Father Time contributes to wide-open major competition

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

BETHESDA, Md. -- Between the two of them, Tiger Woods and Ernie Els trampled nearly everything tossed in their competitive paths over the years, regardless of the foe's professional pedigree, national identity or political affiliation.

From A to Z, atheists to zen practitioners, opponents were drilled with regularity and impunity. Ah, those were the salad days, as they both ticked off wins in multiple majors.

But the ticking hands on the clock are impossible to stop forever.

Ernie Els was hardly a household name when he won his first U.S. Open championship, at Oakmont in 1994. (Getty Images)  
Ernie Els was hardly a household name when he won his first U.S. Open championship, at Oakmont in 1994. (Getty Images)  
"You can't beat time," Els said.

It has been 14 years since Els won the U.S. Open title the last time it was staged at this week's venue, Congressional Country Club, but only over the past couple of years has wholesale upheaval truly taken hold at the top of Grand Slam leaderboards.

Like with the last presidential election, change is sweeping though the professional proletariat. It's out with the old, in with the new.

For the first time in eight years, all four major titles are held by first-time Grand Slam winners, and given both the graying of the established guard and the charge of some fresh faces, it might remain that way for a good, long while.

You hadn't heard of mostly Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen before they claimed the Masters and British Open titles? The same could be said for their South African countryman, Els, when he won the first of his three majors 17 years ago, at another U.S. Open, no less.

"You talk about guys not well known, well, I was not well known when I won," Els reminded. "When I won in '94, you guys must have thought I was the biggest surprise in the history of the game."

There's a grain of truth to that, though Els certainly acquitted himself well over the span since, cementing a place in the Hall of Fame. Projecting the trajectories of players is for readers of tea leaves, not tee sheets, but there's no arguing that the game is in the midst of tremendous upheaval in both the world rankings and at the major championships.

Indeed, the Slam dance is a mosh pit. The past 10 majors have been won by different players.

Golf is experiencing transition, attrition and diminution all at once, and the pantheon of established stars seems to be flickering and fading, before our global eyes. Followers of the tour travails have seen this coming, of course. Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, Els and Retief Goosen, who have carried the weight for years, all are north of age 40. But the makeover seemed to arrive quickly, nonetheless.

"This is my 19th U.S. Open, so for 20 years you play at a certain level in the game, and you guys have written and talked a lot about us as a group of players, meaning myself, Phil and Tiger and Jim Furyk and Davis Love and those type of guys," Els said. "We've been around a long time.

"Obviously we had Tiger dominating for 15 years, as well, within that time period. So for a long time it's been a group of players, and I think the cycle is also changing a little bit now."

In this washing machine, it feels like we've blown through the wash, rinse and spin cycles awfully quickly. Woods hasn't won a major in three years, is breaking down physically and isn't even here this week. Els had a shot at the U.S. Open last year, stumbled on the back nine and hasn't contended in a PGA Tour event since. Furyk won the PGA Tour Player of the Year Award in 2010 but has been unremarkable over the six months of this season. Mickelson has one victory in 14 months.

At this point last season, Furyk, Els and Mickelson had combined for five victories, including the season's lone major. Form comes and goes, but all that feels like eons ago.

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The current run of four first-time major winners is the longest since late 2002 into early 2004, when six in a row were claimed by a list including Rich Beem, Mike Weir, Shaun Micheel and Ben Curtis.

It has been an interesting 2011 season already in terms of tumult, and we're barely in the sixth month. In the States, there are 35 rookie members on tour and four have already recorded wins, twice as many as in the two previous seasons combined. While the rookie group is talented, the absence of the established names at the top has certainly created a void.

Especially the absence of a certain somebody, who is missing the U.S. Open this week for time since 1994.

"Certainly you've got to look at Tiger not being as dominant, obviously injury problems and just general problems off the course," said Graeme McDowell, the defending Open champion. "There was a while there where he was popping up once, twice a season. It was getting pretty tough to win major championships when he was playing the way he was. He's been a major factor, of course."

Likely the major factor, though droughts from multiple major winners like Padraig Harrington and Vijay Singh, who have skidded out of the top 50 in the rankings, are part of the picture, too.

So if you're plunking down money on this week's potential result, take the pairings sheet, affix it to the wall, grab a dart and throw it. In fact, turn off the lights first. It might be the most plausible way to identify the winner.

Incredibly, the average official world ranking of winners this season on the PGA Tour is 146.7. Seven players outside the top 200 have victories, while only three from inside the top 10 have claimed wins.

McDowell feels that younger players are better prepared for the rigors of the majors than ever. With three straight major winners in their mid-20s, he might be onto something.

"I think the 21st century golfer, they're a lot more ready for the tour," McDowell said. "They play professional events, they know how to win, and they're not scared anymore. I think golfers are tougher and better and the standard is so much better across the board, and technology has maybe leveled the playing field a little bit, as well.

"There's no doubt there's just so many first-time winners popping up all over the world nowadays, and the same for major championships. It's exciting, no doubt about it. Exciting that the fields are so wide open these days."

Well, unless you're in the business of explaining it all, or betting a few beers with your pals on the result. Then it's downright impossible to plum the outcomes of these things.

It's conceivable that a kid like Schwartzel, who became the first player in modern Grand Slam history to birdie the final four holes to come from behind and win on Sunday, will collect several more of the biggest titles in the game.

You gotta start somewhere, even if the point of demarcation marks the terminus for a few older players. Els certainly did when he won his first Open in 1994.

"You find your ground and you start playing, and you know, here we are 18, 19 years later, and you know me a little bit better now, and I think you'll see the same happen with the 20-somethings," Els said. "Not being very well-known now, and you'll be probably talking about them for 20 years, I'm sure."


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