LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Can golf survive without Tiger?
The answer has never been more obvious.
The PGA Championship gave us the best major of the year (by a wide margin) and Valhalla Golf Club staged one of the most compelling final rounds ever. The most invigorating part? You Know Who was nowhere to be found.
The week began with cameras fixated on Tiger Woods’ empty parking spot. It ended with Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson – four of the top 13 players in the world – engaged in a wildly entertaining shootout on a vulnerable golf course that left everyone, even the winner, emotionally spent.
The scene at Valhalla was so electric, about the only thing missing was Boo Weekley riding his driver like a quarter horse.
“Of all the ‘grow golf’ initiatives out there,” Ben Crane tweeted, “I think having Phil, Rory and Rickie tied for the lead at a major is the best idea yet.”
Indeed, this PGA Championship was just what the game needed, all of those birdies and roars brightening up the general doom and gloom of this golf year.
A year when the game’s biggest attraction went under the knife (again).
When some in the equipment business reported massive losses and slashed jobs.
When the issues plaguing the game – cost, time, difficulty – lingered with no clear solutions.
Sunday, however, was a much-needed reprieve. For four thrilling hours, the best players in the world boomed drives, stuffed iron shots and drained putts, all while chasing daylight. Final-round TV ratings were up 36 percent, the highest in five years for a PGA finale.
“It must have been a great championship to watch,” said Stenson, as he and his comrades saved their best recovery shot for last – rescuing the sport from a theme-less season that was more snore than scream.
Hey, don’t blame Bubba Watson (Masters) and Martin Kaymer (U.S. Open) for the lack of drama. Yes, they encountered little resistance on the final day of their major triumphs, but their level of play in capturing major No. 2 was at an all-time high.
Plummeting ratings suggested a lack of interest from the casual observer, but hardcore golf fans – the main demographic – likely view 2014 as a swing year. The year the game’s star attraction broke down, and the new king reigned, and the new rival emerged.
All sports undergo a similar evolution at some point, whether the spotlight shifts from Jordan to LeBron, or from Tyson to Mayweather, or from Gretzky to Crosby, or from Sampras to Federer. Some transitions are seamless. Others are done so begrudgingly, with growing pains, like ours.
In Tiger’s case, of course, the pain has been more literal. Injuries have knocked the former No. 1 off-course, and in the past few months there have been calls – OK, howls – for Woods to change everything from his workout regimen to his swing coach to his physiotherapist. Odd, because few suggestions were made 12 months ago, when he was Player of the Year, the top-ranked player on the planet and a five-time winner. So until he gets healthy, fully healthy, it’s wise to exercise patience.
Whenever Woods returns to competitive relevance – and he will, likely sooner than later – he’ll assume a new role, as a foil to McIlroy’s increasingly legendary career.
Sunday’s victory at the PGA stamped the 25-year-old as not just a global superstar but a potentially transcendent one. In both boat races and battle royales, he dazzled with a stirring combination of power and precision, with a bit of panache for the millennials.
McIlroy is the third-youngest in modern history to reach four major titles. If nothing else, his game-changing victory over Mickelson, a five-time major winner, put an emphatic end to all of the “Who’s Next?” questions. Open your eyes – he’s right here, right now, an intimidating presence in a remarkably compact (5-foot-9) frame.
Though McIlroy may be less polarizing than Woods, though he may play a game that is less violent and dramatic, the end result is no less masterful.
“It’s beginning to look a little Tiger-esque, I suppose,” said Graeme McDowell, who only three weeks earlier had dismissed the notion that a player could dominate in an age of competitive parity.
“I’m not eating my words,” he said, “but I’m certainly starting to chew on them right now. When the kid is playing well, he’s pretty tough to live with.”
Sorry, G-Mac, but the kid will be a legitimate threat for only another, oh, 15 years.
Sunday at Valhalla was proof that with McIlroy at the forefront, the sport cannot just survive with a diminished Woods. It actually has the potential to thrive.