Sunday, August 15, 2010

It's a new world, Tiger

Those anxious for Tiger Woods to win another major championship better pack a lunch for that wait.

And anyone who thinks Woods will ever dominate pro golf again is seriously deluded. It's over, folks, just like that. He may yet win another major (I personally don't see it happening; maybe I'm a glass-half-empty kind of guy), but his days of dominance are done.

And it's not (just) because his personal life came unraveled last November when he cracked up his car in a late-night decision to go for a drive in his pajamas.

The first real sign of weakness in Team Tiger came last August, when a South Korean named Y.E. Yang stared down the world's No. 1 player for 18 holes and won the PGA Championship. Even that, however, was not the beginning of the end.

If you really want to know, it came in July 2003, and probably no one knew it at the time. Ben Curtis, an unheralded tour pro born in Columbus, Ohio (Jack Nicklaus' birthplace, by the way, and there's a certain symmetry to that), captured the British Open at Royal St. George's in Sandwich, England.

It was significant for a lot of reasons. British bookies gave 300-1 odds on Curtis. Also, he became the first golfer in 90 years to win in his first appearance at a major, when Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline, Mass. In hindsight, though, the most significant number is 26, Curtis' age at the time. That made him the first person younger than Woods to win a major since Woods joined the PGA Tour in 1996. (Curtis' DOB: May 26, 1977; Woods' DOB: Dec. 30, 1975.)

Tiger mastered the Masters at 21, winning by a dozen shots in 1997, his first full year on the PGA Tour. In the next 25 majors, a span of more than six years, Tiger would win seven more majors, and the other 18 were all won by players older than Woods. At 24, he throttled the field in the U.S. Open by 15 strokes and the British Open by eight shots. He also won five other majors before Curtis' 2003 British Open victory.

Since 2003, though, seven different golfers younger than Woods (now 34) have won majors, including four of the past six: Lucas Glover (30) at the 2009 U.S. Open, Graeme McDowell (31) at this year's U.S. Open, Louis Oosthuizen (27) at this year's British Open and Martin Kaymer (25) at this year's PGA Championship.

Kaymer's victory Sunday in a playoff over Bubba Watson at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin came while Woods was basically running in place for four days, as other players (mostly younger, and, a few older) were moving past him up the leaderboard. Sunday's play at the PGA completes the changing of the guard on the PGA Tour.

Tiger will be 35 in December. Nicklaus won the Masters and the PGA the year he turned 35, plus four more majors after that, including a record sixth and final Masters at 46 in 1986.

Woods has 14 majors, four behind Nicklaus' 18. That Tiger would eventually catch and surpass the Golden Bear once seemed a slam-dunk. Now, it's not so certain. The fact that Tiger won six more majors after Curtis' British Open win in 2003 is testament to how strong a golfer Woods once was. But that's past tense. The present, for Tiger at least, is not pretty.

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