Yes, Virginia, There is Life After Tiger

I’m still trying to wrap my head around what happened at Valhalla this past weekend. At minimum, the 2014 PGA Tournament was without a doubt the most exciting, tense tournament of the year. We saw putts drop from all over the place, ridiculous recoveries, and in case there was any lingering doubt, a convincing changing of the guard.

I was too young to have seen the 1960 US Open, but judging from accounts I’ve read [check out Curt Sampson’s “The Endless Summer”], it isa tournament I would love to have witnessed. Arnold Palmer, cementing his title as the King of Golf, made a charge in the final round, birdying six of the first seven holes to ultimately win it. Forty-eight year old Ben Hogan was making one last stand, going for an unprecedented 5th Open, and came pretty damned close to taking it until he dumped a pitch shot into the drink on the penultimate hole. And there was an Ohio State student in the field named Jack Nicklaus paired with Hogan, who later said, “Yeah, Palmer was great, but I played with a kid who could’ve won this thing by 10 shots if he had just gotten out of his own way.”

A few years later, Nicklaus took down The King in his own backyard at Oakmont to win the Open, the first of his 18 majors. And Hogan had largely retired from tournament golf.

There’s not an exact historical parallel between this year’s PGA and that 1960 US Open, but in a lot of ways I think it will prove to be just as significant. The crown has definitely passed to Rory (he is deserving of the Single Name Reference) – actually, it’s hasn’t passed, he’s taken it, as surely as Nicklaus took it from Palmer in 1962.  McIlroy stared down challenges from a veteran multi-major champion (Phil Mickelson) and a young, ridiculously talented upstart (Ricky Fowler). Whether this is the end of the line for the left hander (I sure hope not, he was sensational over the weekend after suffering through a lackluster season) or the start of something big for the former clothes model (I’d like to think that in additional to improving Ricky’s swing, Butch Harmon has gotten him to tone his wardrobe – at least as much as a Puma wardrobe can be toned down) is an open question.

This performance by Rory was perhaps his most impressive. He struggled a bit on the front side on Sunday, missing some fairways and a few putts that over the last three weeks had seemed all but automatic. In the meantime, Mickelson, Fowler, and Henrick Stenson all blistered the front nine and pulled ahead.  McIlroy stayed patient, however, and started his back nine with a marvelous eagle on 10, where he fashioned a low cut into the 590-yard par 5 that found some scarce dry ground (rain plagued the tournament all weekend) and scooted to within 6 feet of the hole. That seemed to galvanize him (like all great golfers, McIlroy’s eyes were revealing, glowing and intense), and other that his second shot into eighteen,during the cluster that occurred while the PGA tried to hustle the last two groups home before dark, he really didn’t miss a shot.

Fowler once again delivered a strong major performance that fell just short, and admitted afterwards that this one stung a bit. He’s learning that there’s a very small margin of error in competing for these titles, and it was really one swing on the par-3 14th that did him in on Sunday, leaving a 5-iron out to the right that left him with a brutal up and down attempt that he could not convert. But his demeanor and cool under fire is appealing, and I think bodes well for him in the future. His progress this year has been phenomenal.

Mickelson, of course, is all too familiar with thin margins of error. In his case, he left an 8 foot downhill putt for par two inches short on #16. Lefty came out blazing, going out in 31, and damned near holed out for eagle on the final hole, which would have made Rory’s final bunker shot there a lot more interesting. Phil and Ricky have a close relationship (at least that’s what I’m told); they could make for a powerful pairing in this year’s Ryder Cup.

Maybe the most encouraging news for the weekend was that TV ratings for the event were up by 38 percent from last year, with a very healthy 9.2 rating being clocked for the final hour – all this without the benefit of the presence of one Tiger Woods [you didn’t think we could go an entire piece without mentioning Eldrick, did you?]. He came, he saw, he slammed the trunk on Friday after missing the cut. And this morning, Tom Watson is saying that he“hasn’t ruled out” selecting Tiger to the Ryder Cup team. One can only surmise that either NBC has put a gun to Watson’s head (or is dangling a ton of money in front of him), or Tiger himself has embarrassing photos of Watson that he will release to the press if he is not picked. As a friend of mine pointed out recently, if not for his endorsements, Woods would not be making a living playing golf this season.

Rory’s making a nice living, though; entertaining the hell out of us with his remarkable play and charming us with his demeanor. There’s a new sheriff in town. Welcome to his world.

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