If you care about golf, you probably couldn’t avoid seeing photos and videos of Tiger Woods being arrested for driving under the influence. And if you care about golf, the particulars of the case might have mattered less than the timing.
Occurring shortly before this week’s U.S. Open, Woods’ arrest provided a painful reminder that the most dominant golfer of his generation was never in position to compete at Erin Hills. With Phil Mickelson likely missing another chance to win his first U.S. Open by attending his daughter’s graduation, the winner in Wisconsin on Sunday likely will be celebrating a one-off, an oddity or a lifetime achievement award rather than a victory portending future greatness.
An entire generation of talented young golfers grew up emulating Woods, or wanting to. And now they have. They have seen expected marches toward greatness stunted by injuries or personal problems.
Five times, Woods won consecutive majors, including three times during his “Tiger Slam” in 2000-01. When he won, we wanted and expected even more. For those who would have been Next Tigers, winning one major has merely indicated how difficult winning one major is.
Woods won his last major in 2008 at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. He won while playing on a damaged knee. With him convalescing, Padraig Harrington won the next two majors.
Since that season, only twice have players won consecutive majors. Rory McIlroy won the British Open and PGA in 2014, and Jordan Spieth won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2015. The past six major champions have been first-time major champions.
With his youth and power, McIlroy looked primed to become golf’s next big thing. He hasn’t won a major since. With his putting and precision, Spieth seemed primed to become golf’s next big thing. He hasn’t won a major since.
When Jason Day overpowered Spieth on Sunday to win the 2015 PGA at Whistling Straits and later ascended to No. 1 in the world, it seemed another tremendous young talent was taking off. But he didn’t.
When Dustin Johnson broke through to win his first major in the U.S. Open at Oakmont last year, he seemed primed to become a dominant player. He hasn’t, and his freak fall down a staircase and subsequent back injury before the Masters this season provided a reminder of how fragile golfing success can be.
Other recent major champions — Sergio Garcia, Jimmy Walker, Henrik Stenson and Danny Willett — are all fine players who are in no way capable of dominating the game.
Woods was last ranked No. 1 in the world in May of 2014. Since then, the position has been occupied in rotation by Adam Scott, McIlroy, Spieth, Day and Johnson.
Johnson is the current occupant. He is 32 and has dealt with addiction and injury and, before his victory at Oakmont, had given away a few majors.
Spieth is 23, and already has given away a major he should have won, at the 2016 Masters. McIlroy is 28 and hasn’t won a major since 2014. Day is 29 and has had back problems.
Spieth has time to build a historic résumé. McIlroy has four majors, as many as the other three combined.
This week will prove challenging to both. As a player with average length off the tee, Spieth will have to handle a course that can stretch to more than 8,000 yards. McIlroy’s recurring back problems might be because of his obsession with heavy weight training, one of Woods’ more dubious legacies.
If anyone other than Spieth or McIlroy wins the U.S. Open, the victory will be cause for a momentary celebration. There will be no reason to break open the history books and calculate paces toward the marks set by Jack Nicklaus and Woods.
I always thought golf could survive Woods’ decline, and survive it has, but the farther he recedes from view at major championships, the more his dominance is missed, and appreciated.