Tiger Woods is still the best player in the world by a good margin, but that superiority hasn't translated into a major victory in a half decade.
Phil Mickelson hasn't won a major in more than two years and has only two in the past seven. A bright future is ahead of Rory McIlroy, but the young star expected to assume the mantle of top golfer is struggling through an extended swing change hangover.
With those three struggling, the opportunity for breakthrough performances both from new faces and golfers coming into their own is making the current landscape of professional golf one of the most competitive and unpredictable since the late 1990s.
It may also be the early stages of the end of the Woods-Mickelson era and the beginning of one that will certainly be highlighted—but not necessarily dominated—by McIlroy, as so many recently believed.
In an 11-year stretch from 1997 to 2008, Woods won an unheard-of 14 major championships. No golfer before him in the modern era won majors at that kind of clip; not Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer or Ben Hogan.
During that same run, Mickelson captured three majors of his own, added a fourth in 2010 and was undoubtedly the second-best golfer in the world for a decade. With a pair of major victories in 2011 and 2012, McIlroy emerged as the heir apparent to the Woods-Mickelson dominance.
Yet the talk of professional golf is no longer limited to these three golfers, as their extended and recent struggles have opened the door for others to not only win major championships, but to be considered among the game’s elite.
Through that door have come the likes of recently-minted U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, reigning Masters champion Adam Scott, former World No. 1 Luke Donald and 2012 green jacket winner Bubba Watson, to name just a few.
Call it perfect timing or maybe just a stroke of luck, but the game has a number of talented, enigmatic and poised-to-pop golfers who are heading into their prime just as questions persist around the game’s long-toothed leaders’ ability to win and dominate the way they once had.
It’s true that parity in professional golf has been around in good measure since Woods stopped winning majors after his injury-plagued triumph at Torrey Pines in 2008. In fact, since that victory—a span of 20 major championships—only McIlroy and fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington have won more than one major.
That means since the 2008 U.S. Open we have seen 18 different winners, and only four of those—Mickelson, Harrington, Ernie Els and Angel Cabrera—owned a major title before a torn ACL and personal turmoil ended Tiger’s reign of dominance.
Even with Woods out of the mix, Mickelson has sputtered over the past several years, at least as it pertains to majors. Since Woods’ last major victory, Mickelson has managed only one himself—the 2010 Masters—and hasn't threatened as much as people might think.
Yes, many golfers have won majors since Woods abruptly stopped doing it five years ago, but it felt more like those golfers were holding Tiger’s place rather than plotting to take it. Victories by Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Darren Clarke were great theater, but no one thought those golfers would ascend much beyond those singular accomplishments.
That said, there’s something different about what we have seen over the past year-and-a-half, culminating with this past weekend’s U.S. Open. There’s something special about the golfers who are starting to break through, creating a feeling that a new elite group is arriving to join McIlroy as the future of professional golf.
During their prime, Woods and Mickelson were just better than the great golfers that challenge them. There was Els, Davis Love III, Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia and David Duval just to name a few. Those players had great talent, and several of them won majors, but it just seemed that when Woods and Mickelson were at their best, it wasn't a fair fight.
That mystique, especially as it pertains to Woods, isn't there any longer. At the 2009 PGA Championship, Woods lost a major for the first time after leading through 36 holes. In 2012, he twice led majors after 36 holes, only to become a nonfactor after 54.
The decline in dominance has coincided perfectly with the evolution of a new powerful, confident and tested cadre of golfers such as Scott, Rose, Donald and Bradley.
They are neither afraid nor intimidated by the world’s best players because they've been emulating them and are chomping at the bit to compete against them.
The generation of golfers that came up with Woods and Mickelson didn't have the opportunity to study them and adopt their traits. The generation that’s coming at them now did, so the battlefield is more even.
That arriving reality was on full display Sunday when at least a dozen golfers without a major championship were in the hunt when the final round began—and a handful of those, including Rose and co-runner-up Jason Day, were right there when the matter was decided late in the afternoon.
Most agree the sky’s the limit for the likes of recent major winners Scott, Rose, Watson, Keegan Bradley, Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen. The same can be said for the likes of near-miss major contenders Jason Day, Luke Donald and Billy Horschel. It just feels different with this crop of contenders than it did a couple years ago.
It feels like a changing of the guard taking place before our very eyes.
No, Woods and Mickelson will not go easily into the night. Yes, McIlroy will figure things out and eventually head the class of major winners for years to come.
That said, for the first time in a long time, the golfers chasing the game’s elite will have as much to say about winning or losing as Woods, Mickelson and McIlroy do. Their talent and poise is equal. Their determination and maturity the same.
It’s a new day in golf—and it’s going to be exciting to watch it play out.