It was a classic Tiger Woods charge, three birdies in the final four holes on Sunday, then one last steady par putt on the 18th at Firestone Country Club, where he has won seven of twelve WGC-Bridgestone events.
The birdie burst left him a mere thirteen shots behind the leader Adam Scott, whose round was just getting underway.
Phil Mickelson spent another Sunday making birdies early and bogeys late, finishing with a double on the 18th that dropped him to fifteen shots behind Scott.
Get used to it. The era when the golf world revolved around these two American poles is over.
A new day is here: Jason Day, to be precise. Jason Day, and Ryo Ishikawa, and Rory McIlroy, and Rickie Fowler. These four – average age 22 years and 48 days – made up most of the top 6 at Firestone, along with South Korea’s Kyung-tae Kim (a relative graybeard at 24 years and 11 months), world number one Luke Donald, and 2007 Masters champ Zach Johnson.
(A side note to Mr. Fowler: Would you please end your habit of wearing electric orange on Sundays, lest we someday have to see your Oklahoma State colors topped by a green jacket? It could be the end of high-def as we know it.)
They all trailed the veteran with the powerful, classic swing and Kiwi pit bull Stevie Williams on the bag – Aussie Adam Scott, who started the tournament with a 62 on Thursday and pulled away Sunday for a four-shot win.
Scott has long been thought of as the Man Who Would Be Tiger, with a swing honed by Tiger’s original teacher, Butch Harmon; a precocious early showing at the Masters (tied for ninth in 2002 at 21); and a knack for drawing attractive women to the golf course (he is often referred to as “the best gallery-puller on Tour”).
With a PLAYERS Championship, a Tour Championship, and now a World Golf Championships win to his credit, he has shown he can win against tough fields on top-caliber courses. A major is the missing piece, and he’ll be one of the favorites next week at the PGA in Atlanta, with Tiger’s recently-fired caddie by his side.
As Scott looked over his birdie putt on 18, Nick Faldo noted something unusual from the CBS tower. “[Caddie] Stevie Williams had made something of a tradition of taking his bib off on the last green. Maybe he’s starting a new tradition of leaving it on.”
Tradition? How about “arrogant flouting of the rules”? Williams removed his bib so that the motor-oil logos on his shirt would be visible in any and all photos of him with Tiger. Now that he’s found other employment, the PGA Tour informed him that he’d better leave his bib in place, so the tournament sponsor’s logo would be the one getting the exposure.
It’s not that Tiger or Phil won’t win again. Arnold Palmer won nineteen tournaments after taking his last major championship. Sam Snead claimed a dozen titles after his last major. Ben Hogan had twelve top-tens in the majors after his last championship – including four seconds in the U.S. Open or Masters in a three-year span.
Mickelson is still sixth in the Official World Golf Rankings, which consider results over the previous two-year period. Since tying for fourth at the 2010 U.S. Open, Mickelson has played in 24 events, with one win, two seconds, and only three other top tens.
Woods has fallen to 28th, and will likely continue to plummet in the next few months, as his late-season hot streak from 2009 (one win, three seconds, and a sixth in six events) comes off the boards.
(For an interesting new view of his off-the-course fall, I recommend The Swinger, the roman a clef by Michael Bamberger and Alan Shipnuck, two longtime Sports Illustrated golf writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working. Their fictional though familiar account of the peccadilloes and come-uppance of Herbert X. “Tree” Tremont, Jr., is funny and raunchy, but the book really shines when it provides an alternate-history version of how a smart, sensitive, self-aware Tiger might and should have handled his return to the Tour.)
Golfers age gracefully, and their sport does not force them into pitiful displays like the late-career flailings of Willie Mays, or the creaky final seasons of Joe Namath and Brett Favre. The stars pretty much look the same, walk the same fairways, and contend just often enough to keep their fans hoping.
Nonetheless, Tiger and Phil have entered the journeyman stage of their careers, where their former brilliance leads us to ignore that their current results resemble Zach Johnson’s more than their own pasts.