News & Opinion

Wait time shrinks for golf’s next big one

Golf’s compass is pointed due north at this moment, not only because the next major championship is in New York but because almost all of the game’s stars are trending the same way: up. Which means that anticipation for the first PGA Championship to be conducted in May in decades could be at a feverish high for what used to be thought of as the fourth major.

And it’s not all about Tiger Woods. A lot but not all. Still, you can’t ignore the tidal wave of attention, excitement and pure passion that has come crashing down on the sporting landscape. Even non-golfers are talking about the game again. And if Woods had finished second at the Masters – like he did at last year’s PGA Championship – we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

But he won a fifth green jacket and his 15th major, the first since 2008 and his first Masters since 2005. And it turned the golf world and the wide, wide world of sports upside down. Woods’ victory put things back into the greater discourse that most of us believed we’d never talk about again.

For instance: Is this a one-off, or is Woods back? I mean, really back? After his runner-up finish to Brooks Koepka at the PGA at Bellerive and, later, his victory at the Tour Championship, it was a feel-good story but little more. A lot of people – pundits and pros – wondered aloud whether Woods had what it takes to win one more major.

Most were doubters, and you can’t help but wonder whether Woods wasn’t one of them. Everyone, however, agreed that his best chance for a 15th major would come at the Masters. He knows every nuance that Augusta National throws at a potential winner. And you don’t have to drive it so straight, and if you don’t, there are ways out of jail, which Woods proved by making two birdies from deep in the trees at the par-4 14th.

Now, however, pundits and pros alike are talking about Woods adding to his total of 15. Paul Azinger, not one easily given to hyperbole, told Morning Read’s Gary Van Sickle that Woods is the best player in the game – right now (“Simply the best because he believes it,” April 23).

“Tiger outperforms everyone because he has the best belief system,” Azinger said. “Look, we had a couple of sparklers in there the last 10 years but now, Tiger is full-blown back. He’s just the best player in golf, that’s all.”

Could be, but there are a number of really good – if not great – players who are not going to bow and allow Woods an unrestricted path to the next major. Take a look at the Masters leaderboard. Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Xander Schauffele were one shot back, all with legitimate chances to win or at least take Woods to a playoff.

Jason Day, Webb Simpson, Tony Finau and Francesco Molinari were another shot back. Finau and Molinari were a rinse-and-repeat at the par-3 12th from a playoff. Day and Simpson are major champions. And Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler were in the top 10.

No matter which way you cut it, that’s an impressive leaderboard. While some will say the fingerprints of the golf gods were all over this Masters, it really could have gone a number of ways. Woods hit the right shots at the right times, and the other guys didn’t. But will that be the case at Bethpage Black?

In the 1997-2009 Tiger Era, when he won 69 of his 81 victories on the PGA Tour, he effectively intimidated and stared down everyone else in his way. He was the best player in the world, maybe the best ever in that span. That’s not the case now. No one is scared of Woods anymore.

They respect his record, his game and now, especially, his fifth green jacket. But the Koepkas and Johnsons (and watch Schauffele closely) of the PGA Tour won’t allow themselves to be blown away in Woods’ backdraft. Instead, it’s likely that Woods will inspire them to greater things.

And you can’t forget Phil Mickelson, whose relationship alone with the New York fans at Bethpage Black can carry him a long way toward becoming the game’s oldest major winner. Don’t count out Justin Rose and Justin Thomas, both of whom are expected to be contenders at Bethpage Black. All of which bodes well for the PGA Championship on May 16-19.

Moving the PGA to May makes Pete Bevaqua, the PGA of America’s former chief executive officer, and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan look like Mensa-level geniuses. Now we don’t have to wait until June and the U.S. Open to find out what the next installment of Tiger and Friends will bring.

It’s right around the next bend, and a whole lot of folks just can’t wait for even more to talk about.

Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: golfedit@gmail.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf