A Golden Era? It's Merely Pyrite

By Sally Jenkins
Monday, August 15, 2005


Maybe the thunder and the lightning that halted play in the PGA Championship was somebody up there saying, "I can't watch this anymore."

About this golden era of golf. Let's hear no more about it, please. The PGA is still not over, thanks to the wizard schedulers at CBS, but enough evidence was presented in the storm-halted final round at Baltusrol Golf Club on Sunday to suggest that the sport is hardly enjoying its finest epoch. When all the tripping, stumbling and staggering was called to a halt at 6:35, the leader in the clubhouse was Tiger Woods, a man who started the day trailing 19 players. And one of the most serious challengers left on the course was Steve Elkington, a 42-year-old who hasn't won a tournament since 1999. What did that say?

It says there's only one man in golf who knows how to close a major reliably, Woods. The rest of them go sideways. It says that golf needs Phil Mickelson to win this tournament and become the great player he coul d be, because Woods has no real competition.

To review: Five of the top six players on the leader board were over par -- all but Woods. Davis Love III drove the ball so badly off line, he was playing out of wood chips and gravel, and he bogeyed four of five holes on the front nine. Vijay Singh couldn't make a putt longer than his own shoe, and dropped three shots in the first four holes. Mickelson managed to lose a four-stroke lead between the fifth and the 10th holes. Retief Goosen dropped three shots in four holes around the turn.

You were tempted to ask them, "So, do you think you can catch Tiger tomorrow?"

They were floundering so badly that a lighthearted Woods joked that he would hang around, just in case that 68 for a total of 2-under 278 was good enough to collect the trophy. "Yeah, you know, there's free lunch," he said.

In fairness, Baltusrol was a hard golf course, especially in the oppressive heat -- when you can actually see the air it's not a good thing. It was difficult to hold a good shot on the baked fairways, and putts slid greasily past the pins. But that didn't entirely explain the collective collapse of the leaders. "It's hard but it's fair," Woods said, "It's right in front of you, there are no tricks out there." What happened to the others was just as often self-inflicted, a result of misfired shots or misjudgments.

Mickelson hit just five of 10 fairways, and seven of 13 greens. He actually held himself together fairly well and was on the verge of reversing his slide when lightning struck near the 14th green and play was halted. Despite the bogeys, he probably played as well as any of the leaders, and had chances to get up and down on each of those holes. But he simply couldn't make short par-saving putts. Trouble is, they are the kind of putts that firmly established major champions make. Frankly, they are the kind of putts that Woods made regularly to finish at 2 under.

"I worked my butt off today to try to get back into this thing," Woods said. "I ground my way back into the championship."

Love hit just four of 10 fairways and nine of 13 greens. Goosen made only seven of 12 fairways and eight of 16 greens. Singh needed 28 putts to play 15 holes -- Woods's total for his entire round.

These are all winners of previous major championships. And they are all very fine players, at times. But there's a reason why Woods has won 10 professional majors since 1997 while no one else has more than three. The fact is that Woods is enjoying a comparative lull in golf, historically. He is the greatest player of his generation, but it's an underwhelming one. For all of the talk about the Big Five of golf -- Woods, Mickelson, Ernie Els, Goosen, and Singh -- and what a wonderful age we're witnessing, it's become apparent that this age pales in comparison to some others. It especially pales next to the one in which Jack Nicklaus played.

As the leaders floundered at Baltusrol, where Nicklaus won two of his U.S. Open titles, you couldn't help but think about the rivals against whom he played and won his 18 professional majors. Gary Player won nine majors, Arnold Palmer won seven. Then there was Tom Watson (eight), Lee Trevino (six) and Raymond Floyd (four). Not to mention the occasional Billy Casper (three), Hale Irwin (three) and Johnny Miller (two).

Nicklaus, in an appearance at Baltusrol this week, rightly observed that the player has not yet emerged who can truly challenge Woods. And he also acknowledged, in a polite way, what a lot of people have been reluctant to say: that despite the seeming depth of the PGA Tour, perhaps Woods's current competition is not what his was.

"I think I maybe had guys that were stronger players that had more experience at winning than Tiger has against him," Nicklaus said. "When you get a guy who is used to winning against guys who are not used to winning, winning breeds winning is what I've always said. So he's tough no question about it, and tough until somebody comes along that all of a sudden wins a few tournaments and believes he's going to win again next time."

Some day that player may come along. But he hasn't yet, and it doesn't look like he's going to show up at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company