ORLANDO – The PGA Tour has hewed to a familiar script over the last few years, as a succession of recent high schoolers hoist trophies that almost weigh more than they do.
It’s a generation of fine players – these Justin Thomases, Jordan Spieths and Jon Rahms – and many of them seem destined for the Hall of Fame. But there’s a uniformity to their cohort, well-adjusted kids who are more likely to spend tournament nights downing kale smoothies at the gym than shots of bourbon at a saloon.
Which is fair enough. That Tour is long dead, as are most of the guys who lived it.
The desire for some characters in the mix – for conflicting styles, for a variety of personality – explains why we so enjoy interventions by a grizzled veteran, such as a Pat Perez. But those old troupers have been consigned largely to cameos. They have not been principal players.
Until this month, when the Tour’s new script was shredded.
Two weeks ago, Phil Mickelson ended a victory drought that seemed to stretch back to a time when Spieth was watching the Masters in his jammies, rather than winning it. Seven days later, we had Tiger Woods, back fused and mind focused, giving fans that old tingling feeling for 71 holes at the Valspar Championship.
The good old days were back again.
“It’s definitely exciting,” says former World No. 1 David Duval. “We’re spoiled right now. With Phil winning, with Tiger seemingly on the march back, it could be an incredible few years of golf.”
Duval pauses to consider the dream scenario he’s conjuring.
“We’d settle for one or two, right? If Tiger does complete the comeback with a victory, get back to where even he says he’s back, if Phil continues to play well, it could be as fascinating as any time in the game.”
A rivalry among equals may be more likely than a new era of dominance. And for some of us, it’s preferable. A sport focused on the excellence of one man faces an existential crisis when that one man is no more. Golf glimpsed into that abyss over the last few years. Tennis teeters at its edge with every trip around the sun Roger Federer makes.
The desire to see a new Tiger – heck, even the old Tiger – dominate the game is understandable. Legends elevate their sports. But Duval doesn’t see a new such era being imminent.
“I don’t know when the next Tiger Woods comes around,” he says. “It’s not a knock against any of these great players. We’re seeing some brilliance. But I liken it to Vijay (Singh) and Phil and Jim Furyk and maybe you could argue me. That’s who they are. They don’t have that Tiger who is so dominant. And I don’t know if he can get back to that place at this age with what he’s been through.”
Golf doesn’t need the old Tiger, though, the one who impoverished a generation of players with his dominance. The new Tiger is just fine. We’ll settle for him as a recurring character, a scene stealer.
The real thrill of Mickelson winning the WGC-Mexico Championship in Mexico City wasn’t the victory but the manner of it, how quickly he shed the role of father figure when the opportunity arose to school one of the kids in a playoff.
“Isn’t that, ‘I taught you everything you know but not everything I know?’” Duval says with a hearty laugh. “I still want to step on your throat.”
That’s the charm of golf, the ability for age and guile to compete with youth and power. Many golf fans could struggle to recall who won last year’s U.S. Open, but they remember Tom Watson’s achingly close call at Turnberry almost a decade ago.
We haven’t had that kind of generational rivalry in some time – not since Watson topped Jack Nicklaus 40 years ago – and that’s the promise now dangled before us. Not necessarily a rivalry that defines an epoch, like Nicklaus and Watson, but showdowns pitting youthful exuberance against flinty experience. The kids are sure to play their part. We just need the legends like Phil and Tiger to play theirs.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not,” Duval says. “But we’re hungry for it.”