BoomingPGA Tour Plunges to New Lows

NEW YORK -- How low can you go? Fourteen under par? Or 20 under? Or 26 under? Or 33 under?

The winning scores in the first four PGA Tour events of the year were a cumulative 25 strokes better than in those four events last year. What's going on here?

A number of things, actually.

First off, it's a Ryder Cup year and players will play more tournaments with more motivation while they try to make the team.

Second, an enormously talented crop of players in their 20s have matured into the kind of guys who can contend every week. In addition to Tiger Woods, there's David Duval, Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Ernie Els and Paul Stankowski -- all 27 or younger.

Third, several veteran players have raised their game a notch and have the kind of experience to handle final-round pressure. Tom Lehman, Steve Jones and Mark Brooks got to a new level last year by winning major championships.

Fourth, players like Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples, Davis Love III and Corey Pavin remain at their peak while Nick Faldo -- probably the most feared and respected player in the world -- is as determined as ever and Greg Norman remains Greg Norman, with the best and worst of what that entails.

And a couple of former major winners -- Paul Azinger and Nick Price -- look like they are getting their A-games back.

Fifth, more quality foreign players like Jesper Parnevik and Frank Nobilo have added to the depth of the PGA Tour.

And finally, there is the Tiger Factor. Woods has played 11 tournaments as a pro with three victories and seven top-five finishes. He plays to win, and that idea has become contagious among the other players.

This is shaping up to be a great year on the PGA Tour. The talent is the deepest ever and all four tournaments played to date have had very compelling storylines.

Asked how he keeps his feet on the ground despite his success, Woods said: "Golf does it for me. Every week someone is going low."

The Ryder Cup is no small motivation this year, especially since the United States travels to Spain in September to try to win back the cup it lost in 1995.

Top 10 finishes this year earn double points in the race to be among the 10 players who get automatic bids to the U.S. team. "You almost feel like your career is not going to be complete if you don't make the team at least once," Lehman said over the weekend.

"I think you'll see guys playing more tournaments this year," Lehman said. "Everybody wants to be on the team."