Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 10, 2014

Golf’s Changing Of The Guard Is Complete

There was a massive media scrum at Valhalla Golf Club on Wednesday, but the hordes of reporters and cameramen weren’t gathered around the 18th green. Rather they were standing in the players’ parking lot, following the progress of an SUV carrying Tiger Woods who was making a belated initial appearance at the PGA Championship. The ability of the most famous golfer of his time to play in the final major tournament of the year had been in doubt since he withdrew during the final round of the WGC Bridgestone event three days earlier.

But there was Woods on the last day of practice before the start of the tournament, preparing to test his surgically repaired and obviously still aching back on the Jack Nicklaus designed layout where he won the PGA in 2000. That title was the fifth major of his career and his third in a row, part of the “Tiger Slam” when Woods won four consecutive majors over parts of two seasons. As all golf fans know the symbols of the sport’s top titles would continue to accumulate in Woods’s trophy case until there were 14 in all. When he won the last of those, the 2008 U.S. Open in a playoff over Rocco Mediate, it seemed only a matter of time until Woods met his oft-stated goal of surpassing Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles.

Twenty-five majors came and went between the win over Mediate and the drive into Valhalla’s parking lot, none of them ending with Woods hoisting a trophy. In place of championships have been assorted injuries and surgeries, and of course the marriage-wrecking infidelity scandal. Yet none of that seemed to impact his popularity among the golfing media and casual fans. Proof of that was in the crowd that recorded his arrival, and even more so in the thousands of patrons who followed his every shot during the nine hole practice round that followed. The Golf Channel’s website even featured a “Tiger Tracker” blog, with breathless reports of every moment of his session. “Tiger’s practicing his chips. Now he’s hitting some putts.” Eventually, and inevitably, there was even “I can’t really see anything through the crowd. I’m going to go to the next hole.”

Once the championship began on Thursday Woods played like what he is, namely a golfer who has played just a handful of competitive rounds since back surgery four months ago. He was 3-over in his first round and matched that number in his second. That didn’t stop TNT from broadcasting virtually every swing of two rounds by a golfer who was obviously going to miss the cut by a wide margin.

This is not some “Tiger’s all done” diatribe. While far too many pundits and fans continue to treat him like the colossus of old; there are also those who, particularly since scandal revealed that a carefully choreographed private life was a sham, seem to delight in wishing Woods ill. At his best he was the finest golfer to ever play the game, a player who seemed capable of dominating tournaments at will. His contemporaries often seemed to wilt in his presence, tacitly admitting that they couldn’t beat Tiger.

But no athletic career lasts forever. Woods is 38 now, and while he pioneered a fitness ethic that has since swept a sport not always known for the conditioning of its stars, the frequency and severity of injuries to his lower body and back at some point have to take a toll. He remains in the top ten of the Official World Golf Rankings, albeit just, and once he is fully fit he will certainly win tournaments in years to come. It would be folly to assume that he has won his last major, though the challenge of winning five more and breaking Nicklaus’s record now seems daunting. Woods will be 39 when he drives up Magnolia Lane for next April’s Masters. The most majors won by any golfer from that age on are three.

While Tiger Woods will remain one of the PGA Tour’s stars for a number of years, he is no longer the singular star who dominates the game, for any number of reasons. Injuries, a natural erosion of skill with age, and perhaps one too many attempts to remake his swing have all brought Woods back to the pack. Also a factor has been the rise of a new generation of young players who grew up watching Woods at his best, and bring to the course the same level of supreme confidence in their own abilities that they saw their childhood hero display.

The thousands of fans who choose not to buy tickets to a tournament because Woods isn’t in the field, and the millions of their neighbors who don’t turn their sets to a weekend’s television coverage miss watching those golfers. With Woods jetting back to Florida after Friday’s second round, there’s no doubt the ratings for the PGA Championship were less than they would have been had he been playing, and significantly less than if he had been in contention. What the fans who turned away missed was a compelling drama of sport.

At one point late in Saturday’s third round, there were four golfers at minus-10, four at minus-9, three at minus-8 and five at minus-7. Eighteen golfers, fully one-fourth of the field who made the cut, were within three shots of the lead. After a rain delay of nearly two hours, Rory McIlroy began the final round with a one shot lead over unheralded Austrian Bernd Wiesberger. Less than 45 minutes later there was a five-way tie, with Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson joining those two. While Wiesberger soon faded, the other four carried the battle to the back nine even as the sun slid toward the western horizon.

Two over on his round through six holes and suddenly two behind a surging Fowler, McIlroy birdied the 7th, eagled the 10th, and birdied the 13th to rejoin the party at 15-under. Stenson and Fowler both fell one behind with bogey at the 14th hole, and when Mickelson failed to get up and down at the 16th, the 25-year old Irishman was once again in sole possession of the lead. Then on the 17th, McIlroy’s iron from a fairway bunker settled ten feet right of the cup. When his birdie putt found the bottom of the hole, his lead was two in the gathering darkness.

The most popular player of his era but for Woods, Mickelson thrilled his many fans one more time; and Stenson proved that his FedEx Cup title last year was no fluke. But the great story of the day was the battle between the two 25-year olds. The player with the best aggregate score in this year’s four majors, Fowler showed that major titles are surely in his future. But this day was McIlroy’s at the beginning and McIlroy’s at the end. In successive starts he’s won the Open Championship, a World Golf Championship event, and now his second PGA Championship and fourth major. Only two other golfers in the modern era won four majors by a younger age. Their names of course, are Nicklaus and Woods.  The Rory Era is underway.  Golf fans who think the game still begins and ends with Tiger Woods don’t know what they’re missing.

Advertisements

Responses

  1. Excellent-thanks!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: