The Post-Tiger Woods Era Is Reaching Its Full Potential After 2015 British Open

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2015

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This just in, golf fans: The Tiger Woods era is over. Still.

It’s been seven years since he won a major and, though he’s occasionally moved the optimism needle since—most recently with a top-20 finish at April's Mastersa subsequent summer of scores in the 80s and missed cuts at big tournaments might as well have been a death knell.

But the passing of the heady days of a kid named Eldrick doesn’t mean the game goes with them.

In fact, now that the realization is out there that No. 15 will never come and that Jack Nicklaus’ high watermark of 18 is safe for another decade or two, folks can get around to appreciating what they have.

Because what they have these days, in terms of superstars and supporting players, is pretty good.

And now that Tiger has ceded the stage, there's more spotlight to go around.

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Case in point, Monday’s British Open finale.

Not only did Jordan Spieth come within inches of prolonging a Grand Slam pursuit into a four-hole playoff, but even after the Masters and U.S. Open winner was eliminated, the eventual winner also produced as genuine an emotional response to success as the game has produced in a generation.

Had Spieth made birdie at the 18th and won the subsequent playoff, the hype heading into next month's PGA Championship might have stretched the Internet to a post-Kardashian breaking point.

But the guy who did win might have won some hearts in the disappointment's aftermath.

“I’m thankful. I’m honored,” a trembling Zach Johnson told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi alongside the 18th green. “This is the birthplace of the game. That [Claret] Jug means so much in sports. I’m just in awe right now.”

It was the second major in a career that’s already yielded more than $35 million in earnings, and it solidified Johnson’s place among a strata of eminently likable players capable of periodically jumping onto the big stage.

And that’s far from all that’s worth getting excited about.

In addition to the unspectacular but dual-major likes of Johnson and Bubba Watson, or even Louis Oosthuizen, who has one, the clubhouse environment these days also includes a high-profile cadre of young gunslingers—Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson among them—angling to pick up their first major championships.

And though the reality is that the three are still vying for the not-so-coveted title of "best player without a major," the fact that they have 24 big-stage top-10 finishes and seven runner-up finishes between them indicates the wait for the breakthrough may not be terribly long.

Add all that to the rivalry that has the best chance to get the game back to the lead-story-on-SportsCenter level it routinely reached in Tiger’s prime years: Spieth versus Rory McIlroy.

Having the dueling 20-somethings is not only good for golf, but it also takes some heat off a fading Woods.

Stories are always more compelling when a hero has a foe, someone to keep him on his toes. And so long as the other is around, neither Spieth nor McIlroy will settle into the automaton dominance that signified Tiger’s run from 1997 to 2008. While Nicklaus had challengers like Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson across his reign, Woods had little in terms of consistent capable competition.

Just as golf survived when Jack went away, it will endure in the aftermath of Eldrick as well.

Woods was the perfect jolt for a sport in need of someone to take it to the next level. Someone not only capable of energizing hardcore golf fans, but also able to make golf fans out of casual sports fans.

With six majors between them at the ages of 26 and 21, respectively, McIlroy and Spieth already appear to be on the way to becoming the 21st-century incarnations of Palmer, Player and Watson.

And even if neither ultimately reaches the Tiger/Jack heights of 14 majors and beyond, they’ve both got a real chance to at least keep the game relevant until the next phenomenon arrives.