The Tiger Effect: Golf’s Brave New World

Something weird – and wonderful – is happening in the golf world: Ten of the past eleven Major champions have been first-time winners. And six of the past seven WGC winners have also been new to winning at the highest stratosphere of the world game.

Since the WGC’s were introduced in 1999 the titles have never all been simultaneously in the hands of newcomers to that echelon of winning.

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Since the end of World War II only three other years have ended with the Majors claimed by first-time winners: in 2003 (Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel), 1969 (George Archer, Orville Moody, Tony Jacklin, Raymond Floyd) and 1959 (Art Wall, Billy Casper, Gary Player, Bob Rosburg).

Clearly, something is going on.

For all the fuss made of Tiger Wood’s failures this year, it might be more significant that the tipping point for these statistics hasn’t been his achievements.

It’s not Tiger’s last Major – the 2008 US Open – but Angel Cabrera’s 2009 Masters that, statistically at least, seems to herald the end of one era and the start of another.

It’s not Tiger’s last WGC – the 2009 Bridgestone Invitational – but Phil Mickelson’s win a few months later at the HSBC Champions that heralds a shift towards a new type of winner.

Has golf entered a brave new world?

Not Since The ’50s

The only comparable time to this era – where only Phil Mickelson (2010 Masters) and Ernie Els (2010 WGC-CA Championship) have struck blows for the established names – is the period from 1957 to 1959.

Back then, in a run of nine Majors, apart from Peter Thomson of Australia winning the fourth of his five Open Championships, the rest of the champions were newcomers to the upper echelon of tournament winning.

In 50 years time some of our recently crowned champions may have drifted into the relative obscurity of Lionel Herbert, the ethnic Cajun, who won the last match play PGA Championship in 1957, or “Terrible” Tommy Bolt, who may have added 14 other PGA Tour wins to his 1958 US Open title, but only remains a household name in the most golf-obsessed of families.

In 50 years time, it’s fair to assume, some of our recently-crowned champions will be remembered in the same way we remember a couple of those first-time Major winners from back then.

Like 1958 Masters winner Arnold Palmer or 1959 Open Champion Gary Player, it’s quite possible that a Martin Kaymer, a Rory McIlory or maybe a Keegan Bradley will be legends too!

Perhaps those times were just as confusing for golf fans, who were yet to fully comprehend that Sam Snead (’54 Masters) and Ben Hogan (’53 Open) had won their last Majors nor realised what a precocious then-amateur named Jack Nicklaus was going to do to their game.

Europe’s Golden Age

What is clear right now is that Europe, and the European Tour in particular, is dominant – or at least enjoying a period of unrivalled parity with the US.

In the past two years three Northern Irishmen (Graeme McDowell, 2010 US Open; Rory McIlroy, 2011 US Open and Darren Clarke, 2011 Open Championship) have claimed their first Majors, along with Germany’s Martin Kaymer (2010 PGA Championship).

Tour members Louis Oosthuizen (2010 Open) and Charl Schwartzel (2011 Masters) have done likewise for South Africa.

England’s Luke Donald, Kaymer (8 weeks) and Lee Westwood (22 weeks) have each held the No. 1 spot in the official World Golf Ranking since Woods relinquished top spot in November, 2010.

Donald, fellow Englishman Ian Poulter (respectively, the 2011 and 2010 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship winners) and HSBC Champions titleholder Francesco Molinari have all claimed their first WGC titles.

The facts are easier to relay than the reasons: although Westwood argues that the debate doesn’t have to be complex.

“We’re just very good at the moment. There’s no other reason than that,” he says.

“It’s not something I really think about too much. To be honest, I’m getting bored talking about it.”

Not everyone finds the discussion so tedious.

Alvaro Quiros, the flamboyant 28-year-old Spaniard, who won the Dubai Desert Classic in February, is far more excited about the situation.

“Now is coming out the truth of the golf of both sides; obviously European golf is in a great moment and maybe the only time where European and American golf has been at the same level.”

Tiger’s 30 Percent

The steady internationalisation, however, doesn’t help make sense of the PGA Tour’s 2011 winners, which appear to be a swirling void.

Perhaps it’s best to regard it as exactly that.

Tiger’s dominance, almost unprecedented, ended relatively suddenly through injuries and his off-course issues, creating a void and the swirling vortex of winners has yet to settle into a recognisable pattern.

“Tiger was special,” says another of the bright young up-and-comers, 18-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, winner of the Maybank Malaysian Open earlier this year.

“When he was winning so much he had something that changed the opponents mind and everything was going his way.

“But now everything is not going his way. There are periods in professional golf that are really tough to understand.”

