Posted by Ryan Wilson
The 93rd PGA Championship begins Thursday at the Atlanta Athletic Club. It's been 10 years since the final major of the season was held at the AAC, 10 years since David Toms got up and down on the 72nd hole to beat Phil Mickelson for his first (and only) major victory.
At the time, Tiger Woods was 25, the top-ranked player in the world, and just months removed from one of the most spectacular runs in golf history. From the 1999 PGA Championship to the 2001 Masters, Woods won five major titles (including holding all four majors at the same time -- '00 US Open, '00 British Open, '00 PGA, '01 Masters).
For the 1999-2001 seasons, Woods won 22 PGA events (including the five majors), and not only was the competition nowhere close to challenging him, they were decidedly older. Ernie Els, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Colin Montgomerie, Davis Love III, Hal Sutton, Vijay Singh, and Tom Lehman made up positions 2-9 in the 2000 World Golf Ranking, and only Duval (28) and Westwood (27) were under 30. In fact, the average age for these players was 33. (Hall Sutton, 42, and Tom Lehman, 41, were the oldest.)
Adam Scott on caddie Steve Williams
Luke Donald | Tiger Woods | Rory McIlroy | Rickie Fowler
Almost every year for the last decade the media would identify young, talented upstarts who would test Woods' supremacy. At one time or another, Sergio Garcia, Charles Howell III, Aaron Baddeley, Justin Rose, Adam Scott and Anthony Kim were all names mentioned as possible challengers. To date, they've combined for zero majors. (Though Scott did win the '04 Players Championship, the '06 Tour Championship and last week's WGC event at Firestone. You may have heard something about that.)
Now the names atop the World Golf Ranking include the likes of Martin Kaymer (26), Rory McIlroy (22), Jason Day (23), and Dustin Johnson (27). Kaymer is the defending PGA Champion, McIlroy won the 2011 British Open last month, and the 11th ranked player in the world, Charl Schwartzel (who is 26), is the 2011 Masters champ.
So here's the question: Are today's younger players that much better than their youthful predecessors, or is their emergence in recent years more a function of Woods' off-course problems and lingering knee issues?
"The quality of these youngsters now, you definitely have to say is a significant percentage better than the last era of youngsters," CBS golf analyst and six-time major winner Nick Faldo said during a Thursday conference call.
But Faldo recognizes that it's more complicated than that.
"Before it was almost a foregone conclusion (that Tiger would win)," he said. "Now Tiger, as we've seen on a few occasions, hadn't been able to finish it off. No. 1, he's got to get himself into contention Sunday afternoon. He's still got to find out whether his game is good enough to finish it off.
"And I think that has had a big knock-on effect for these youngsters over the last couple of years. They've recognized that Tiger's definitely lost his aura right now and they kind of are saying to themselves 'Tiger has an awful lot on his plate, I don't need to worry about it.'"
Faldo's colleague, CBS golf analyst David Feherty, isn't yet ready to write Woods off.
"Let me put it to you this way: if Tiger Woods' knee gets better and he starts to play well, good luck to everybody else," he said. "Because when he plays well nobody else can win. And I haven't seen anybody, whether it's Rory McIlroy or anybody else, who played golf to the level Tiger Woods was playing before the last couple of years. … So if he plays well again, he'll win again, and he'll win by big margins again. I really believe that."
There's no disputing that the younger players are consistently putting up better scores and winning more tournaments than they were at any other point in the last 10 years. But is that because of Woods? We don't mean that they're now more successful because of Tiger's absence. We mean that many of today's best young players were elementary and middle schoolers when Woods was in the midst of the Tiger Slam. They were no doubt inspired by what Woods could do and how he could do it. Perhaps it motivated them at impressionable ages to work even harder on their games.
In that sense, Tiger's unparalleled success -- coupled with a confluence of unfortunate off-course events -- has played a part in his golfing demise, even if temporarily.
"In the past … everybody watched every move of Tiger from the minute he got onto the range until the minute he got on the leaderboard," said Faldo. "Everybody was giving him energy, they were watching him. Now (his competitors) know, 'hey, he's got enough on his plate -- off-course and the swing.'
"And I think these kids are a little bit more talented as well. I mean, the quality of golf that Rory McIlroy is playing, Jason Day is playing, Manassero -- don't forget (Matteo) Manassero, my goodness, he's 18 and a winner in Europe."
Manassero is currently the 31st-ranked player in the world. Just ahead of him at No. 30? Tiger Woods.
Faldo might be onto something.