By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com Contributor
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Picking a favorite before a major championship has always been like throwing darts at a board, only in previous years one target was a little bigger than the others. Not anymore. While some of the best players in the game stand a better chance this week than others, the post-Tiger era, especially in major championships, is both wide open and strangely disquieting.
There have been six consecutive first-time major winners going all the way back to Graeme McDowell at last year’s U.S. Open, and nine of the last 10 going all the way back to Lucas Glover’s Open win at Bethpage Black. The only two repeat major winners in the last three years are Angel Cabrera and Phil Mickelson, while the No.1 and No.2 players in the world, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, are major-less. In fact, the top five players in the World Golf Rankings own exactly one major title between them: Martin Kaymer’s win at last year’s PGA Championship.
This is strange place for a game that is used to having a top dog. For 14 years, Tiger Woods elevated the public consciousness of golf and escalated the level of play on all tours. More people watched when Tiger played well, and the professional game improved in an attempt to keep up with him.
Prior to Tiger, Greg Norman set the bar. Before that, it was Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, and before that, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. Sure, there were other great players in all those eras, but the game has seemingly always had a standard bearer. Now that Tiger had become what legendary football coach Bill Parcells calls “a JAG” (just another guy), the question going into this PGA Championship becomes: is golf better off with or without one dominant player?
“It’s a pretty good question, that,” said Darren Clarke, the most recent major champion who is looking to become the first player since Padraig Harrington to follow a British Open win with the victory in the PGA Championship. “Tiger was the best player for a very long time and he raised the bar in terms of what everybody else did and everybody else’s preparation and the way they went about tournaments. So in one way, it’s good.
“In another way, you have guys challenging all the time, different players; the likes of Adam Scott, who played sensationally well last week in Akron. It was great to see that for him.”
Scott, a soft-spoken Australian, would never be so brash as to name himself the likely successor to Tiger. But he did say he thinks “the state of the game is in a really interesting place right now. We’ve seen a lot of great stories with some really high-quality young players who are living up to their potential quickly, like Rory (McIlroy) and Ryo (Ishikawa) and Matteo Manassero winning as teenagers. The competition is strong at the moment. Luke Donald has played amazing; Lee Westwood is playing amazing. I think it’s a very interesting place for golf. It’s exciting to watch.”
But will the public continue to watch if the game fails to produce one or two players who separate themselves from the pack, particularly in majors?
“I think the fans always enjoy the hero, the one player that does dominate, who they can cheer for, and I think Tiger was that person, obviously,” said World No. 1 Donald. “But there are obviously people out there who enjoy also like seeing a bit more variance and variety; that other people have a chance to win. That’s been the case the last two or three years. There’s been a lot of shuffling around in the World Golf Rankings, and I’m sure that’s good for the sport as well.
“I’m not sure which is better. I’d probably sway with (having) one person dominating. I think it brings more to the sport.”
Lee Westwood, who would like to become that dominant player, thinks the game is just fine either way. “I think it’s exciting when there’s a lot of different winners and I think it’s exciting when there’s a dominant player,” Westwood said. “You can’t say that when Tiger was winning lots of majors it was boring or dull; it was exciting to watch and see what he would do next. I think it’s healthy for the game both ways. I think depending on who you are and what your idea is, some people are not going to like it when there’s not somebody dominant and others are not going to like it when it’s predictable.”
Then, in a moment that summed up the state of game as well as any, Westwood concluded by saying: “It’s something you can’t control. What you get is what you get.”
This week, what we’re going to get is far from predictable. And that is a good thing.