HOYLAKE, England – Players can’t pinpoint the exact moment when golf’s era of dominance ended, and, really, they don’t have to. The point is that it’s over.
For years, Tiger Woods’ superior play stunted the careers of immensely talented players. Now 38, he’s no longer the biggest hitter on the PGA Tour (Bubba Watson), or the best scorer (Sergio Garcia), or the best ball-striker (Adam Scott), or the best putter (Graeme McDowell).
That’s not a knock on Woods, a five-time winner a year ago. That’s simply a statement of how deep the talent pool has become.
Heck, not even Woods himself can ignore the new world order, saying last week, “It gets harder every year, just because the fields get deeper. The margin is so much smaller. It’s only going to continue to be the case.”
And that was before Rory McIlroy’s latest tour de force, the surest sign yet that we’re in the midst of a new era in golf. Unlike the oppressive one that preceded it, this period is defined by a handful of all-or-nothing, go-for-broke studs whose careers will more resemble Phil Mickelson’s occasional brilliance than Woods’ sustained dominance.
Since Woods last won a major, in June 2008, 19 different players have captured one of the Grand Slam events. That’s a stark contrast to the 24 majors pre-Torrey, when Tiger and Phil scooped up nine of the titles – or 38 percent – in that span.
McIlroy is the only player with a major hat trick over the past six years, which only underscores the point: Any of the top 25 players in the world are capable of putting a stranglehold on a tournament if everything perfectly aligns.
More than ever, there is a sense that the game is cracked wide open, that anyone can win on a given week.
That’s what happened with Bubba Watson, who slipped into his second green jacket with a virtuoso performance. That’s what happened with Martin Kaymer, who raced out to a huge lead at Pinehurst and then stiff-armed the field over the weekend. And that’s what happened again last week with McIlroy, who sealed the Open with a pair of eagles in his last three holes in Round 3.
Three extravagantly talented players. Three big-time victories.
“You never want to discount the possibility of someone coming along and dominating,” Mickelson said, “but nobody has really asserted themselves week-in, week-out the way Tiger did for such a long period of time. We’ll have great performances, like Rory this week and like Kaymer at the U.S. Open, but it’s very hard to do that week-in, week-out the way Tiger did. That’s why it was so impressive what he did.”
Outsized expectations accompanied both Watson and Kaymer in the wake of their second major victories, yet an encore proved difficult. An in-form Watson missed the cut in his next major start at Pinehurst, while a red-hot Kaymer finished 70th at Hoylake.
Those expectations (for the PGA and beyond) are now colossal for McIlroy, who at 25 became the third-youngest player to win the first three legs of the career Grand Slam.
With booming drives and timely putting, McIlroy reminded everyone at Royal Liverpool that his A-game is unmatched. Of course, the challenge – for Bubba, for Martin, for Rory – is sustaining that sublime form over a few months, a season, or a half-decade.
Only Woods – with a career winning percentage north of 25 percent – has been able to master that.
McIlroy briefly fell off after his redemptive 2011 U.S. Open victory. In late 2012, he added three more worldwide titles after the PGA, but then went quiet for a year and a half while dealing with equipment changes, lawsuits and breakups.
Now, as he returns to the spotlight, he finds a crowded landscape with more players who are bigger, faster, stronger, better.
“There are too many good players now,” McDowell said. “It’s so deep. It’s so strong. Everyone is so good. It’s very hard to dominate the way (Woods) did. Someone like Rory or Adam Scott maybe could do it; they’re that good. But so is everyone else, unfortunately.
“That type of dominance, I don’t think we’re going to see that again for a while unless somebody comes out who has perfected the imperfectable. These guys, the best players in the world, they’re playing pretty close to as good as you can play, really.”
Earlier this year McIlroy opined that the game desperately needed a player who could “stamp his authority,” but until this point, no one had taken the significant step forward. Just this year alone Jimmy Walker, Zach Johnson, Justin Rose, Watson and Kaymer have all staked their claim as the game’s hottest player, but their form proved fleeting.
After another eye-opening performance, there is little doubt that McIlroy possesses the most upside, but his yearlong dry spell cost him the No. 1 ranking. Having dropped all the way to 11th at one point, not even two big titles in the past month could propel him back to the top spot.
Golf is a momentum sport, and no one has a bigger head of steam at the moment than McIlroy. As he gushed Sunday night, “I want to be the guy that goes on and wins majors regularly.”
So did the others. In this era, it’s easier said than done.