Around 7:00 EST on June 19, 2011, the Tiger Woods Era ended. It’s quite possible that the previous sentence is far too premature. Though it’s entirely possible that we will look back several years from now, and think that it ended back in 2008. But knowing what I know now, yesterday was the moment I felt a legitimate change in the golf hierarchy. 22-year old Rory McIlroy won his first major title, and for the first time in fifteen years, I finally felt like golf had found someone better at golf than Tiger Woods. The youngster dominated Congressional Country Club, and he lapped the field of 155 other golfers with his -16 under 268 total (both U.S. Open records). He’s ranked 8th in the world, and some sportswriter for ESPN even posted a story with the tagline “The Next Tiger Woods.” For golf’s sake, and for all of us, I hope they’re right.
We watch sports for a number of reasons. 1. Our crazed, often irrational, fandom. This means we watch our favorite teams with strong rooting interests (see: why I still watch Orioles games). 2. For the competition, close games and exciting plays/finishes (see: March Madness) 3. To see history being made. This third one is perhaps the most important when discussing the recent past and the future of golf. While Tiger burst onto the scene with the long drives and the fist pumps, Tiger made golf more exciting just because we felt like we were watching something special. We watched Tiger simply because he was Tiger. How often do you get to witness the greatest of all-time (the GOAT)? Woods was (and to a certain extent remains) a superstar unlike we had ever seen before. Very rarely does the world of golf capture the imagination of so many regular sports fans. Tiger Woods had it all. He won, and then he won some more. And he won big. His victory by fifteen strokes at Pebble Beach in 2000 remains the largest margin of victory in the U.S. Open (or any major). And he had just enough charisma in his commercials and (very brief) interviews with the media to charm you.
I was 8 years old in 1999 when I can recall my first real memory of Tiger Woods. It was the 1999 PGA Championship when he dueled with Sergio Garcia at Medinah. Even for all of Sergio’s flair (scissor kick and all), Tiger Woods’ greatness reigned supreme. Anyone who tuned in to watch golf was there to see Tiger. Those who rooted for him (like myself) wanted to see history being made. Those who rooted against him wanted a challenger to test him. He would win six more majors in the next three years including four straight in 2000-2001. We, as casual golf fans, grew accustomed to domination. For nearly fifteen years, Tiger Woods was golf. From the moment he declared “Hello, world” when turned professional in 1996, Tiger Woods completely dictated widespread public appeal for the entire sport.
Tiger was my (and many others) shot at being a ‘witness,’ to take a term from Nike’s Lebron James campaign. I was far too young to remember Jordan at his peak or even his shot over Byron Russell in the ’98 Finals. If your only memories of Michael Jordan were of him as a Washington Wizard, you wouldn’t want to miss any more chances to see the greatest who ever lived. Tiger was my chance, he was my guy. Until he wasn’t.
Ever since the 2008 U.S. Open and Woods’ subsequent surgery, followed by a tumultuous year with the Thanksgiving car crash and ensuing divorce scandal, Tiger simply has not been Tiger. He has been competitive since returning from injury, finishing 6th or better six times in majors, but without a victory. But we don’t watch Tiger because he is close to winning. Granted it’s fun when Tiger is locked in a duel (see Garcia at 1999 PGA, or Bob May in 2000 PGA), but it’s fun because he always wins. We celebrate the greatness of that miracle chip on 16th at Augusta that Tiger holed out on his way to beating Chris DiMarco for the 2005 Masters. But no one remembers the eagle chip that Y.E. Yang made on the 14th of Hazeltine to take the lead away from Tiger in the final round of 2009 PGA, a lead that Tiger never regained. If Tiger had been on the winning side that day, we could have celebrated greatness. However exciting Yang’s comeback was, it was rather forgettable in the grand scheme of golf history.
We enjoy watching superstars like Tiger or Michael Jordan because they are the greatest. And there is a certain invincibility about the GOAT. We tend to ignore Jordan’s failed comeback in 1995 losing to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Semis, just as we don’t remember Y.E. Yang’s chip-in. But years from now, we’ll still be talking about Jordan’s Flu Game and Tiger winning the U.S. Open on a broken leg. We remember Woods and Jordan for their achievements, not their failures. We watch them for the history, not the competition.
Now golf is entering the post-Tiger era, and someone will need to fill the void of superstardom. Hardcore golf fans won’t mind watching obscure player after player winning one major and then disappearing, but casual golf fans will not tune in until history is being made yet again. Tiger is 35, and yes, you can certainly still win golf tournaments into your 40s. But I worry about Tiger’s health. People might not think about golf as a tough sport physically, but few sports bend, turn and twist the body quite like a golf swing does. Certainly, golfers don’t get hit like football players, but other than a MLB pitcher’s throwing motion, I cannot think of a single integral part of a sport that requires as much flexibility. And Tiger does it at warp speed. His swing is so violent that he has now had repeated injuries to his lower body.
(Quick tangent: I am incredibly on the fence about Tiger breaking Jack’s record now. I used to think it was definitely happening. But now I’m leaning against if only because of his knee. Tiger is an incredible athlete and competitor so he can probably keep in shape until he’s 50 if he has the drive for it. It’s all in the air depending on his health and his motivation. And for the record, Jack Nicklaus won his majors #15-18 at the age of 38, 40, 40, and 46. Tiger sits at #14.)
Tiger could still make history (and I’ll still be rooting for him no matter what), but Rory McIlroy is reaching out to carry that torch. If anything, the biggest problem with “Rory McIlroy the superstar” will be that he is not American. Tiger Woods was the perfect person for putting excitement in golf. I mean how can you beat a multiethnic kid for middle-class Los Angeles with a veteran father? He went against the grain of the country club elitist perception that plagues golf despite its popularity among an incredibly large portion of the nation. It remains to be seen if Rory McIlroy can be the “everyman” golfer. Certainly Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman gained popularity as foreigners.
Many times people have claimed to have found the next successor or challenger to Mr. Woods. And yet no one has surpassed Woods in terms of domination. First it was Sergio in 1999. Many people liked Adam Scott for the position. Phil is a little too old but he’s gotten it done. Anthony Kim, Dustin Johnson, and Bubba Watson are a few hotshot young Americans who have generated some buzz. But none stack up to young Rory McIlroy. Yes, McIlroy has only won one major. But he has held a lead on Sunday of the last previous three majors. And the one before that? He finished 3rd despite shooting an 80 in the second round. People may point at the collapse at Augusta as a detractor, but how quickly did he bounce back and get the monkey off his back? I say the kid has some resiliency. And he won like few have been able to do before him. He won big. Just like Tiger did. Watch your back Tiger, he’s coming for you and he’s coming fast.