On the par-4 15th hole last Friday during the Canon Greater Hartford Open at the TPC at River Highlands, David Duval faced a dilemma. Should he play the 296-yard hole conservatively, or should he, as one of the longest hitters on the Tour, try to drive the green? Duval, 26, a part-time surfer who could pass for an X Games participant, went for the big jack, dude. He pushed his tee shot, however, into the woods, and within seconds Duval was transformed from a ball smacker into a bushwhacker.
Scott Hoch, the gritty veteran who played with Duval the first three days, faced no such quandary. Hoch, 42, entered the tournament ranked 100th on the Tour in driving distance. So at the 15th he chose a three-iron and laid up a comfortable 75 yards short of the green, a distance from which he could play to his strength. He wedged to within birdie distance, narrowly missed the putt and moved on to the next adventure-free hole.
Never mind that Duval eventually found his ball in the shrubbery and salvaged par. The difference between his in-your-face approach and Hoch's cool efficiency typifies the generation gap among today's Tour pros. "I let the bombers go ahead and think they're overpowering me," Hoch said last week between long swigs on a Diet Coke, the paunch-friendly beverage of choice among the Dockers and David Sandborne set. "Then I chip my little wedge up there and make birdie and watch them scramble. It's great to hit it long, but you also have to hit it straight. I think people overlook the fact that a lot of the middle-aged guys have some talent too."
If 1997 was the Year of the Tiger, '98 is shaping up as the Year of Le Tigre, the decidedly unhip apparel. Particularly in the big-ticket events, the Generation Xers have been cast aside like dweebs in a mosh pit, and the heftiest checks are being cashed by veritable pensioners, the Tour's legion of steady if unspectacular 35- to 45-year-olds. Last year the average age of winners of the four majors—Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Justin Leonard and Davis Love III—was 26�. So far this year, after the Masters and the U.S. Open, the score is minoxidil two, mousse zero. (O.K., so maybe Mark O'Meara and Lee Janzen, the two winners, aren't quite Polident pitchmen, but at 41 and 33, respectively, and with more than 700 starts between them, neither has the kind of edgy talent that's helping golf achieve unprecedented popularity among younger people.) What's more, of the top five finishers in the '98 majors, 10 players in all, only two have been under 30.
What gives? Why are the young guns—a group that includes Els, Duval, Leonard and Woods, along with Jim Furyk and Phil Mickelson, firing blanks in the battles with the highest stakes? "I believe in coincidences, too," says Brad Faxon, 36, who finished 56th at Hartford, "but experience makes a lot of difference out here, especially in the majors. David Toms just told me that he has never been to the British Open and asked if it's much different than this. I told him you can't describe the difference. You can hit a wedge that goes 175 yards and a two-iron that goes 110. The more you play, the more you learn."
The shift in the balance of power was apparent at Hartford, where Olin Browne made the most out of a 72nd-hole bogey by another 39-year-old, Larry Mize, to win a three-man playoff that also included defending champ Stewart Cink. Hoch, who had shared the lead with Mize after 54 holes, tied for seventh with Duval.
Doug Tewell, who's just 13 months removed from the Senior tour, finished only a shot out of the playoff and has a theory similar to Faxon's. " David Duval is a friend of mine, and he jokes around and calls me Old Man," says Tewell, who works as a commentator for the Golf Channel and was playing in only his sixth event this season. "But I was waiting forever to hit my tee shot at 15 because David was looking for his ball in the woods. A lot of these young guys have tremendous talent and hit the ball so purely, but sometimes it's more important to know how to play under pressure and to be a fighter who's mentally tough."
Despite the success of the old guard last week, two members of the twentysomething crowd, Leonard and Casey Martin, drew the biggest galleries. Martin accepted a sponsor's exemption at Hartford and made history as the first player to use a cart during a Tour event.
How recognizable has Martin, who missed the cut with a four-over 144, become in the past few months? Following his 23rd-place finish at the U.S. Open, he accompanied his niece to Disneyland for a day. While Martin was standing in line for a ride, a character outfitted as Tigger, Winnie-the-Pooh's whiskered cohort, pointed at Martin and simulated a golf swing. Shortly thereafter, Mary Poppins noticed him as well. "I was like, 'Oh, no, this isn't happening,' " says Martin, "but it was kind of funny. My brother [Cameron] said you know you're a somebody when Disneyland characters recognize you."
Leonard, the reigning British Open champ, came to Hartford hoping to elevate his game, particularly after a disappointing U.S. Open in which he finished 40th. His five-under 275 was solid, but only good for 31st. The rare whippersnapper whose game is as conservative as Strom Thurmond's politics, Leonard, 26, believes that age is no more relevant to a golfer's success than his hair color. "I don't look at someone as an old guy or a young guy," he says. "If anything, the younger players are coming out with more experience. I played seven pro tournaments my junior year of college, and now with the Nike tour, when guys get out here, they're ready to win. You have to be composed out there, but that doesn't necessarily come from age."