KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – One man’s parity is another’s pendulum, at least when it comes to the shifting sands of competitive golf.
Consider the current state of the game which has been awash in competitive equality dating now to the 2008 PGA Championship. Of the 16 majors played since Padraig Harrington hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy at Oakland Hills there have been 16 different champions.
In team sports salary caps and revenue sharing produce that kind of parity, turns out in golf all one needs to level the playing field is a misfiring superstar and a newfound depth of field.
“The quality of play combined with Tiger Woods’ struggles,” explained longtime Tour swing coach Jim McLean when asked about the phenomenon on Wednesday at the 94th PGA Championship. “It’s a turning of the page.”
Perhaps, but this is not, however, an entirely unfamiliar tome.
From the 1967 U.S. Open to the 1970 British Open, Jack Nicklaus endured the longest major slump while he was in the prime of his career, a run that featured 12 majors won by 11 different players.
That a similar run seems to be repeating itself at the same time that Woods is forging through the longest major drought of his career – it’s been four years and 13 Grand Slam starts since Woods last won on the game’s brightest stage – is not mutually exclusive.
Throughout golf’s history, the ebb and flow of the game’s alpha male could be measured at the majors.
From the ’83 British Open to the ’87 PGA Championship, there were 18 different major champions, a relative lull in the competitive landscape between the Nicklaus and Woods eras.
A similar run occurred from the ’90 PGA to the ’94 U.S. Open when there were 15 different winners for 15 majors. The exception to this rule came in the twilight of Nicklaus’ career between the 1980 PGA and his historic victory at the ’86 Masters, when 16 players won 20 majors, a run that included four majors for Tom Watson.
In golf these lulls are akin to the law of diminishing returns. Once-in-a-generation players are, by definition, rare; therefore it stands to reason that it would be a champion by committee approach filling time between legends.
Whether this is the natural evolution of the competitive landscape or a short lived anomaly caused by Woods’ Grand Slam slide is open to interpretation.
Through the first dozen years of his career, Woods won 30 percent of his major starts and averaged better than one Grand Slam victory per season. Since his one-legged masterpiece at Torrey Pines in 2008, however, he’s been shut out in the events that matter the most by a combination of injury, both physical and mental, and an ever-expanding field of contenders.
“Golf is getting deep,” Woods said on Tuesday at Kiawah, site of this week’s PGA Championship. “There’s so many guys with a chance to win. That’s kind of how sport is. The margins are getting smaller. If you’ve got margins that are that small you’re going to get guys who win once here and there.”
But that does little to clarify the debate: Did Woods open the door for all comers, or did they simply crash through uninvited?
“The younger generation now you’re seeing a lot more than 10 years ago,” Simpson said. “The main reason we’re in a great time is because you’ve got some of the more veteran players, the (Steve) Strickers, the (Phil) Mickelsons, the Woods, they’re still playing great golf, then you’ve got the middle generation and then the young guys like Rory (McIlroy) and Keegan (Bradley).”
But then Ernie Els’ victory last month at the British Open doesn’t exactly square with that reality.
Els, more so than any other player of Woods’ generation, has endured the most from Woods’ greatness. After finishing runner-up to Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open the Big Easy’s frustrations were clear when he was asked about the 15-stroke margin of victory.
“If you put Old Tom Morris with Tiger Woods, he'd probably beat him by 80 shots right now,” Els hissed at the time. “The guy is unbelievable, man. I guess he's the first guy to ever go into double figures in a U.S. Open. As you say, to win by 15 strokes, biggest margin in a major. I'm running out of words. Give me a break.”
But last month at Lytham, Els did what Woods had perfected over a dozen years, keep pace with the leaders late into Sunday and make your move when it counts – at the end. A player with a rebuilt knee, balky putter and fragile psyche doesn’t exactly fit the criteria of unbridled talent or tectonic shifts in golf’s hierarchy.
Nor does it seem likely the revolving door of major champions is about to come to an end, not if one considers the list of favorites this week on a soggy Ocean Course. After Woods, the odds makers have tabbed world No. 1 Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Adam Scott and Jason Dufner you pre-tournament favorites.
The only thing that foursome has in common is a missing major from the mantel. It’s a reality compounded by the PGA’s penchant for one-offs.
Three of the last four PGA winners were first-time major champions and half of the last 16 winners of “Glory’s Last Shot” are one-hit wonders. In short, the PGA is not likely going to be the cure for parity.
Whether this is a lull in Woods’ greatness, as some predict, or the new normal remains to be seen, but the only safe bet this week seems to be that the 17th different player will be celebrating late Sunday afternoon.