March is a feisty month. You know the drill. In like a lion, out like a lamb.
So it is with a new era in golf. It roars in like a lion, or sometimes like a Bear or a Shark or a Tiger and goes out quietly, often without so much as a whimper.
Unlike eras in other sports, those in golf seldom have defined final acts, especially because senior golf makes retirement from competition rare. Ben Hogan soldiered on into the late ’60s, two decades after his prime. Sam Snead played forever, it seemed. Jack Nicklaus could have gone out with a bang if he’d hung up his spikes after the 1986 Masters but he, too, kept going and kept our hopes alive that he might have even one more miracle in his plaid slacks pocket. His last run at the Masters came a dozen years later, at age 58, well after his era had long since faded.
The great Byron Nelson left the sport early, still a relatively young man, but he stands alone in the longevity-rich game of golf.
Others relinquish the throne only involuntarily, if not slowly. Who thought Curtis Strange was finished winning majors after his back-to-back U.S. Opens? At age 34 he looked as if he was just getting started. Paul Azinger was America’s best playerwhen he got his first—and last—major at the 1993 PGA. Who knew cancer would take an edge off skills that he would never fully reclaim? David Duval climbed to the top of the mountain, felt something in his back and descended permanently.
So pardon this potential overreaction, but when Tiger Woods pulled out of the Honda on Sunday with back spasms, it was cause for at least a little concern. Sure, maybe Tiger just overdid the weight training again—- that’s possible considering the size of his biceps. And, yes, at 38 Tiger may simply be experiencing one of the game’s occupational hazards. No golfer goes through a career without back trouble, wrist problems, a sore elbow or shoulder, or a bad knee or hip. Those ailments come with the job description.
But suppose, just suppose, for the sake of argument that the withdrawal at the Honda is an early warning sign of the end of the Tiger Era. Over two decades of non-stop, pressure-packed golf, Woods’s body has taken a licking and (after appropriate intervals for healing) kept on ticking. Now what?
Then factor in Mickelson, Tiger’s greatest foil. At 43, Phil is coming off his finest hour, an unexpected triumph in last year’s British Open, and he foresaw a potential career-best season ahead. He had the lead in Abu Dhabi, but a final-round triple bogey dashed those hopes. Other that that, he hasn’t shown much either. Early in ’14 he too had to WD with a balky back, at Torrey Pines. Lefty missed the cut at the Honda, which is no big deal since historically he has been practically allergic to Florida.
Tiger and Phil have carried golf for almost 20 years. Take a good look at them, though. We’ve lost count of Tiger’s knee surgeries and reconstructions. An Achilles problem has dogged him. That ended one appearance at Doral. His back finished another. A few years ago a neck issue sent him home after nine holes at the Players. Tiger is a high-mileage vehicle.
How healthy will he ever really be again? That may determine how long he’s able to play at a Tiger-like level. Of course, we have no idea how much Tiger is hurting since he likes sharing medical information as much as Hogan liked small talk. Phil? He’s already the poster boy for psoriatic arthritis and endorses a medication for the ailment.
What if both Tiger and Phil are done as frequent winners? The number of players who have stayed relevant into their mid-40s can be counted on one hand: Nicklaus, Snead, Hale Irwin, Vijay Singh and Steve Stricker. What if this is how their eras end: Tiger walking to his car holding his young daughter’s hand and Phil doing a spot for Enbrel? What if we’ve already seen the best of them?
Golf’s answer always is that someone else picks up the torch and runs with it. After Francis Ouimet, there were Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones. After Jones, there were Nelson and Snead. After Snead, there was Arnold Palmer, then Nicklaus. Then came Tom Watson. After Watson, there was Greg Norman. After Norman, there were Phil and Tiger.
After them? There are plenty of candidates. It could be Rory McIlroy. It could be Russell Henley, the Honda champ. At 24 and with only 36 starts on Tour, he already has two victories. He has a certain air about him.
It could be Jason Day or Hideki Matsuyama or Rickie Fowler or Jordan Spieth or some hotshot still in college. Who knows? It’s too early to tell.
In golf and in life, Father Time remains unbeaten and untied. The clock never stops for any of us. Not Tiger, not Phil.
This article originally appeared in SI Golf+ Digital. Click here to subscribe.