Golf's new Golden Age


A seismic shift occurred under the tectonic plates of the golf world on Sunday. Tiger Woods winning his first tournament in more than two years? Well, that’s part of it, but hardly the entire story.

No, this had more to do with a major alteration of the space-time continuum.

The season-long ebbs and flows of professional golf have always been determined by the annual calendar. The game blooms along with the azaleas in Augusta every April; it heats up again at the U.S. Open in June; it blows onto the radar at the Open Championship in July; it oozes one last shot of glory at the PGA Championship in August.

The major championships remain the standard bearers for which all other tournaments are measured – and rest assured, the other ones pale in comparison. That doesn’t mean, though, that other parts of the calendar are absolved of any potential drama. 

And therein lies the seismic shift.

Hoggard: Tiger emotional in victory

The end of the year was for so long golf’s opportunity to lounge in front of the cozy fireplace and hibernate until the next season. Sure, the good-natured hit-and-giggle fests comprised a Silly Season that kept elite players’ wallets fattened and diehard fans amused, but the heart of the scheduled lineup had long since taken its cuts, riding the bench until their numbers were called again.

The shift to late-season events becoming important was less swift than gradual, but there were a few key moments in its arrival. First was the Nedbank Golf Challenge, comprised of a 12-player field in South Africa, receiving Official World Golf Ranking points for its participants in 2006, followed three years later by a similar arrangement for the 18-man Chevron World Challenge, which coincided with the inaugural Race to Dubai, garnering greater importance for the end of the European Tour schedule.

Like a perfect offseason storm, all three converged to make Dec. 4 one of the most important dates of this year’s golf calendar, as unlikely as that sounds. In succession, three of the game’s biggest stars catapulted themselves into the headlines during a time previously reserved for pursuits other than popular pros purloining headlines. Rory McIlroy won the Euro Tour’s penultimate event in Hong Kong. Lee Westwood triumphed at the Nedbank. Woods prevailed at the Chevron.

If it wasn’t before, it’s official now: The Silly Season isn’t very silly any longer.

The 49th week of the year – and the 49th week in which multiple major tours hosted events – wasn’t only meaningful because of its trio of champions. Its relevancy will extend into the 2012 campaign as one of the most anticipated golf seasons in recent memory.

We have to go back to 2001, when Woods owned three major championship trophies and was pursuing the so-called “Tiger Slam,” to find a time when golf had created such a palpable buzz entering the year. The timeliness of such reverberations is magnified by the fact that the outgoing season was one known more for parity than anything else. Three different players staked a claim to the No. 1 ranking, four different players won the major championships and no player claimed more than two PGA Tour titles.

If there’s one man who can create a buzz, it’s Woods. His one-stroke victory over Zach Johnson turned a traditional NFL Sunday in this country into a Golf Sunday, with fanatic and casual observers alike glued to their television sets throughout his journey toward the long-lost winner’s circle.

For the first 14 years of his professional career, Woods was always the prohibitive favorite anytime he teed it up. So dominant was the 14-time major winner that legitimate queries about “Tiger or the field?” permeated conversations prior to many of those tournaments.

During the 749-day period between Woods’ victories, though, the game’s landscape changed. Rather than one preeminent figure reigning over the opponents, others have stepped in to fill that void, cultivating a culture of excitement and even greater anticipation.

As we witnessed on Sunday, McIlroy and Westwood – the world’s second- and third-ranked players, respectively – are competing at an elite level. Luke Donald is the game’s most consistent performer. Twenty-something major winners Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer and Keegan Bradley own star potential, as do fellow twenty-somethings Webb Simpson, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler.

The list of players who can challenge Tiger – and will be challenged by Tiger – for supremacy on a weekly basis stretches much further than the aforementioned names, all of which breeds plenty of promise for the upcoming campaign.

In fact, speculation can extend well beyond 2012. For so many years, Woods single-handedly brought golf to the masses. If he can return to his former level – and yes, that remains an “if,” even after his recent win – and others continue on their apparent paths toward success, the next half-decade could be ripe for a golden age within the game’s highest level.

If nothing else, it leaves the golf world on the collective edge of its seat going into next season. These are the types of things we now learn on a day like Dec. 4, that seismic shift proving that anticipation and drama can’t be contained within the walls of the traditional calendar.