One of the most compelling explanations for why the golf map seems so confused at the moment is the ratio of Tiger’s wins to appearances at his peak. In the Majors, from the 1999 PGA Championship to the end of 2002 he won seven of the 13 tournaments.

From 2005 until the famous 2008 US Open that he won on a broken leg he claimed six of 14.

In total, from the start of his rookie season in 1996 through the end of 2009, Tiger played in 239 PGA Tour events and won 71 times.

That’s a winning percentage of nearly 30 per cent. Even before you start to refine the numbers for the periods when he was at his red-hot, red-shirted, fist-pumping best.

Relatively few of the current top professionals will give much credence to the argument that the decline of US golf, at least when it comes to winning the top tournaments, may be the result of Tiger simply denying so many other players the opportunity to work out how to win.

Statistically it seems significant.

“One in three years! One in three seasons was stripped away!” exclaims Australian veteran Stuart Appleby, a nine-time winner on the PGA Tour.

“Then also, you wonder about the subliminal message of how do I beat this guy? “I don’t think people were thinking like that.”

“They’re probably a bit more back into their own thing. You can imagine what it was like when Byron Nelson had his run many years ago when he just went win-win-win-win!

“For the ladies tour, they’ve been experiencing that kind of thing with Yani [Tseng]. What have you got to do? It can be deflating. What are you going to do?”

Golf’s New Democracy

The reality is that, in the void left by Tiger, all kinds of golfers have been given the opportunity to work out how to win.

Whether it’s rookie Keegan Bradley who, in less than two seasons, jumped from winning on the Hooters Tour to becoming a first-up Major champion or Harrison Frazar who in his 17th season as a pro finally figured out what all those people who told him he was trying to hard actually meant.

There’s Rory McIlroy, who has perhaps indicated that he has the mental strength to be the player that emerges from this confused period the way that the other Player and Palmer emerged from the late 1950s; given the way he bounced back in such a short space of time from blowing up in the final round of the Masters to win the US Open in such masterful fashion.

Then there are also some very talented young players who are just a step away.

“I’ve got to learn to win. Once I do that I can hopefully move on,” say Day.

“I’m in the top 10 in the world right now and I’d like to win on a regular basis; that would be nice.”

“I’ve come close a couple of times to winning Majors this year. It is a different experience.”

“It’s just time and experience, getting myself into contention and being there, over time I’ll learn how to do it and once I do it hopefully I learn how to do it more on a regular basis.”

“So far, it’s probably been a bit of inexperience; making wrong decisions at the wrong time.”

“A bit of mental toughness would be in the little mixture of that. It’s just a bit of experience I need to have.”

Young Americans:

The Americans will bounce back once they’ve accumulated some of the knowledge of winning that Tiger’s 30 per cent seems to have denied them.

Dustin Johnson, at 27, has started winning the bigger PGA Tour events and has been right in contention in the 2010 US Open, the 2010 PGA Championship and the 2011 Open Championship. A Major can’t be far away.

Then there’s Rickie Fowler whose tie for fifth at the Open and runner-up finish in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational added further fuel to the fire of those who argue that a substantial triumph is on the cards for the 22 year old.

“I like my chances. It’s more something I feel like has to fall into place, you know, not something where I can go out and try and force the issue,” says Fowler.

“I can’t go out there and push myself to win.

“It’s something where I just focus on playing well, something I’ve been doing lately, and if it’s my time to win, it’s my time.

“There’s a really good young group of players in the US, guys who are playing right now and some guys that are about to turn pro in the next couple of year, so the young generation of golf in the US is strong.

“If a few guys get some wins under their belts we’re going to have some good players.

“Dustin Johnson is one of my favourite players to watch play as a young American.”

“Nick Watney has a few wins under his belt, Bill Haas, and then younger guys. “There are some good young players coming out.

“I was telling people in the last couple of years that there are a couple of guys in college that are going to make some noise real soon; there’s been a couple to win some Nationwide events and a couple of others who are playing well. Peter Uihlein, Morgan Hoffmann, Kevin Tway – Russell Henley’s won a Nationwide event; Harris English won a Nationwide event: both were amateurs.”

Lee Westwood himself has no doubt that American golfers will soon be back to winning their share of Majors:

“European golf is very strong at the moment and we’ve played well in the right events.”

“The Americans are playing well as well, they played well at the Open; it’s just a matter of time before it goes full circle,” he says.

All that is left to wonder is just how much more global the game will have become by the time that circle is completed, which of the first-time top-level champions might emerge from this period in the way that Player and Palmer did in the late 1950s.

And the fact that the 12 first-time victors among the PGA Tour’s 37 regular season events represent Tiger’s number: 30 per cent of the wins.