It has been, in historically relevant terms, a seismic shift in professional golf’s paradigm of influence the last few days, but before the cats and dogs start moving into a shared walk-up together it’s worth revisiting the concept that parity is the new predictability on the game’s top shelf.
McIlroy is still the undisputed alpha male, Mickelson has shown signs of late life in recent starts with his runner-up showing at the Masters and a tie for fourth at the Wells Fargo Championship, and Woods . . . well, let’s just say he certainly seems committed to the process.
But the days of prolonged dominance appear to be on an indefinite hiatus. Chalk doesn’t do it anymore like it did when Woods was in his prime and winning 33 percent of his Tour starts like he did when he was with Hank Haney. Now, the house has the advantage.
No? How many of you took the prop bet that a rookie named Zac Blair would lap Woods by 15 strokes in Round 3 at the Memorial?
Perhaps David Lingmerth – the last man standing on Sunday at Muirfield Village after enduring the longest playoff in Memorial history for his first PGA Tour title – isn’t the new normal, but he represents a collective face that transcends his position in the Official World Golf Ranking (212th) and his relative experience.
You might remember Lingmerth as a member of Woods’ supporting cast back at The Players in 2013 when he leveraged a 54-hole lead into a runner-up showing.
As competitive fate would have it, it was at TPC Sawgrass, on the adjacent Valley Course, where he regained his Tour card last fall after dropping out of the top 125 in FedEx Cup points, but the 2014-15 season was shaping up to be a similar struggle.
In 26 starts this season he’d missed as many cuts (nine) as he’d made (nine) and his best finish was a tie for 13th place at the other legend’s major, the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
But on Sunday at Jack’s Place, little-known Lingmerth was better than Woods, by 29 strokes for those counting at home, better than Mickelson and finally, after flatlining himself through three playoff holes in even par, better than Justin Rose.
“I've been in a few playoffs; you win some, you lose some. But I didn't feel that it was my turn to lose this time,” said Lingmerth, who closed with a 69 to force overtime.
Rose began the final day three strokes clear of the field, faded three shots out of the top spot with an opening nine of 38 and retook a share of the top spot alongside Lingmerth with an 11-footer for birdie at the penultimate hole.
The Englishman secured his spot in the playoff with a nervy up-and-down from short of the 18th green after hitting a spectator with his approach shot and moments later rekindled that magic with a 19-footer for par to extend the overtime.
But the magic ran out when Rose, a seven-time Tour winner, pushed his drive well right at the 10th hole, the third playoff stop, and misplayed his second shot from a bad lie over the green on his way to a bogey.
“I hit pretty much as good a shot as I could hit from the lie,” said Rose, who bogeyed two of his first four holes and admitted to feeling “uncomfortable” for much of the day. “I just tried to dig out a 3-wood. I was trying to get it in the left bunker, and I couldn't quite get enough cut on it to get it to the left bunker. But I was pretty much aiming 80 yards left of the green.”
Conversely, the unproven Swede was much more resilient than his resume would suggest, holing a 10-footer at the first playoff frame for par and getting up and down at the second to earn the coveted handshake from Nicklaus.
That he secured his first Tour title against one of the year’s deepest fields and with an assortment of A-list types looming only served to magnify the notion that the line between the headliners and the rest of the herd is razor thin.
Jordan Spieth was the highest-profile player to make a run, carding a day’s-best 65 to finish at 13 under some two hours before the leaders were finished.
On Saturday following a sloppy double bogey-6 on the closing hole for an even-par 72 Spieth opined, “[The] golf gods were not on my side today.” A day later after chipping in twice, for birdie at No. 7 and eagle at the 15th hole, the Masters champion took a slightly different approach.
“They were certainly a little nicer today than they have been. But I would call it kind of evening out over the day,” said Spieth, who has seven top-5 finishes since February. “On a course like this, you're going to get some unlucky breaks more than you will catch good ones just given how tough it is.”
It’s a lesson both Woods and Mickelson learned over the weekend. Lefty’s tie for 65th was his worst finish at the Memorial since 1998, while Tiger’s third-round 85 led to his highest four-round total (302) on the Tour and more then a few questions as he now turns his attention to the U.S. Open.
“The guys that have made [swing] tweaks, you have moments where you go backwards and then you make big, major strides down the road. That's just the way it goes,” Woods said. “You have to look at the big picture. You can't be so myopic with your view and expect to have one magical day or one magical shot and change your whole game. It doesn't work that way.”
It’s similar to the notion that these outings follow the hierarchical script that top players always prevail. Sometimes the lead shoots an 85 and tees off first on Sunday and the supporting cast steals the show.