The first thing that strikes me when I look at this picture is how “grizzled” these American golfing giants look. There’s been plenty of talk lately about how Tiger is an “old” 36. Well, what does that make Mickelson at 41? Both these guys have a ton of miles of them and due to vastly different circumstances have probably been aging like a President the last couple of years. But, they are still unquestionably the two biggest stories in American golf. The final round pairing Sunday at Pebble Beach was the happening of the year. Phil’s genius 64 was probably the round of the year. I imagine TV ratings compared to last year’s AT&T were quite good. But, like I said, look at that picture. These guys are not on the fast track to the Senior Tour, but they’re probably over the peak of their careers–in Tiger’s case possibly by a large margin.
This is why there is always a desperate struggle to find replacements for Tiger and Phil. At one stage late last year it looked like both of these players were hopelessly off their games. Now Phil has returned to show that top-side brilliance and Tiger is at least contending, but it’d be a huge surprise if they ever hit 1/2 in the World again, and in a few years you might look up and find them both being non-factors or even retired. So, with that mind it becomes Rickie Fowler saturation. It becomes Dustin Johnson idol worship. It’s promoting everyone under 30 who wins one event with a belly putter. It’s framing Rory McIlroy’s career in historic terms after a handful of victories and hoping there’s an even younger generation to challenge him at the top.
Golf knows that Tiger and Phil aren’t going to last forever so they throw 20 guys at the fans and hope a couple of them stick. They hope that someone in that group can really create a reaction or a niche of dominance. It’s an incredibly tall order and one that I’d say is failing miserably outside of the dedicated golf fan.
Phil and Tiger have two things going for them. First, they are both extraordinary players. Yesterday was Phil’s 40th win. There’s a chance that Phil could be the last player to win 40 times on Tour. Vijay needs six more (not going to happen) and then the first “youngish” guy to pop up on the list is Adam Scott with 8 wins. EIGHT. Is Dustin Johnson going to win 35 more times? There’s a solid chance that if someone else is going to win 40, we don’t even know about them yet. They’re some 2-year old pounding large buckets all day somewhere. And, you take Phil’s 40 wins and 4 Majors and that’s not even 1/2 of Tiger’s career. Phil long gave up comparing himself to Tiger because there’s no point. So, one of the reasons these guys create so much is interest is because they’ve simply been better than everyone else. At times by a large margin.
The other reason they’ll be so hard to replace is they create strong reactions in people. You ask someone about your average Dustin Johnson, or Keegan Bradley and you’ll likely get a lukewarm response. “He’s OK.” “It was nice to see him win…I guess.” That’s not what Tiger and Phil do. People love these guys. They also hate them. Tiger is on every list of most-hated athletes now, but he’s still got the most supporters at every tournament. Tiger’s incidents might have actually helped golf, because now you’ve got even more people tuning in just to make sure he loses. A lot of people don’t want his transgressions washed away with wins. Phil, of course, generates haters with an uncommon ease. It’s remarkable.
In this era of dwindling golf popularity, I think the powers that be should be thankful for haters. They’re propping up the sport a bit right now and driving the discussion. Sunday was a huge injection of new fuel. A loss by Tiger and more proof that “he’s done,” along with another incredibly annoying win by Phil. What more could you ask for? For starters, the PGA Tour should hope that Rory, DJ and the boys start generating some hate. It’s the only way to go.