As a former NBA editor at SI who now works on the magazine's Golf Plus staff, I am informally dubbing the Tiger Woods-less era that for all intents and purposes begins with this week’s British Open "Golf’s Hakeem Olajuwon Interregnum." As such, it begs a question: Will majors won in Tiger’s absence be forever tainted, or at least asterisked?
Let me elaborate. I took over the NBA beat during the 1994 postseason—the first year of Michael Jordan’s baseball sabbatical. With Jordan and his Chicago Bulls (who had won the previous three titles) out of the picture, the path was clear for foes to grab a ring. One star stepped up: Olajuwon, the center for the Houston Rockets. Already an eight-time All-Star and two-time defensive player of the year (and, even without a title, a likely Hall of Famer), he seized the opportunity, raised his game and hauled the Rockets to the NBA championship. What’s more, in ’95 he had another splendiferous postseason and repeated. Oh, yeah: That year, Jordan saw fit to end his baseball experiment and returned in March, though he clearly was not in full basketball form. (Might we see a golf parallel next April?) It wouldn’t be until the 1995-96 season that MJ and Chicago would resume their championship ways. No matter: Particularly because of the repeat, and even though the Rockets did not win again, The Dream’s titles carry no taint. To the contrary: They only burnish his credentials for the Hall of Fame, where he’ll be enshrined in September.
Will we similarly regard the winners of this year’s two remaining majors, and maybe even next year’s Masters if Tiger is not back at full strength? It might depend on the victor, the context and what follows. For instance, one candidate to pull a Hakeem is Ernie Els. He already has three major wins and at last appears to be rounding into form after suffering his knee problems (as evidenced by a sixth at the Players and a good T14 at Torrey Pines). Even in Tiger’s absence, an Els victory at the British (which he won in ’02) might come with only the barest taint, and might elevate his stature. Retief Goosen, who is a two-time U.S.Open champ and like Els was T14 at Torrey, probably could evade the asterisk with a win, while also enhancing his reputation. Ditto defending champ Padraig Harrington. (Re Phil Mickelson, my own thought is that he would need to win both the remaining 2008 majors to be taint-free.)
For a first-time major winner—Lee Westwood (the player tabbed to prevail by our anonymous pro in Golf Plus's British Open preview), Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Stewart Cink, Justin Rose, Andres Romero—it might be a little trickier. Sure, everyone will say (especially if Sergio wins): No Tiger, no pressure. What may be crucial is what happens afterward, not only at Oakland Hills in August, but in seasons to come. If this win proves to be a springboard, the first of several majors, with subsequent victories accomplished against a healthy Tiger, the asterisk almost surely will be removed. If not, well….
What do you think? Will the 2008 British Open and PGA come with an asterisk?