Watching Golf in the Post-Tiger Vacuum

Rory-McIlroy-Adam-Scott-1879604Tiger swing

In this, the year of 2014, otherwise known as Year Five STWM (Since Tiger Won a Major), the golf world continues to grow into its new limbo state, its new normal. While storylines abound and some new young player wins seemingly every other week, while fans watch Tiger wince and struggle and the media throws heir-apparent crowns around like confetti, following the tour these days still feels awkward somehow, unruly, uncertain, strange.

Fan favorites win once every few months, maybe. The older vets only seem to peak for majors, and the youth movement is vast, many-faceted, and almost completely devoid of consistency, to the point that the future of golf almost has no face, not even a Mount Rushmore; it’s a collective, TBD.

As fans, we seem to watch the game’s stars falter and choke every bit as much as we see them stick it, which is a far cry from Tiger’s 14 majors and 71 total wins from 1996-2009. That’s an average of 5.5 wins a year over 14 years, an annual tally that Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson have never even touched once in their careers.

And it was more than that. Sure, Phil’s Muirfield charge last year reminded us of what things used to feel like, reminded us of the destruction of Bob May’s soul at Valhalla, the “chip-in heard ‘round the world” at Redbud, the broken-leg putts at Torrey Pines, the course records, the earth-shaking gallery roars, the fist-pumps. Tiger didn’t just win; he amazed, time after time after time on the biggest stages.

Whether you love Tiger’s game or hate him as a person, or both, you can’t deny that, as fans of the sport, we are now all watching a different game in a different way. Even the players themselves are cognizant of the paradigm shift. They talk about it, think about it, it affects how they train, how they prepare, how they stand over hundred-thousand-dollar putts.

Backsliding at Bay Hill

Adam Scott couldn’t stop thinking about it at Bay Hill last weekend. As one of the game’s most notable stars in the thick of his prime, Scott answered questions all weekend about the importance of the World No. 1 ranking, about how important it would be for him to seize it with authority, to win like the sport’s best golfer should. And he couldn’t, not even with his anchored putter. In a microcosm of the tour since 2009, Scott played brilliantly to take a 7-shot lead into the weekend, only to crumble back into the pack and finish third, and that’s with winner Matt Every bogeying 2 of the last 3 holes on Sunday.

Second-place finisher Keegan Bradley spoke to the media about the new era. “It’s hard. It’s really hard to win. I just feel like the players are so good. From the first guy in the field to the last guy in the field. We all grew up watching Tiger, and you’re seeing his generation play now. And they’re not afraid to go win tournaments.”

Is that it? Well, that’s probably part of it, at least for the Matt Every(man)s of the world who are more capable of putting themselves into position on a given week when the leaders falter.

But it’s also a question of consistency for the game’s biggest stars. Mickelson, McIlroy, and maybe even Scott to an extent, can contend and win majors more often than the rest of the field, but what makes this Tour different is that their win percentage just isn’t in the same stratosphere as pre-scandal Tiger, or even 2013 Tiger, if we’re talking about regular tour stops.

Absence of rivals

There isn’t even a consistent rivalry between them, a couple heavyweight contenders who usually wind up with a chance on Sunday, who go toe-to-toe often enough to create anything very ratings worthy. Jack and Arnie won more than 135 tournaments between them. Tiger and Phil are ticking ahead at 121. Scott and McIlroy and Zach and Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson and Luke Donald and Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar and Jason Day top out at 58 … combined.

So obviously we are seeing parity, with tournament fields more evenly talented, each entrant more capable of going low or, once in a blue moon, winning. And we may yet see an all-time great emerge from among these young’uns. But for now, we watch tournaments without much of a compass, without many expectations whatsoever, because it all changes so drastically from week to week.

A different game

How we feel about Tiger the man is of no consequence. How great it is to see a lesser known Tour face hoist a trophy, that’s not up for debate. But it is different on Sundays now, not devoid of excitement and drama, certainly not absent of amazing shots and clutch play, but it’s just uncertain, all over the place, some might even say boring.

Tiger did things on the golf course no one ever thought someone could do, and he did it with drama, with intensity, consistently cold-blooded on the biggest, most pressure-packed stages in the sport. Like Jack. Like Michael. Like Wayne. And he is far from finished.

Golf used to be a one-man show. Now, it’s a cast of thousands (okay, maybe 15-20). Because we love the game, we’re still going to watch, we’re going to appreciate what these amazing talents are doing on the golf course, both their successes and their failures, because we play, too, because we know how damn hard it is to hit the tiny ball in the tiny hole with a stick.

But it’s also important to recognize that things are different, for now. The pros are different. We’re different as fans. The game is different. And that might not necessarily be a good thing.

James Lower
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