The second decade of the 21st century is approaching the 18th green, and like any extended measure of time, its scorecard features lots of circles and squares. From the swift validation of three budding superstars to all the can’t-miss kids who did, from long putters and flagsticks to Ryder Cup theatrics, the 2010s made a hasty exit from the Tiger Woods Expressway and wound up in a town full of bright ideas and fresh faces.
Not that it always has been the friendliest of places.
Shane Lowry’s British Open triumph at Royal Portrush emitted an unmistakably giddy vibe: a relative unknown winning the world’s most hallowed tournament in Northern Ireland, which hadn’t hosted the event since 1951 despite possessing perhaps the finest golf terrain on earth. The bearded Irishman, who lives less than 200 miles from Portrush, became the 10th European to claim a major title in the 2010s.
From 2000 through 2009, there had been just one. Take another bow, Padraig Harrington.
With his unlikely victory, Lowry removes the question mark that had punctuated his career and replaces it with an exclamation point. It also forges a happy ending to a decade that began with the game wading through the hip-deep sludge of Woods’ marital indiscretions, a tale of rampant infidelity so salacious that it landed on the cover of the New York Post for 20 consecutive days – one more than the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The tabloids obviously love the smell of rotten eggs, but the unraveling personal life shed some funky sunlight on how remarkable a sportsman Woods had become.
A pro golfer is charging up the newsroom at TMZ? You’ve got to be kidding.
Between fire hydrants, painkillers and back surgeries, Woods spent most of the next seven years searching. He did enjoy a terrific 2013 season, winning five times on the PGA Tour, but Phil Mickelson, Tiger’s longtime Wile E. Coyote, turned in the finishing kick of the decade to swipe the Claret Jug that summer. It was a landmark performance by the same guy who just happened to win the 2010 Masters, the first major held after Elin Nordegren began swinging at her husband’s SUV with a 9-iron.
It turned out to be plenty of club. Woods continued to compete, but the heroics got thrown out with the halo.
Enter the Euros and the South Africans, who combined to capture the next six majors, not one of them from Lee Westwood, Europe’s most consistent player. Golf’s balance of power hadn’t just shifted. It hopped onto the fastest boat it could find and headed east across the Atlantic. Consider that in 2011, Luke Donald and Webb Simpson were the most productive players in America, and if you can name who finished third and fourth on that year’s money list, congratulations. You get to pick out one of those gigantic stuffed teddy bears on the top shelf.
Nothing against Nick Watney or K.J. Choi, but golf was reeling. A star-driven enterprise was without incandescence. That ungoverned landscape would soon be patrolled by Rory McIlroy, a precocious and exquisitely talented lad who literally had a Tiger poster on his bedroom wall as a kid. The Woods Effect was surfacing in all shapes and sizes. Most notably in physical specimens such as Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, current U.S. Open champ Gary Woodland and Jason Day, who looks like he’s going to rule the kingdom for three or four years, then disappears for six months to fix a busted body part.
Jordan Spieth would supplant McIlroy, and Koepka would overthrow Spieth, but the three of them combined to win 11 major titles in the 2010s. All three were virtual locks for the World Golf Hall of Fame before their 30th birthdays, and McIlroy, who turned 30 in May, is the oldest of the trio. Regardless of what Woods brings to the party from here on, the game is in ultra-capable hands, if not the steadiest ones. Although Spieth can’t hit a fairway to save his life these days, you could make a case that he’s the decade’s most important player.
His 2015 Masters triumph remains a big, big deal. Not just because he slipped his arms inside a green jacket at age 21, but because Spieth won two more majors in the next 27 months and gave America’s on-the-fence golf fans a teddy bear of their own to hug. Koepka seems a bit unimpressed with the ramifications of stardom, a trait that might help explain his stunted popularity. Spieth knows how to flow with the glow, how to effortlessly handle fame with an innate sense of modesty and clearly stated appreciation for all that has gone right in his life.
It’s a combo every mother can wrap her arms around.
We’ll see where the biggest win of his life takes Lowry. Is he another Danny Willett or the reincarnation of Harrington in a fun-size body? Only the 2020s can tell us, and they’re not saying a word, so we’ll stay in the here and now and provide a geographic breakdown of majors won in the 2010s:
United States 21.
South Africa 3.
Aside from the 2016 Ryder Cup, it’s Uncle Sam’s only victory against the Euros this decade.
John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: firstname.lastname@example.org