Golf is in Trouble

Here’s an alarming and sobering thought: Spectator golf as we’ve known it in our lifetime has ended. With Tiger Woods’ struggles, Phil Mickelson’s decline, Vijay Singh’s age and Ernie Els’ injuries, Tiger and the players that challenged his dominance the last decade are gone.

With Keegan Bradley’s unlikely win at the PGA Championship over the weekend, golf saw a season without a player winning at least his second major for just the fourth time ever. The other years were 1959, 1969 and 2003. But this one is different, because we simply don’t see stars that we know lurking any more.

The first year of the Masters, 1934, was the first year of the four-major format that exists today. That year, Horton Smith won the Masters, capturing the first of his two majors. The U.S. Open that season went to Olin Dutra, who had also won the 1932 PGA and therefore earned his second major championship.

In the six-year span between 1940 and 1945, not every major was played because of World War II. But in the vast majority of years since, there’s been a previous major winner to take a major. Not only that, but there’s always been a superstar player on the scene who was competing at a high level on a regular basis.

Between 1937 and 1945, Byron Nelson won five majors, and was challenged by Ralph Guldahl, who won three in that time frame, Denny Shute, who won three, and Paul Runyan, who won three.

As Nelson’s career waned, Sam Snead won the first of his seven in 1942. And a year after Nelson won his final major, the 1945 PGA, Ben Hogan won the first of his nine in 1946. Golf had Snead, Hogan and four-major winner Bobby Locke dominate the sport until 1954. There was a very brief window from ’54 until Arnold Palmer got rolling in ’58 for Peter Thomson to win five majors and for Doug Ford to win two.

Once Palmer started winning, taking the first of his seven majors at the 1958 Masters, golf was dominated by superstars until just recently. Even though there wasn’t a repeat major winner in ’59, Palmer was tied for the Masters lead heading into Sunday. Then in the U.S. Open, Palmer, Hogan and Snead all threatened in the final round. That was also Jack Nicklaus’ first Masters, and between ’58 and 1986, Palmer won seven, Nicklaus won 18 majors, Gary Player won nine, Lee Trevino won six, Raymond Floyd won four, Hale Irwin three, Johnny Miller two, Tom Watson eight and Seve Ballesteros six.

1969 was another year with no repeat major winners, but the dominating guys were always around on Sunday. Nicklaus, Trevino and Player were all in their primes and had enough left so that the public didn’t question whether they’d win another. In fact, after 1969, Nicklaus won 11 more, Trevino won five more and Player won four more.

That amazing era led right into Greg Norman, who won the first of his two, plus his tragic meltdowns, at the ’86 British Open. One year later, Nick Faldo won the first of his six majors at the British, too. Stars like John Daly, Nick Price and Payne Stewart held down the fort until Tiger arrived in 1997.

From then until now, Woods won 14 majors, Singh and Mickelson challenged him with three and four, respectively.

Woods last won a major at the 2008 U.S. Open. After his injury, Padraig Harrington won the British Open and the PGA. Since the start of the 2009 season, in 12 major tournaments, 10 players have won their first major with only Angel Cabrera at the ’09 Masters (his second) and Mickelson at the ’10 Masters repeating.

When nobody is winning multiple majors, golf can’t generate stars. The public likes dominance. Run down that list of names again. Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus, Ray Floyd, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Tom Watson. You know those names. Do you know Herman Kaiser, Ed Furgol, Bobby Nichols, Lou Graham and Todd Hamilton? Those are all single-major winners, just like Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Keegan Bradley, who happen to own the last seven major titles.

Sadly, Woods, Mickelson and Singh don’t even lurk on Sundays any more. When I saw the leaderboard heading into Sunday — Jason Dufner and Brendan Steele tied for the lead, Keegan Bradley in third — I was amazed. I hadn’t heard of any of those guys. This might as well have been a Nationwide tournament event. Mickelson finished tied for 19th at even par. Woods and Singh both missed the cut by six shots and weren’t even around for the weekend, as they haven’t been serious threats late on Sunday for some time.

For 76 years, golf has relied on its stars to build galleries and, for the last 50 years, television audiences. Right now, there isn’t a single compelling, dominant figure on the PGA tour. With his win in the PGA, Bradley moved up to 29th in the World Golf Rankings. He’s chasing a top three of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, and Steve Stricker. Would you know those guys if you saw them in the foursome in front of you at Forest Park? Me either.

I always appreciated how Tiger carried golf, but didn’t really look ahead to the sport without him competing at a high level. We didn’t see the dominant guys going away at once. If somebody like Bradley or McIlroy doesn’t assert themselves by winning a second major next year, or if Tiger doesn’t return to a form that has him in the hunt late on Sundays, golf becomes tennis; a sport we only see on cable and only know peripherally.

As R.E.M. sang, if they don’t get some stars quickly, and I don’t think they will; it’s the end of the world as we know it.