The 75th Masters Tournament offered plenty of highlights. Tiger Woods made an early Sunday charge and shared the lead late on the back nine. Talented youngster Rory McIlroy shot an opening 65 and held the lead for the first three rounds. Aussies Jason Day and Adam Scott played together on Sunday and put up a series of birdies on the back nine. And the 140 pound South African Charl Schwartzel birdied the final four holes to take the green jacket. The back nine was a classic shootout; at one point, five were tied for the lead at -10. As thrilling as the action was, one couldn’t help noticing golf’s reality in the post-Tiger era: parity has become the new normal.
Since Tiger Woods won his 14th major championship at Torrey Pines, ten different men have won major championships (in the eleven contested). With the exception of Padraig Harrington (who won both the 2008 British Open and PGA Championship), no one has dominated. Lee Westwood is a great example of this non-domination: he supplanted Tiger as the world’s top ranked player last year without winning a major. In fact, he’s won only three times around the world in the two year period ( in which the rankings are compiled, and only once on the PGA Tour at the 2010 St. Jude Classic).
Luke Donald is another case in point. The world’s third ranked golfer has won only seven times around the world in his entire career. He has won only one stroke-play event in the last five years (in Madrid last summer), though he did earn big money and plenty of world ranking points when he captured the WGC-Accenture Match-Play Championship earlier this year in Tucson.
Only Martin Kaymer has won consistently in the last few years. He’s won nine times since 2008 and became a household name last summer when he won the PGA Championship in a playoff. But unlike most major champions, he didn’t immediately go into a golfing funk. He won in Holland a month after his major triumph; won three points as part of Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup team; and followed that up with an October triumph at St. Andrews. Early this year, he dominated a world-class field in Abu Dhabi (winning by eight shots over Rory McIlroy) and, shortly thereafter, became world number one.
While Kaymer sustained his fine form, most recent major champions went downhill after their historic victory. Padraig Harrington hasn’t been the same since 2008. He went through a swing change in 2009 and hasn’t won since. Angel Cabrera hasn’t won since putting on the green jacket in 2009; the same can be said for Open Champions Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink. Both have fallen off the map.
Phil Mickelson had numerous opportunities to become number one after winning a third green jacket in April 2010. His game went south immediately after his fourth major. Last summer he revealed he was suffering from arthritis, but downplayed its effect on his game. But the scorecard doesn’t lie: Mickelson was a non-factor throughout most of 2010. His game remained in a funk until a thrilling weekend in Houston (where he shot 63 and 65 over the last 36 holes) the weekend before the Masters. Victory at the Shell made him an instant favorite going into Augusta. But he couldn’t get anything going the next week, and never factored at The Masters.
Louis Oosthuizen is the poster-child for parity. He came out of nowhere and dominated last summer’s Open at St. Andrews. While reporters wondered how to pronounce his name, Oosthuizen lapped the field. He put a Tiger like beating (seven shot victory) on the competition and became a golfing sensation overnight. Since being declared “champion golfer of the year,” Oosthuizen has rarely been heard from. He missed the cut at the PGA and at The Masters.
Most recent major champions haven’t kept up their fine form. But no one has fallen further, faster than Tiger Woods. Woods’ fall from grace came in November 2009 but, his fall from professional dominance came a few months earlier at the PGA Championship. He held the 54 hole lead at Hazeltine and was projected to win his 15th major. Heretofore, he’d never squandered a 54 hole lead in a major. But Japan’s Y.E. Yang stared Tiger down in the final group that August day and won the title. It was a seismic shift in the golfing world; Tiger was no longer invincible.
Then Tiger became a laughing-stock. His image was irrevocably broken; his marriage ended; and his golf-game was in shambles. Tiger popped up drives, missed tap-in puts; and looked lost on the golf course. The low-point came last August at Firestone Country Club (a place he’s won at six times in the past) when he posted 18 over par, his worst professional finish.
The next week he teamed up with a new swing coach, Sean Foley. He talked repeatedly about “the process” and claimed he and Foley were fixing his swing. But Tiger’s major problems aren’t with his long-game, they’re with his putter.
Tiger began missing short putts last year at Augusta. He missed a tap in at 14 in the final round there on his way to a 4th place finish. His problems became more acute at Charlotte (where he missed the cut) and throughout the major championship season. Quite simply, he stopped being automatic within five feet.
He showed that several times a fortnight ago at Augusta. He finished four shots back, but three-putted six times. He missed (seemingly) tap-ins at 12 and 15 that thwarted his final day charge. And that’s why it appears Tiger will never dominate the game again. He no longer looks comfortable with the flat-stick. That’s the reason why Tiger hasn’t won since November 2009. He’s fallen to number six in the world.
That fall brought about golf’s new parity. Woods dominated the game for fourteen years. His only rival was Phil Mickelson, but Lefty has always been an inconsistent player and now, at 40, is past his prime. The other American stalwart over the last decade plus, Jim Furyk, won three times last year and claimed the Fed-Ex Cup, but hasn’t factored in a major in ages.
Young international stars now look like golf’s top players. Sunday’s back nine shootout at Augusta was a perfect illustration of this: 21 year old Rory McIlroy played in the final group; 23 year old Jason Day made a Sunday charge; one-time phenom (and now 30 year old) Adam Scott held a two shot lead after 70 holes; 33 year old Luke Donald earned another top ten; and 26 year old Schwartzel seized the day. For two hours, the tournament was up in the air. It looked like five or six different players would grab the title.
Plenty of these youngsters have the game to win big. Any could have one magical Sunday, like Schwartzel, and become a major champion. Most will become perennial top 10 players. But none are players fans expect to win.
Before The Masters, commentators noted that twenty players had a realistic shot at winning. That sentiment will continue in the post-Tiger era. Expect wide open tournaments to become the norm.