Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 22, 2010

Power Outage On The Tour

The runaway victory at the Open Championship by unheralded Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa means that men’s golf has now gone through eight major championships, two full seasons worth, without a repeat winner at any of its premier events. Not only that, of the eight different winners since the 2008 PGA Championship, none were named Tiger. While one was named Phil, at least half of the eight winners were players largely unknown at the time of their victory, even to many fans of the game. While Oosthuizen is the most improbable winner of them all, surely Graeme McDowell (this year’s U.S. Open), Lucas Glover (2009 U.S. Open), and Y.E. Yang (2009 PGA) aren’t all that far behind.

Roll the calendar back a little further, to the beginning of 2007, and while the list now includes multiple major winners, the man with the most still isn’t named Tiger or Phil. Rather it’s Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, with three victories. And Tiger Woods’ two major triumphs since the beginning of 2007 are equaled by Argentine Angel Cabrera’s wins at the 2007 U.S. Open and 2009 Masters.

So after a three year period in the middle of the decade during which Woods (4 wins) and Mickelson (3 wins) dominated the four big events on golf’s calendar, the sport seems to have entered an era of relative parity. While former long-time NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle loved to brag about how “on any given Sunday” every team was capable of victory, I’m not so sure that PGA Tour boss Tim Finchem is similarly enthusiastic. I’m thinking that on at least four given Sundays a year, he wouldn’t mind a bit if the winner was either wearing red or had a trademark goofy grin.

To be sure, the PGA Tour markets itself with the slogan “these guys are good,” presumably referring to more than just the most recognizable of the guys. There’s nothing wrong with that slogan being reinforced week in and week out during the regular Tour schedule, as it has been this year. As I noted a few weeks ago, this golf season has already seen a remarkable number of first time winners as well as the emergence of a younger generation of players ready to move into the winner’s circle.

But the four majors are golf’s opportunity to attract new viewers and potentially new fans. Folks that wouldn’t think of watching the Houston Open will make time to take in the impossible green of Augusta’s fairways, the penal conditions of the U.S. Open, the quirky bounces along the links of the Open Championship, or the usually historic settings of the PGA Championship. Or they will if they recognize someone on the leaderboard.

When that’s not the case, as this past weekend, the sound of millions of remotes changing channels can be loud enough to cause the marshals to call out “quiet please.” This was the 150th Open Championship, an unquestionably historic event for the game of golf. It was played on St. Andrew’s Old Course, the most hallowed ground in the game. But Sunday’s final round received an anemic 2.1 Neilson rating. That’s a record low number, and fully 45% lower than a year earlier, when 59-year old Tom Watson thrilled us all as he came within a single putt of victory.

Unfortunately, the 2010 Open offered up a triple bogey of reasons for viewers to stay away. First was the presence of an utterly unknown leader in the 27-year old Oosthuizen, who had only made the cut once in eight previous major tournaments. Second was a complete lack of Sunday drama. Oosthuizen started the day with a four stroke lead and wound up winning by seven. Third was the absence of familiar names on the first page of the leaderboard. At the start of the final round England’s Lee Westwood and South Africa’s Retief Goosen were probably the best known players anywhere near the lead; and at eight and ten strokes behind respectively, they were hardly within striking distance. Taking nothing away from a truly remarkable performance by the young South African, the result was a missed opportunity for golf to attract new fans.

So now five of the last six majors have gone to first-time major winners. Of course, even Tiger Woods had to be a first-time major winner once, for a second or two. But in looking at those five, Glover, Stewart Cink, Yang, McDowell and Oosthuizen, I don’t believe that I see the next coming of Woods. And I’m betting Tim Finchem doesn’t either.

In looking back through the history of major championship winners, all the way back to World War II, there has only been one comparable period. As it happens, it wasn’t all that long ago. Beginning with Rich Beem’s unlikely win at the 2002 PGA Championship, five majors in a row were won by golfers who had never before prevailed in golf’s toughest tests. And other than Jim Furyk, who won the 2003 U.S. Open, none of the five would be known today to anyone other than the most ardent golf fan. That drought of star power at the majors was followed by the years of dominance by Tiger and Phil. One can only hope that we are in for another such period. Whether it’s another run by those two or through some of the young guns finally staking their claim to stardom, the game badly needs more wattage at its biggest events.

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