The last three weeks proved there is golf without Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson. The clutch victories by Brad Faxon, Olin Browne and Mark Calcavecchia, all in their mid-40s, all of them scrappers, all of them saddled with the golfing demons, showed that splendid short games, grit and perseverance can not only be entertaining, but message-sending.
Fax, O.B. and Calc may not move the needle the way the Big 3 does -- they're not driving the TV negotiations -- but they epitomize how humbling the game can be at times, and how overcoming the dark days make the brightness shine even brighter.
Faxon was thinking about knee surgery. Browne changed his golf swing. Calcavecchia has battled through the yips. Yet no matter how far the ball flies, how flexible some of the younger kids are, the game comes down to getting the ball in the hole.
That's the difference between winning and not, between making the cut and not, the difference between what Steve Elkington calls "old-style" golf and the game that some of these kids play today. Tiger has got it down-or up and down. There's none better at creating shots, making the must-makes, having the inventiveness to think it up and the testosterone to pull it off.
But Faxon, Browne and Calcavecchia have those qualities, too. Woods talks about it when relating to Michelle Wie. They learned how to win, and now that they're older, they relied on what legendary golf producer Frank Chirkinian likes to call "savvy and guile" to produce their victories. They also had to perform an exorcism to get the job done.
"I can honestly say I never thought I would say that I actually win a tournament using my head," Calcavecchia said. "But honestly this weekend, I think I won this tournament playing smart golf, using course management and staying patient. I mean, somebody is going to have to find out when the last time somebody won a tournament making one birdie on the weekend. That may have never happened before in the history of golf, by the way."
Just to show how unpredictable golf can be, Faxon was packing his bags the Friday of Hartford, ready to make the drive home to Barrington, R.I. Over the weekend he shot 126 -- not including the 10th birdie he made in the final round at the Buick Championship to nip Tjaart van der Walt by a stroke.
To clinch his eighth career triumph, Faxon had to make a downhill 3-footer on the first hole of a sudden death playoff. For the guy designated as one of the best putters in the world, it would seem like a matter of brushing in the ball and making a victory speech.
"Three feet," Faxon said afterward. "Just in the throw-up zone."
What's so beautiful about the walk-off win in Hartford is that Faxon missed an almost identical putt the last time he had a chance to lock down a victory. At the Canadian Open in 2003 he was guilty of an over-read, put an insecure stroke on the ball, and lost to Bob Tway. This time he got up, trusted it, and didn't throw up. On Tuesday he had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and will be out until the season-opener at Kapalua in 2006.
"Well, this was really kind of out of the blue," Faxon said. "I mean, Friday afternoon I was in my hotel room packing to go home because I thought even par would miss the cut. I actually bet Johnny Andrews [in the scoring trailer] $286.67 that I was going to miss, and I'll gladly pay him now."
Browne went from another year on the bubble to thinking about the Tour Championship by winning the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston. Six years had elapsed since his last victory, at Colonial, but now he was playing with a swing that was 18 months old and a body that was 46. On the verge of quitting in U.S. Open qualifying, he hung around-because you never know what's going to happen in golf-and had an out-of-body experience, shooting 59. At the Open he teed off Sunday in the next-to-last group and shot 80. At the Buick Open he shot 64 on Saturday and 72 on Sunday to drop from seventh to 23rd. But at the TPC-Boston he summoned the winner's edge and hung on for a one-stroke victory over Jason Bohn.
"What makes it really hard is it's not a reaction sport," Browne said. "This is a premeditation sport. You're walking down the fairway, considering what your options are on the next shot that you're going to hit, how you're going to handle it, where you're going to go with it what you're going to do ... you get your head handed to you a lot out here. You know, the people that do well out here are able to absorb that, deal with it, put it in a little compartment, send it somewhere where they don't need to be in and move on to the next step."
Calcavecchia had a career that could have been. He won 11 times, including the British Open in 1989, and set seven scoring records during his victory in the 2001 Phoenix Open-breaking the tour's all-time 72-hole mark of 257 set by Mike Souchak. But it was the close calls that defined his career. With over 600 tournaments logged since 1982, he had finished second 26 times, including the 1988 Masters that Sandy Lyle stole with a birdie from the fairway bunker at Augusta's 18th hole. With a little more luck, maybe more dedication, Calc would have been at the 15-win plateau with two majors.
Career victory No. 12 came in the same year he re-married. It came despite the right-hand twitch that's been overcome by The Claw. And to illustrate that body fat may be underrated, he did it after spending the week at home in Phoenix after missing the cut at the Deutsche Bank. As Browne labored on Labor Day weekend, Calc was on the couch, cooking out with his family, and crashing early. He never touched a club in the 10 days between Boston and British Columbia. He didn't hit the treadmill, either. His biggest activity was carpooling.
But like Faxon and Browne, he's been around a while, and he knew how to handle it. "Well, I honestly never really thought I would win again, let alone on a golf course like this, a tournament this big," Calcavecchia said when it was over. "You know, I have my moments where I'm pretty good, and as I said the other day, I have a lot of self doubt and a lot of demons that are floating around inside of my head. Brenda [his wife] told me from the day she met me, you have it, just your little brain gets in the way. It happens to a lot of guys; the things we think about out there pretty much freak you out."
Somewhere Brad Faxon and Olin Browne are smiling. They can relate.
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine