Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 20, 2015

The End Of An Era Is No Reason To Weep

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling back from the Bronx after a weekend at The Stadium on Sunday evening.  The next post will be one day late, on Monday.

It is the one immutable truth across all of sport. No individual career lasts forever.  It’s why the phrase “career arc” exists. No matter what glories our hero may achieve, there comes a day when time, the enemy of every athlete, exacts its toll. For the star performer and for the fans who have cheered him or her on, the inevitable fading of greatness is an understandable source of melancholy. All too often a player clings to the game for one or more seasons too many, and sadness turns to pathos. Yet the vitality of every sport is in part a function of the game’s ability to constantly renew itself. The fading of one star is counterpoint to the emergence of another; the end of a dynasty is the foundation upon which a new one is built.

By that measure golf has been struggling for the past few years. With a commanding 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters, Tiger Woods marked the beginning of an era in the sport that will forever bear his name. Woods had already recorded three PGA Tour victories prior to that April, but the first two had come the previous October at late-season events lacking most of the stars of the day, while the third had come three months earlier at the season-opening tournament which had a limited field. At Augusta National that year he played the first nine holes in 4-over par 40. He would play the remaining 63 holes in 22-under. Woods came home that Thursday in just 30 strokes and was three shots off the opening round lead. By the end of the second round he had reversed that differential. By day’s end on Saturday his lead had ballooned to nine shots. When he walked off the 18th green on Sunday and embraced his father he had set tournament records for total score and margin of victory.

From that Masters through the 2008 U.S. Open, when he beat Rocco Mediate in a playoff at Torrey Pines while playing on a broken leg, Woods remade golf. He attracted uncountable numbers of new fans to the sport. On the PGA Tour purses shot higher as sponsors clamored to be close to the superstar. Around the country construction of new golf courses also rose as the game’s many new adherents sought places to play.

He had his foils of course. The reign of every dynasty is made more compelling by at least the appearance of competition. The story of the 1950s New York Yankees would be incomplete without the role played by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Vijay Singh briefly supplanted Woods as number one in the world in 2004. Ernie Els won his second major at the U.S. Open following Woods’s dominating performance at the ’97 Masters, and would go on to win two more. Phil Mickelson was the anti-Woods, more accessible to the fans but less perfect on the course; more daring in the face of adversity, but more often faced with adversity. His breakthrough at the 2004 Masters opened the door to multiple major titles. Still while often ranked second in the world during the Tiger Era, Mickelson has never been ranked first.

Woods has won fourteen times since the 2008 U.S. Open. Those victories include the Memorial Tournament twice, the 2013 Players Championship, and a pair of WGC events. He won five times in 2013 alone, good enough to reclaim, at least for a time, his familiar spot atop the World Golf Rankings.  But Woods has always made it plain that major titles are his personal measure of success, and it’s now thirty majors and counting since Torrey Pines. His last top-10 finish at a major was at the 2013 Open Championship at Muirfield. Most alarming for the legion of Tiger fans, he’s missed the cut at the last three majors. Meanwhile Singh is now of Champions Tour age. Els hasn’t won since a wholly unexpected triumph over a collapsing Adam Scott at the 2012 Open Championship. Mickelson’s last victory was at the same event one year later.

That’s not to say that these stars will never win again. More than any other sport golf is a game for life. A 59-year old Tom Watson came within a missed five-footer at the last from claiming his sixth claret jug at the 2009 Open at Turnberry. On Thursday Woods shot his best round in two years at the Wyndham Championship, though he did so on a rain-softened course with the “lift, clean and place” rule in effect. Still it is possible that he could renew his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 majors. Phil Mickelson could claim the U.S. Open crown that has so often, and often so cruelly, eluded him. But the odds grow long, and the game moves on.

Golf fans drawn to the game by Tiger’s dominance, and far too many in the golf media, have turned a blind eye to that reality for too long. Wood and Mickelson were paired together during the final round of the 2009 Masters.  Both began the day seven shots adrift, and while Phil went out in 30, his round was only good enough for a fifth place tie.  Yet save for a tap-in par on one hole by Mickelson, CBS showed every single shot the two superstars struck.  Meanwhile a compelling drama at the top of the leader board that eventually resulted in a three-man playoff was virtually an afterthought.  To this day the Golf Channel’s website still features a “Tiger Tracker” blog, with minute by minute updates of every round that he plays. And of late every missed cut by Woods has been the subject of intense discussion and analysis.

Until last week’s PGA Championship, when it felt like the golf media and most fans finally turned the page. Tiger’s rounds of 75-73 that fell two shots outside the cut line were duly noted, as was Phil’s 9-under par play on the weekend. But the emergence of a new American star in 22-year old Jordan Spieth, who won the year’s first two majors and contended until the bitter end at the last two, served as a wakeup call to pundits and fans alike. Suddenly everyone realized that in golf there will be life after Tiger, and all the other stars of his generation. The top three golfers in the men’s rankings are now Spieth, Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who won the last two majors of 2014 and was supplanted at the top by Spieth this week, and Australia’s Jason Day, who won his first major at Whistling Straits. All are in their twenties.

With Spieth’s remarkable summer, McIlroy’s return from injury, and Day’s win after a number of near-misses in majors, golf has turned the page. Rickie Fowler, winner of this year’s Players Championship, and a foursome or two of other young stars stand just behind that trio. Over on the women’s tour, nine of the top ten players are under the age of 30. Whether or not Tiger wins this weekend, or ever wins another major; whether or not Phil finally captures that U.S. Open, golf is going to be just fine.

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