Jason Dufner's victory is latest proof that for better or worse, parity is here to stay
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Self-deprecation is really just self-loathing in a good mood.
When Tiger Woods finished his final round at the PGA Championship in the bright sunshine at Oak Hill on Sunday, the leaders were just teeing off. Tiger was asked to summarize his disappointing week in a few pithy words. He was suitably annoyed by his performance. If second place sucks, you wonder what verb he attaches to 40th place? Probably the same one, just louder.
"Jim [Furyk] is nine under and I've made nine birdies through 72 holes," Tiger said with obvious sarcasm. "So, not enough birdies."
Golf is simple like that. It ultimately comes down to playing fewer strokes than the other guy. This was not Tiger's week. He didn't hit the ball well enough. He didn't putt well enough. No, not enough birdies. With the end of the major-championship portion of the schedule, the same could be said of 2013. Not enough birdies.
Oh, the three first-time major champions were pleasing enough. Adam Scott at the Masters and Justin Rose at Merion felt like honest-to-goodness major moments. And now, Jason Dufner, playing almost flawless golf for 16 holes on Sunday to capture the PGA Championship. The man has a golf swing that won't quit. His ball-striking was almost Hogan-like. Luckily, he built a small cushion because his putting looked Hogan-like at times too, and that's not a good thing. The Duff is not someone you want standing over a four-footer to win a major.
In between, Phil Mickelson's blazing finish at Muirfield carried the weight of something legendary.
Four majors, four different winners, three first-timers. Birthing stars is good for the game's future. But golf is always better with one or two really bright stars. Dufner just put the exclamation point on the Year of Golfing Parity. Everyone thinks parity is great until it arrives. Then the shine wears off, although I've always been partial to its unexpected nature.
Parity is interesting. It is not compelling. Love the New York Yankees or hate them, baseball is far more interesting when they're in contention. Let's go back to Mr. Woods. He regained his place as golf's leading figure, he recovered his No. 1 world ranking and promptly widened the gap between him and the rest of the mortals to Grand Canyon-like proportions.
But can the No. 1 player in the world really be someone who hasn't won a major championship in more than five years? Or should it? A similar refrain was heard when Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, a pair of non-major winners, held the top spot.
It's the same argument, but five wins in 2013 mean Woods is the undisputed No. 1. Donald and Westwood never racked up wins with any regularity. Still, Tiger has been unable to get it done in the events that mean the most.
In all sports, and especially in golf, dynasties are compelling. Their rises, their falls and all the glory and rivalries in between. From Sam Snead to Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, from Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to Tom Watson, maybe even a little Greg Norman. These men wrote the narrative of the game, they built brands that became household names and became golf to a lot of fans. They were driving forces who raised the entertainment level.
One superstar is great. Two is better. Every so often, there's a triumvirate like Jack, Arnie and Gary Player. It doesn't get any better than that. At the moment, we seem delightfully close to a potential convergence of Tiger, Phil and Rory McIlroy. All we're missing are some Duel-in-the-Sun-like shootouts.
Phil did his job this year at Muirfield. Rory didn't. Neither did Tiger, who'd be the first to admit that he'd trade those five wins for any one of the major titles.
Given that, Tiger is putting the best face on his year. Five victories, with more events to come, is an outstanding performance. It's just not enough for him.
"I was close in two of them, I certainly had a chance to win the Masters and the British," Woods said after his round on Sunday. "The other two, I just didn't hit it good enough."
There was something palpable missing in Sunday's finale. A certain drama, an indefinable urgency, a bit of marquee heft. A touch of Hollywood, for lack of a better description.
What was missing, really, was Tiger, Phil and Rory, or a serious charge by any of Dufner's pursuers over the closing nine. Dufner strung together seven straight pars late in the round, squandering a couple of nice birdie opportunities, then closed with a pair of bogeys. Had any other challenger made a charge, the way Phil did at Muirfield or even Dufner did at Merion, he might not have won.
Dufner was able to finish bogey-bogey and win because Furyk also finished bogey-bogey. So did Jonas Blixt and Jason Day. Henrik Stenson bogeyed two of the last six. No one other than Dufner rose to the occasion. Maybe Oak Hill had something to do with that. Maybe it was the challengers themselves.
There is parity in golf for a reason. No one seems able to dominate or put together a stretch of superlative play. Has the modern equipment really equalized ability that much? Is there so much money in the game that great complacency necessarily follows great success? It's possible.
Even Tiger's dominion seems limited now to the Tiger rota, that selection of courses where he throws his glove on the 1st tee and comfortably dials up a 67 with regularity. Torrey Pines, Bay Hill, Doral, Muirfield Village and Firestone, especially. In golf's major championships, however, these days he is far closer to average than he is to dominant.
Meanwhile, the esteemed Jason Dufner beat him by two touchdowns -- 14 strokes -- at Oak Hill. And at Merion and Muirfield, courses that have always identified the best players of an era, Tiger was first a no-show and then no factor on Sunday.
One golf magazine once dubbed Mark O'Meara as the King of the Bs for his knack for winning mid-level PGA Tour stops and nothing else. He finally won a Masters and a British Open in the same year (1998), putting a halt to that talk, and he will inevitably get swept into the World Golf Hall of Fame as the list of worthy candidates dwindles -- maybe even on the next ballot.
Tiger was the King of the A-Minuses in 2013. His best win was the Players, against certainly the strongest field in golf. Those World Golf Championships are a few notches below, with only fields of 70 or so, although they do include the top 50 players in the world. Those fields can't compare with the depth of the majors. It's the difficulty of courses such as Oak Hill and Whistling Straits and Olympic Club combined with the field strength that makes majors so hard to win.
Sometimes, the biggest names just aren't going to be factors. Sometimes, they are but they aren't going to win. Even if they're the best player of their generation, as Woods obviously is.
"It's more frustrating not being in it," Woods admitted. "I can live with having a chance on the back nine Sunday. It's frustrating going out there and I'm three over par and grinding my tail off coming in just to shoot even par for the day. I'm nowhere in it. That's tough."
What's tougher is figuring out where we stand in 2013.
Who's the king of golf? Who's really the best player in the world right this minute? Tiger, with no major title since 2008? Scott, whose last win was at the Masters in April?
Mickelson, who won in Phoenix and at the Scottish Open plus Muirfield? Rose, whose only win came at Merion? Dufner, who has a grand total of three career wins? (Reminder: The first two came at the Zurich in New Orleans and at the Byron Nelson outside Dallas.)
Face it. Parity is here. Enjoy it if you can. There's a fine line between parity and parody and to tell the truth, golf doesn't look as good in either scenario.
The Masters is eight months away. First, let's enjoy Jason Dufner, your new PGA champion.
Then, let the waiting to do this all over again begin.