The summer has been marked with tremblers on major golf courses.
It may be too early to determine the size of the shift, but there’s no growing evidence there has been a dramatic change in the landscape at the highest levels of golf.
• Louis Oosthuizen, a golfer so unknown that the media had to have cheat sheets on the pronunciation of his name and it still was pronounced about a half-dozen different ways, won the British Open. The young South African not only won it, but he won it in wire-to-wire in the dominating fashion (wire to wire and seven strokes) in majors normally claimed by Tiger Woods.
• Neither Woods nor Phil Mickelson nor a handful of other golfers normally considered automatics at the top of the leaderboard, was a factor.
• Woods, who was strangely the favorite going in, has not won a tournament in about a year, hasn’t won a major since 2008. More significantly, he did not mount a serious challenge either in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach nor the British Open at St. Andrews, two courses where he has ravaging success in the past.
• The golfers in a two-man chase on the final day of the U.S. Open were Graeme McDowell and Greg Harvet, two non-winners who left the door wide open all afternoon for Ernie Els, Tiger or Mickelson to go through down the stretch and neither could mount a sprint.
• These were a few of the individuals who were either ahead of Tiger or right around him at the British Open: Alvaro Quiros, Ignacio Garrido, Edoardo Molinari, Ryo Ishikawa, Kevn Na, Robert Rock, Martin Keyner, Jin Jeong.
All among your betting favorites, right? Doesn’t it read more like a list of Formula One drivers — or maybe the names of people you have talked to about computer repair?
The shakeup begins with Tiger, who certainly is a great golfer but certainly not a dominating golfer for awhile, failing to make a major impact in two major tournaments (ones he had prepared for intensely) on two courses that seemed almost automatic he would play well.
Tiger has some issues after a meltdown in his personal life, but I think it goes beyond that.
It wasn’t long ago it seemed Tiger was a cinch to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. He has 14 at age 34. Even the great golfers have won few majors after age 35. Granted, there has never been a golfer like Tiger.
But after undergoing reconstructive knee surgery and repair of a torn ACL, Tiger has played in four majors and has come close to winning only one (last year’s PGA when he was beaten head-to-head by relatively unknown Y.E. Yang). As hard as Tiger swings, it puts tremendous pressure, hole in and hole out, on the knee. Recently, Tiger has fired his swing coach, exchanged words with his longtime caddie, and even changed putters, redid that in mid-Open and changed balls. To kick what “brung you” out of the dance could be an ominous sign of decay on the abilities of a top athlete. It’s still too early to definitively answer the question, but you have to ask if Tiger is deteriorating psychologically and physically as he ages and is no longer the strongest and most fit guy on the course.
The traditionally confident Tiger has added some elements of indecision his psyche.
But what’s interesting is while Tiger has not approached his prior dominance in a year or so, nobody else is really taking over to any great extent — not Phil, not Ernie, not VJ or anybody else who you normally figure will win a tournament if Tiger can’t. Those guys are getting older, too — and are having their own kind of life’s difficulties and battles.
And coming from all directions and building momentum are a wave of international young guns, such as Oosthuizen, McElroy, Ishikawa, K.J Choi and Yang, who are in just as good or better shape as Tiger and Co., can hit the ball just as far, has just as good of overall game and are charging and firing away almost without fear. The intimidation factor that Tiger enjoyed for many years appears spent.
When a golfer such as Oosthuizen goes wire-to-wire in winning a British Open by seven strokes should indicate a watershed moment.
What we’re seeing in golf is the same thing that has happened for the last couple of decades in basketball and baseball — which have become such quality sports globally that the imported athletes are just as good or better as the homegrown.
In golf, we’re also seeing some of the highly rated golfers from Bryce Molder’s promising collegiate generation — guys such as Luke Donald, Rickie Fowler, Paul Casey, Ben Crane, Matt Kuchar, Charles Howell III, Lucas Glover and Ricky Barnes (and Molder), climbing higher and more consistently among money leaders.
What this means is Tiger is facing daunting challenges from more folks than just Phil and Ernie and VJ. We could be entering an era in which as many 30 or 40 golfers have a realistic chance of winning any given tournament — no matter whether it is a major or despite whether Tiger or Phil or any other of the big names are entered.
We seem to be entering an era in where winning two or more major tournaments in a year will become almost as rare as a thoroughbred horse winning the Triple Crown.
Golf has become a sport with global richness.
Interestingly, Tiger has had a lot of do with it.
He became the most famous and admired athletes in the world. With his mixed ethnic background, he he energized the game
internationally and in places it never had an impact before. He has changed the game. He brought into the sport physical conditioning, personal training and accelerated the way technology and equipment was developed and improved. He inspired thousands of young people — and many good athletes who might not normally not have devoted themselves to golf. Those athletes are getting better instruction at earlier ages.
Tiger helped create a hybrid athlete/golfer that changed how the sport was perceived a played — from those who played a round overweight with multi packs of cigarettes in their bags to well-built professionals who regularly visits the exercise van before going to the range and navigating the course powered by fruit and nutrition bars and drinks.
Ironically, Tiger is having to fight the monster (and its worldwide offspring) he helped create.
Now, every tournament, every round, it’s a rugged battle.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)