FROM MY SEAT: The SSJC Offers Hope in the Fairway



When Joe Louis was running roughshod over boxing's heavyweight division in the 1930s and '40s, the collection of pretenders to his throne came to be known as the Bum of the Month Club. Fight fans couldn't turn away from the Brown Bomber's signature greatness, but reality held that each of his matches were merely formulaic coronations of a boxer performing at a standard otherwise unreachable by mere humans.

Over the last decade, professional golf has been merely a nine-iron away from Bum of the Month status, as Tiger Woods has so thoroughly dominated, particularly on the grand stages of the major championships. But hope remains for golf fans in a way boxing loyalists six decades ago might only have imagined. And much of that hope arrives in Memphis this weekend.

As the PGA Tour descends on TPC Southwind for the 2008 Stanford St. Jude Championship, Woods is once again absent (this time allowing his left knee to continue healing from recent arthroscopic surgery). With Phil Mickelson also scarce, the two most famous names on the Tour will miss the final tune-up before the U.S. Open is played next week in San Diego. But let's get back to hope.

Among the world's greatest golfers who will tee it up at Southwind are three-time major winner Vijay Singh, two-time U.S. Open champ Retief Goosen, 1997 British Open champion Justin Leonard, reigning British Open champ Padraig Harrington, and reigning Masters champion Trevor Immelman. Add to this list local favorites like John Daly and Shaun Micheel, along with two-time Memphis champ David Toms and you have a field of golf talent that should soothe any worries of the Tiger-centric broadcast team from CBS. As for those of us who tune in to sport less for celebrity and more for competition at its highest level, this is precisely the kind of field we crave.

That said, the PGA needs a player -- whether one of those named above or someone we don't even recognize with his bag -- to rise up. Mickelson has proved to be a mere distraction as Woods' chief rival. (Along with Singh and Ernie Els, Mickelson's three majors are the closest any current player can claim to the 13 Tiger has won.) But where is the player with the clubs to compete with Woods consistently Thursday through Saturday and, well, the balls to compete with Woods on Sunday? The good news is that there are lots of candidates -- and with each of them, hope -- out there.

Since 2001, no fewer than 16 players have won a major for the first time. (Woods has won eight of his majors over the same period.) Again, out of the last 29 major champions, more than half have been first-time winners. But when you read the list of names -- David Duval, Goosen, Toms, Rich Beem, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis, Micheel, Mickelson, Todd Hamilton, Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy, Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera, Harrington, and Immelman -- only two of them (Goosen and Mickelson) have won a second major title. Golf has long brandished a particular player as the Greatest Never to Win a Major. (The current wearer of the PGA's dunce cap -- Sergio Garcia -- will be playing at Southwind this week.) But we may need to come up with an equally backhanded moniker: One-Title Wonders.

You'll see five Wonders compete for the SSJC's first seersucker jacket (a new local twist on the green variety presented each April in Augusta, Georgia): Micheel, Toms, Harrington, Beem, and Immelman. This would be a good quintet to follow, if you're considering competition for Woods as he approaches Jack Nicklaus' once-out-of-reach record of 18 major championships. (And if you're the betting type, go with Toms. After winning the Memphis event in 2003 and 2004, Toms finished second in '05, 10th in '06, and third last year.)

Golf is an extraordinarily popular sport, in large part because it allows us "bums" to carry our bag on a crisp weekend morning, hacking our way around 18 holes, pretending we have a shot in our bag that would make the likes of Woods at least blink. But the element that keeps us chasing our slices and hooks is the most critical variable of all before we take a swing. It's also critical to the game at its highest level being the glorious addiction it can be. It's called hope.

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