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Outsiders are 'in' on PGA Tour winner's list this season

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The bejeweled silver watch on Gary Woodland's left wrist was so large, it could have passed for a medieval breast plate. In a more modern context, it looked like a satellite dish, capable of getting cable TV reception.

"Actually, it does," he cracked.

Yet it wasn't so heavy that, when presented with an interesting list of facts and figures relating to the insanely broad spectrum of winners this year on the PGA Tour, he was fast able to point at certain digits with his left index finger.

"I really like that one," he said.

Gary Woodland was ranked 153rd when he won the Transitions Championship. (Getty Images)  
Gary Woodland was ranked 153rd when he won the Transitions Championship. (Getty Images)  
Woodland poked a finger at the number 153, which represented his world ranking the week he won his first tour event, in March. Yet considering what has happened this season, that particular figure didn't remotely stand out as unusual.

In fact, Woodland's rank when he won the Transitions Championship wasn't far off the winners' average world ranking over the arc of the season, which is a preposterously high 139.7.

Where have you gone, Tiger Woods?

Twenty tournaments have been played on the PGA Tour, and the array of champions has been nothing short of mind-boggling. That is, the boggle comes from trying to identify the winners.

Only two players from inside the world top 10 have won, Phil Mickelson and Luke Donald. Nobody in the top five of the rankings issued during that tournament week has won this season -- five players from outside the top 200 have victories -- and overall, more players from outside the top 100 have won, 11, than from inside.

Appropriately, the tour this week is staging the Players Championship, which is played on the most democratic course on tour, where being a big name and a big hitter means less than any other event of the season. Past results suggest that any of at least 100 players in the field could win.

It has been a wondrous spring -- as in wondering which guy will win next. When the same number of players from inside the top 10 and outside the top 350 in the world have won U.S. titles, that underscores that not only is the game in transition, but to continue the basketball terminology, it has become an outright fast break.

"I think our talent pool is better and better," said Bubba Watson, 32. "A year ago, I didn't have a win. You learn how to practice, you learn how to perform, or hopefully you learn how to practice and perform.

"It's just one of those things where every sport is going to get better and better. You evolve. You learn how to prepare better for whatever sport you're in, and that's what we're doing right now. I don't think the top players are getting worse; I think we're just getting better as a whole."

Where they ranked
Tournament Winner OWGR
Tournament of Champions J. Byrd 121
Sony Open M. Wilson 237
Bob Hope Classic J. Vegas 187
Farmers Insurance Open B. Watson 33
Phoenix Open M. Wilson 91
Pebble Beach National ProAm D.A. Points 167
Northern Trust Open A. Baddeley 224
WGC-Match Play Championship L. Donald 9
Mayakoba Golf Classic J. Wagner 377
Honda Classic R. Sabbatini 102
WGC-Cadillac Championship N. Watney 31
Puerto Rico Open M. Bradley 562
Transitions Championship G. Woodland 153
Arnold Palmer Invitational M. Laird 40
Houston Open P. Mickelson 6
The Masters C. Schwartzel 29
Texas Open B. Steele 233
The Heritage B. Snedeker 66
Zurich Open B. Watson 16
Wells Fargo Championship L. Glover 110
AVERAGE 139.7
* OWGR indicates a player's Official World Golf Ranking when they won during the year.

As it relates to that last sentence, it's probably a little of both.

At this point last year, Jim Furyk and Ernie Els had each won twice, and Phil Mickelson had just won the Masters. The older guard -- all three have turned 40 -- was humming along and piling up wins as ever before. The drought of Tiger Woods, now in its 20th month, wasn't as obvious.

This season, that foursome, who along with Vijay Singh have mostly represented the money-list totem pole over the past decade, has combined for exactly one victory.

Meanwhile, the Nationwide and Q-school system pumped 35 rookies into the pipeline this season, an unusually high number. Two, Jhonny Vegas and Brendan Steele, have already won. In contrast, the past two tour Rookie of the Year recipients, Rickie Fowler and Marc Leishman, are without a tour victory.

"I think this is about pure depth," Woodland said. "I don't know if we have the dominant players right now that we have had in the past with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods five years ago."

In years past, Woods would routinely have amassed three wins by this point. His drought hasn't so much left open the window of opportunity, but an entire sliding patio door.

"I chalk it up to the Nationwide is better and the top amateur tournaments are getting better," said Steele, who won in San Antonio after finishing sixth in Nationwide earnings last fall. "Maybe the world ranking of the winners isn't there, but that doesn't mean they are not a quality player."

How's this for a jarring factoid: Rookie winners Vegas and Steele had played in a total of three PGA Tour events before 2011. Nice learning curve.

The graying of the varsity hasn't exactly snuck up on anybody. Stars such as Els, Furyk, Singh, Mickelson and Steve Stricker all are north of 40, while Woods must wake up in the morning wondering how he inherited the body of a creaky, cranky 50-year-old. Then again, Furyk was the Player of the Year last season, so perhaps this is a statistical aberration.

Doubtful. Besides, Mickelson, who played a practice round with Steele this week, thinks the fresh-blood transfusion is great for the game.

"So to have guys like this come out and become tour winners and start to be in the major championships and to further enhance and develop their game, I think is great for the game of golf and the tour, because we've got to create more and more good young stars," Mickelson said. "Look what Rory McIlroy has done for the game of golf. Here's a guy that's [22], just been out a couple years, and he's so well known internationally and has such charisma about the way he plays. He's a fun guy to watch play.

"We need more guys like that, and we're getting them.

Yeah, all at the same time, it seems. It's not just a changing of the guard, but the entire armored division.

Moreover, every week that the big boys are out of the mix, the young 'uns gain positive experience and commensurate confidence. Steele noted how Scotland's Martin Laird, 28, fought his way through a tough field to win the prestigious Arnold Palmer Invitational in late March.

"To see a guy like Martin win at Bay Hill, a tournament that's usually won by a guy in the top 10, that's really impressive," Steele said.

The slender rookie paused for a moment to reflect on the tour's 2011 uprising. Maybe it was time to be a little deferential.

"But I still think Tiger and Phil are the guys to beat, realistically," he said.

Perhaps so, but for how much longer?

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