Retief Goosen was spectacular on Sunday in winning his second US Open Championship. I’ve read articles that said he was too robotic or that Mickelson gave him the tournament, but I don’t buy it. On brutally tough day, one of the toughest in US Open history, Goosen kept his composure and his lead. His 71 doesn’t sound too spectacular, but when you consider that the average score on the day was a shade under 79 and the low round was 70, it’s impressive. His 71 was equivalent to a 65 or 66 on a regular day. When you go into Sunday of a major with the lead and shoot one off the low round of the day, you are a deserving champion. So, congratulations Retief.
With his second major win, Goosen cemented his reputation as one of those golfers who doesn’t win tons of tournaments but does well in majors (like Lee Janzen or Jose Maria Olazabal). Some guys just have games suited to the toughest of conditions. Goosen is mentally tough and doesn’t make lots of mistakes. Maybe he can’t go out and shoot 62 in the John Deere Classic, but he can shoot a 70 in the US Open. He’s like the anti Davis Love.
And what about Phil Mickelson? He played a great round, getting even with Goosen with only two holes to play. Lefty then three putted the seventeenth from five feet for a double bogey. He lost by two. Did he choke, as his rep would suggest? Hell no. He played great golf just to be in that situation. The first putt he missed on seventeen was short, but brutal. Almost every player out there had a rough green or two just like Phil’s, but since they weren’t in contention, it didn’t get noticed. Like Goosen, Phil shot a 71 for the day, just one off the low round of the day. That’s not a choke. Instead, Phil cemented his position as the hottest golfer on Tour.
Mickelson’s second place finish in the Open, after winning the Masters, gives him a huge lead in the Player Of The Year race. Someone will have to have quite a second half to beat him out.
A few days ago, I wrote about how Tiger was finally seeing consistent competition from a few top golfers. My conclusion then was that although these guys had caught up to Tiger, he was still the Man. I’ve changed my mind. While Tiger managed to finish in the top-twenty of the US Open, he was never a factor. There was never a time where it seemed like he might make a charge. To me, that says everything. Tiger hasn’t won a major in two years now. For the first part of that time, journeymen and one-shot-wonders filled his void. Now though, the top players are stepping up and taking his spot. As I wrote, this year has seen the first legitimate challenges to Tiger’s reign since he turned pro. I thought that Tiger would see that his position was in jeopardy and make a solid run at winning the Open. I thought that their challenges would help him focus.
It didn’t happen. Tiger never was in contention.
Tiger did manage to beat both Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia, but he still lost the battle. He isn’t measured by top-twenty finishes, he’s measured by wins. Tiger is no longer The Man. Right now, there is no The Man. The crown is up for grabs, with Mickelson, Ernie Els, Singh, Garcia and Goosen fighting Tiger for the position he thought would always be his.
Will Tiger ever regain his untouchable status? I think so. Every golfer goes through a slump in their career. Tiger won so often for so long, that it’s no surprise that he lost his edge. It’s good for him to struggle a bit, to lose. You need a bit of failure to help drive you to improve. I think once Tiger gets married and gets that part of his life settled a bit, he’ll look around and see that he’s no longer a lock to challenge Jack Nicklaus’ records. He may still be ahead of the Golden Bear’s pace, but not by much. I bet in the next year or two, Tiger will get on another hot streak. The difference now though is that the field has caught up to him. When he’s at his best, he’ll win every time. When he’s not quite at his best, there are guys who can beat him now, unlike two or three years ago.
With the rise of Tiger’s challengers and the inevitable return of Tiger’s A game, the next five years on the PGA Tour may be the best it’s ever had. When Tiger first seized the Tour by the throat, about seven years ago, no one fought back. He so humiliated his fellow pros and the courses they played on, that they all but conceded tournaments to him. Over time, that has changed. A rising tide lifts all boats. Courses were “Tiger-proofed” by adding length and narrowing fairways. Other players spent more time on the range and in the gym. New players joined the tour, cocky and ready to take on Tiger; they never knew a tour without Tiger, so they knew no reason to concede.
With time, those changes have built a tougher, more competitive landscape. All the players are better. All the courses are tougher. There is a group of players at the top who can consistently challenge Tiger. There is another group of young golfers ready to step up and be included in the elite, guys who aren’t (yet) willing to just accept big paychecks for making the cut.
Critics long pointed to the one flaw in Tiger’s reputation, that he didn’t have a group of worthy rivals. There was no Watson, Trevino or Player to his Nicklaus. No Player or Nicklaus to his Palmer. He has that now. Tiger should be fighting Els, Mickelson and Singh, among others, for the next five to ten years.
It’s going to be a hell of a lot of fun.