Well, it finally happened. Tiger won a PGA Tour event after a two-year hiatus, and it has sent the golf world into a state of hysterics. The pundits are acting like they knew it was going to happen all along, the haters have gone back underground to strategize, and golf fans are all focused on the Masters, which has the potential to be a historic affair. The greatest part of Augusta National is its ability to conjure story lines out of mid-air, no embellishment or hype necessary, but this year people will be looking to the Masters to settle a score. A Sunday full of unlikely heroes, like Charl Schwartzel, will not be as well received as it was last year. This year it’ll all be about Tiger vs. Rory, and if Phil wants to throw himself in there as well, all the better.
Golf rarely gets this type of match race. For a long time Tiger was the unquestioned favorite in every event he played. A rival was propped up against him in many cases, but his best battles came against journeymen like Bob May. In the last few years the Majors have been completely without a dominant player. Take a few usual names, sprinkle in the hottest players and you’ve got your pool of possible winners. In actuality, that will be the case for the Masters next week as well, but if you walked around polling fans for their champion, I imagine 99% would mention Tiger, Rory or Phil. If you trimmed the field to just those three players, the TV ratings would hardly budge.
Adding to the excitement is that all three of the big names are in form, or close enough to top-form that you expect them to play well. Rory has been the world’s most consistent top-level performer over the last year. It’s impossible to envision a scenario where he isn’t in contention. Tiger has capped a run of encouraging play with a win, and not just a win, but a convincing victory where he pulled away and made the rest of the field look feeble in comparison. Mickelson’s form, as usual, is the most erratic. He looked like the best player in the world a month ago, but has been mediocre since. Phil has taken over ownership of Augusta, though. He has the best recent track record there, and more than any other golfer out there Phil needs something to get his attention to play his best. The Masters will get his attention.
In addition to form, there will be legacies on the line at Augusta that should add to the drama. In Rory’s case, we have spent a good bit of the past year talking about a symbolic torch passing. As Tiger struggled with his return, Rory emerged from a crowded field of precocious contenders to be deemed the chosen one. His win at the U.S. Open, his rise to #1, it was supposed to be the emphatic stamp that finally ended the Tiger Woods era. I wrote a while back that the biggest obstacle Rory could face in being the “next Tiger Woods,” was Tiger Woods. If any player was going to truly stunt Rory’s development, keep his win total in-check, it’d be a rejuvenated Tiger. Well, Tiger appears to be rejuvenated. So, is Rory going to kick Tiger off his top-step, or step aside like so many other contenders have done in the past? And, what would a partial return to Tiger mania mean for Rory’s long-term outlook? Remember that was Tiger’s 7th win at Bay Hill. Rory has 5 wins worldwide in his whole career. He has a lot of accumulating to do, how much bleaker are the prospects?
For Tiger, it’s about returning the focus to 19 Majors. That was the only number that mattered pre-scandal and I get the sense Tiger has been yearning to make that the discussion once again. When you struggle with your health and making cuts, no one is going to give you five majors, but now that Tiger has won, he can start controlling the dialog once again. You saw the reaction to his victory, the majority of golf fans just want to watch him play his best golf. Tiger’s intimidation will be measured once again as well. We’ve heard recently that a new generation doesn’t fear Tiger, especially on Sunday. Would one victorious Sunday at Augusta change all that?
In these terms, those of legacies, Phil is once again unfortunately on the perimeter. He’s stuck in numbers limbo, where it’s hard for him to impress anyone. A win at Augusta would be his 4th, an incredible number, but not more than Tiger and still two shy of Jack. It’d be a fifth major. Another great number, but not terribly significant. It wouldn’t get him to #1, and past 40, there’s only so much work he can still do. But, if Phil ever wants to be mentioned as anything more than Tiger’s greatest foil, he’s got to keep winning, keep winning the big events at Tiger’s expense. Who knows, if Phil wins this year, six green jackets isn’t out of the question.
The Masters isn’t going to answer the questions people will pose beforehand. At least not in the long-term. There’s a great chance that Tiger, Phil and Rory will all come up empty-handed. There’s a chance one could win and bask in the praise for a few months, only to be unseated a couple of months later at the US Open. But for the four days the tournament takes place it will feel like the be-all end-all of golf. Especially if these three guys are battling it out, it’ll feel like the only golf tournament that ever mattered. That’s what people will be hoping for, even expecting. We’ll see if it can possibly live up to expectations.