It’s a funny thing, this business of defining time periods by separate eras. We never quite know when one is ending and the next is beginning – not while that transition is happening, at least. There is no specific date on the calendar, no handy color-coded chart to help us immediately understand exactly what we’re witnessing at the time.
Dinosaurs didn’t just show up on earth one day and declare it the Jurassic period; more recently, historians can’t pinpoint one singular action that ended the Renaissance.
And in a transition of slightly less global significance, we might not know for years whether Sunday afternoon, when the final putt of the Open Championship was tapped into the final hole, was the exact moment when the golf world shifted from the Tiger Woods Era to the Rory McIlroy Era.
It sure felt that way, though.
Ultimately, history will decide if McIlroy’s third career major victory officially ushered us into this new era in the game. But in a week where Woods – who won the last time this tournament was held at Hoylake – finished 68 spots behind his youthful pal, this one appears earmarked as a milestone moment.
Call it a changing of the guard or a passing of the torch or a textbook example of out with the old and in with the new, but the facts clearly outweigh any hyperbole.
In the time since Woods’ last major victory, McIlroy has three of ‘em. As Woods continues to slide down the world ranking, McIlroy continues to climb. With Woods seemingly growing more frustrated with his on-course performance, McIlroy appears unburdened by any demons from his past.
Years from now, we’ll very well look back on this one in the same manner that we review the 1960 U.S. Open. In a tournament that is often considered a crossroads of the generational gap, Ben Hogan was upstaged by 30-year-old Arnold Palmer defeating 20-year-old Jack Nicklaus by two strokes. Hogan would never again win a professional tournament.
This latest transition period, however, likely won’t prompt such a dramatic fade, just as it won’t provoke the sudden spike that occurred when Woods won the 1997 Masters. He will win again – and he could very well win multiple major championships from the age of 38 and beyond. Instead, this has a more similar feel to the latter part of the career of the man Woods is chasing.
Nicklaus was 38 when he won his 15th major title – one more than Woods owns now. That was in 1978, but two years and exactly zero wins later, the Jack Nicklaus Era had given way to one led by young upstarts like Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros. When the Golden Bear was able to win the 1980 U.S. Open and follow it with a PGA Championship two months later, he was impinging on the next generation’s era rather than extending his own. By the time he won his 18th and final major at the 1986 Masters, his personal era was long a thing of the past.
Woods prides himself on being a golf historian and so he knows all of this already. He understands that one generation giving way to the next doesn’t necessarily mean the older players will be shut out from ever winning again.
Woods also realizes that although McIlroy’s early accomplishments might not be level with those from the early part of his own career, they are eerily reminiscent. The accolades, at least, if not the consistency.
“The way he plays is pretty aggressively,” Woods analyzed Sunday, comparing him favorably with Phil Mickelson. “When he gets it going, he gets it going. When it gets going bad, it gets going real bad. It's one or the other.”
Rory joined Jack and Tiger as the only players in the Masters era with three major titles by the age of 25. He’s now just a green jacket away from becoming the sixth player in history to win the career grand slam, all of which should feed into this transition period.
While the festivities at Augusta National have often been hailed as Tigermania, the circus will appear more like Rorymania next April, when he attempts to join that exclusive club.
If that’s not enough to sound the alarms of change, then try this: Mickelson, with five major titles and more than three dozen other PGA Tour wins, is on the short list of the greatest players of all-time. He’s certainly inside the top 15, arguably amongst the top 12, pushing toward the top 10.
Well, McIlroy owns three majors at an age that’s eight years younger than Mickelson when he won his first.
That’s just another on a long list of reasons why the transition to a new era felt complete on Sunday. It's not an exaggeration to state that golf has apparently entered a new time period. Every generation has eventually succumbed to the next one, but rarely has that process taken place in such an abrupt manner.
History will tell us whether that’s true. Years from now, though, don’t be surprised if we look back on these days as the beginning of what’s forever remembered as the Rory McIlroy Era.