Thursday, January 26, 2012

Here was the story when Shaun Micheel beat Tiger Woods 4&3 in the opening round of the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, England, the week before September's Ryder Cup:

\"For the first time since the Cialis Western Open on July 9, when South African Trevor Immelman beat him, Woods started a tournament that he failed to win.\"

Micheel had ended the Woods winning streak at five, or so Tiger thought. Because when he won his next start, at the WGC AmEx Championship at The Grove in London, the week after the Ryder Cup, members of the Fourth Estate dusted off the "streak" and recalculated it at six stroke play events and counting, in the service of a bigger headline. Now the World Match Play didn't count.

Which brings us to the news that greeted sports fans as they sipped their morning coffee on Monday:

Woods finished two strokes back of South Korea's Yang Yong-eun, a.k.a. Yang, at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, China, marking (all together now) the first time he's lost a 72-hole tournament since the Cialis Western Open on July 9.

So can we finally retire all talk of the so-called "streak?" No way! Tiger considered his loss to Micheel to be the end of it, but you can bet your Big Bertha that when Woods opens the 2007 season, most likely at the Buick Invitational at San Diego's Torrey Pines, the news will be that he'll be trying to extend his "winning streak" of six consecutive victories in official, PGA Tour-sanctioned tournaments. (Sigh.)

Robert Palmer was addicted to love, America is addicted to oil and the golf world is addicted to Tiger. He's headline news when he doesn't win and even when doesn't even come close, which speaks loudly to golf's current desperation for buzz.

The era of Woods' unchecked domination was thrilling when it began in 1997, and for the first three or four years after that, and it will certainly make news when he blows the doors off Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major championship victories. But with Woods at 12 majors, the best guess is that won't happen for at least three years, which leaves us here, in the now, the part in between a legend's grand entrance and his career epitaph. What that means is we're drifting along aimlessly with the exception of the four weeks a year that can get Woods closer to Nicklaus' unbreakable record.

In the meantime the only thing that can keep golf going strong is a rivalry, a serious, sustained challenge to the king, which we do not have. While 2006 had its moments, they couldn't mask the year's most glaring shortcoming, Phil Mickelson's 15-minute-long abrogation of that responsibility at the U.S. Open. He'd seemed a worthy rival to Woods, most notably at the 2000 Tour Championship, the 2005 Ford Championship at Doral, and the 2006 Masters, but he spit the bit at Winged Foot.

It makes you wonder if maybe Phil isn't the right guy for the job. But if not him, then who? Luke Donald didn't look worthy at the PGA Championship. Paul Casey? Maybe. After all, he beat the man (Micheel) who beat the Man (Woods) at the World Match Play. And he has the firepower that countryman Donald lacks. Geoff Ogilvy? Perhaps, but it's too early to tell. Adam Scott? Probably not, since Scott himself admits his putting is still too streaky.

Vijay Singh is showing his years. Sergio Garcia, who looked so promising at the 1999 PGA Championship and a few times since then, is a head case for 103 weeks every two years, the only exception, of course, being the Ryder Cup. Ernie Els and Retief Goosen are coming off of a rebuilt knee and swing, respectively.

It's possible we don't know who Woods' most lasting rival will be because we haven't met him yet. Or because, as is the case with fearless phenomena like diminutive Australian Jason Day, and oft-injured Ryan Moore, we haven't met the player he will become.

Whatever the case, you'll know when the game finally has a serious rival to Woods. You'll know when we find a guy who doesn't change like weather, alternately stepping up to the challenge and shrinking from it depending on the week. The challenge, and the excitement, will be real when it's sustained. When that happens, we in the media will no longer feel compelled to invent Tiger's "streaks," no matter how ridiculously convoluted.

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