x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Golfers prowling out from the shadow of Woods

The levelling off at the top of the golf pyramid is good for the sport, but viewers miss the former No 1, writes Neil Cameron.

Martin Kaymer, the former world No 1, thinks that it is exciting to have different champions from all over the world.
Martin Kaymer, the former world No 1, thinks that it is exciting to have different champions from all over the world.

Unpredictability has become the hallmark of major golf tournaments in the last three years and that trend is carrying on into the US Open, which starts today at Congressional Golf Club.

Gone are the days when Tiger Woods and, to a lesser extent, Phil Mickelson dominated the four premier tournaments - the Masters, The US and British Opens and US PGA Championship - that make up the hallowed Grand Slam.

Nowadays, it is a case of take your pick as potential winners abound — from the United States, Europe, South Africa, Australia or Asia.

Proof of this new landscape in golf is the fact that the last 10 majors have all been won by different players, since Padraig Harrington added the US PGA title to the British Open crown he had defended a month earlier at Royal Birkdale.

Countries supplying winners in that time have been Ireland, Argentina, United States, South Korea, Northern Ireland and Germany.

"Interesting stat," said Graeme McDowell, the Ulsterman who will defend his US Open title in Bethesda, Maryland, this week.

"Certainly you've got to look at Tiger not being as dominant, obviously injury problems and just general problems off the course.

"There was a while there where he was popping up once, twice a season. It was getting pretty tough to win major championships when he was playing the way he was. He's been a major factor, of course."

But also McDowell believes that Harrington's major wins in 2008, at a time when Woods was on the sidelines recovering from the leg injuries that near crippled him at the US Open, were key to what followed.

"There's no doubt that Padraig has given European golfers a belief that we can win major championships," he said.

"You know, as European Tour players, we've had the opportunity to play so much golf over here and really get comfortable with the top players in the world and comfortable in these conditions and we've sort of acclimatised and sort of got the belief in ourselves that we can do it."

The debate is now on over whether the levelling off at the top of the golf pyramid is good for the sport as a whole.

Despite the personal and image problems that have beset him, Woods remains by far golf's biggest draw with television ratings soaring when he plays and falling when he is absent.

But the flip side is that there is more raw competition for the top prizes and the game has truly gone global.

Germany's Martin Kaymer, who made his breakthrough by winning the US PGA Championship title last August, is one who believes that the trend is a positive one.

"I think it's nice. It's exciting, isn't it? It's nice to have different champions. It's interesting for golf and the world," he said.

"It's nice that KJ Choi, that he won the TPC [The Players Championship] recently. It's great for Asia, as well.

"You can see the world rankings, it's changing every week, every month it's something else is going on. So I find it very exciting."

Kaymer, at 26, is still something of a raw talent in a sport when players can remain competitive at the top up until they turn 50.

But even he has one eye looking over his shoulder at a new generation of players who have little or no fear of giants of the game like Woods and Mickelson.

Players like 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, 19-year-old Ryo Ishikawa and 18-year-old Matteo Manassero are all potential winners of major title in the next few years.

Ernie Els, the three-time major winner (the last one being the 2002 British Open) is fatalistic about it all.

"We've been around a long time," he said of himself and his peers.

"And then obviously we had Tiger dominating for 15 years, as well, within that time period.

"So for a long time it's been a group of players, and I think the cycle is also changing a little bit now. It's just a matter of time. You can't beat time.

"These 20-somethings are coming through and they've got the confidence, and obviously they feel it's their time."