SHEBOYGAN, Wis. – Some call it parity, but the unfiltered truth is that what’s erupted in golf over the last 12 months borders on competitive anarchy.
First, the hard numbers: Five of the past six majors have been won by first-time Grand Slam champions. The trifecta atop the world’s golf marquee (Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood) has combined for just two PGA Tour titles this year and in an ode to recent form the last competitive cards signed by those three added up to 77-78-WD respectively at Firestone.
In short, Nos. 1 (Woods), 2 (Mickelson) and 3 (Westwood) are either on a couch, or should be.
Perhaps not since 1997 when Woods made history with his maiden Masters title have the prognosticators been so utterly powerless in predicting a champion.
Even the experts in the United Kingdom betting houses flirted with the idea that Woods, along with Mickelson, should be an 8-to-1 co-favorite when play gets underway here at Whistling Straits for the 92nd PGA Championship. But then again, Woods played the final 18 at Firestone like an 18-handicap and the line was reset on Woods to a meek 16-to-1 behind Lefty.
Gone are the days when round pegs went into round holes on Sunday. All that seemed to end, at least metaphorically, at this championship last year when little-known Y.E. Yang did the unthinkable and ran down Woods on Sunday at a major.
“The days of no-names getting in contention on Sunday afternoon and backing up, it doesn’t really happen anymore,” Graeme McDowell said.
McDowell should know, he had only one gear at Pebble Beach, stormed past Dustin Johnson and never gave any mind to Ernie Els (No. 6 in the world) on his way to his first major championship.
The what, in practical terms, is simple enough. On Thursday at Whistling Straits 156 players will tee it up and no fewer than 100 have realistic title dreams. The why, however, is a little more cloudy.
Without question Woods no longer holds the mental edge over the field like he used to. He may still be No. 1, but he no longer takes the tee with a 1-up edge based on pure moxie.
Whether all that changed on Nov. 27 or the subsequent chapters is impossible to tell, but what is real among the frat brothers is that Superman no longer seems bulletproof. Not after going eight starts without a victory, the second-longest title drought to start a season. Or after 18 over par at Firestone, a course he’s owned in the past.
“I’ll be honest the feeling in the locker room is slightly different,” Paul Casey said. “Guys feel that this is very much, with the way (Woods) played the past week, this is wide open, and that’s not a feeling that a lot of guys have had before.”
There’s little doubt Woods will rediscover his mojo, but the rank-and-file – more so than those atop the ranking – seem intent on making the most of the lull in the storm.
And Woods is not the only alpha male misfiring when it matters.
Mickelson has had at least a half dozen chances to overtake Woods atop the world ranking with no crown to show for it. Sunday’s unsightly 78 at Firestone may have been the most high-profile miscue, but since his Masters victory Lefty has just three top 10s and has finished T-48, T-46 in his last two starts.
Westwood, on the DL for at least four more weeks with a calf injury, has been the most consistent player on the planet yet has just a single victory this year (St. Jude Classic) and was unable to keep pace with little-known Louis Oosthuizen at the Open Championship.
Even Els has not been as commanding as he was when he won twice earlier this year in Florida.
Yet what the headliners seem to have lost in cache’ those playing from the pack have used that void to fuel a collective confidence boost that has been years in the making.
“A top-50 tennis player in the world takes on Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal, they have absolutely no chance,” McDowell said. “The No. 50 player in the world could beat Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson or Steve Stricker or Lee Westwood any given day.”
Try 110th. That was Yang’s ranking when he won last year’s PGA. Or 54th, Oosthuizen at St. Andrews, or even McDowell’s relatively lofty spot in the world (36th) when he outlasted all at Pebble Beach.
Picking a winner on the PGA Tour has become hazardous duty, with a Ouija board and tarot cards every bit as helpful as a media guide and performance charts. The days of penciling Woods or Mickelson into an office pool have gone the way of three-shot par 5s and square grooves.
“This could very well be a Shaun Micheel type year,” said one longtime Tour observer on Wednesday at Whistling Straits. “A player that the public might consider a fluke but that we know is a very good player.”
Oh yeah, Micheel. Now he wouldn’t be a bad pick.