stuns. Retirement at thirty-two?Not out of the question.

Annika Sorenstam *****
The woman who's done more for the LPGA than anyone since Babe Didrikson Zaharias. She won't win the ladies' grand slam this year; what's most amazing is we thought she could.

Elin Nordegren *****
No, she's not much of a golfer, but Tiger's fiancée gets more airtime during PGA Tour events than most players—and she's just walking the course.

Michelle Wie ****1/2
Forget that she missed the cut in the Sony Open by a mere stroke—how about her fourth place finish at the year's first major?Freakishly talented. Nerveless as a contract killer. A generational leap in women's golf.

Se Ri Pak ****
With three wins and the lowest scoring average on the LPGA Tour in 2003, Se Ri is number two in the world—and the only woman with the firepower to fight the Super Swede for number one.

Grace Park ***1/2
Her win at this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship may have earned her the sudden spotlight, but Park's nineteen top-tens in 2003 suggest her game—like her physique—has legs.

Lorena Ochoa ***
A solid rookie season in 2003 with eight top-ten finishes and Rookie of the Year honors, but yet to win on Tour—a streak destined to end soon.

Brian Kontak *
The journey-"man" pro who failed in his bid to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open, Kontak had a 75.4 scoring average on the 2003 Nationwide Tour. Last seen playing the Tommy Bahama's Desert Marlin Pro-Am. Enough said.

Rivalries fuel legends. Imagine Arnie without Jack, Magic without Bird, Cain without Abel, and now Tiger without—without whom?Duval?Els?Mickelson?Love?Perhaps not. But in Vijay Singh, Woods may finally have his foil. Vijay's record last year—four wins, money title, second-best scoring average on Tour—greatly narrowed the world-ranking gap between perennial number one and number two of the moment, and we all know no one (not even Tiger) outworks the fanatical Fijian. He put to rest any questions about his staying power in '04 with a start that included a second at the Mercedes, a win at Pebble and a run at Nicklaus's top-ten streak.

Indeed, these two could be destiny's doppelgängers: Woods, golf's electrifying light; Singh, its scowling shadow. If Vijay's number two right now, he's number two with a bullet—a bullet aimed at the Tiger pelt Singh would love to see mounted in his trophy case.


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