In a final-round duel between the legendary Ernie Els and the career grinder Boo Weekley, you know who wins, right?
When the Masters starts on the back nine on Sunday and Zach Johnson's got Tiger Woods breathing down his Fidra windbreaker, it's not hard to predict what happens next.
When Charles Howell III finds himself in a sudden-death playoff with Phil Mickelson, it's pretty clear which guy folds and which one finishes, no?
As it turns out, no. Let me expound on that: no, no and no.
Weekley chips in twice on the last two holes while Els ends up in a hazard on the wrong side of the TV tower. Johnson steps on Woods's neck with a birdie on 16. And Howell rolls in a series of clutch putts to deflate Mick the Stick.
Welcome to the new PGA Tour, where the old dynasties no longer apply and the parity recalls nothing so much as the NFL. Simply put, the guys winning the biggest checks are not the ones with the biggest airplanes. They don't have the most logos or know their way around an acceptance speech.
After the jacket ceremony on Augusta's practice green two weeks ago, Johnson threw his head back in exasperation after apparently forgetting to thank someone.
At the Verizon Heritage on Sunday, when a Tour official asked how it felt to have vaulted into the top 10 in FedEx Cup points, Weekley said, "I'm trying to understand [the FedEx Cup], but I ain't figured it out yet."
What do you think Tiger or Phil or Ernie would have said? "It's an honor," they would have said. "I'm ecstatic," they would have said. They would have said these things because they are schooled in the art of the platitude, which is a byproduct of winning a combined 101 times on Tour.
But not anymore; not lately. With the exception of Vijay Singh, who continues to defy age (44) and leads the FedEx Cup standings, whatever they are, after two wins this season, golf's surest Sunday closers have never looked less assured. What we've got instead is a steady diet of Paul Goydos and Charley Hoffman, Aaron Baddeley and Mark Wilson.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Woods, altogether now, hadn't coughed up a lead in the final round of a major until he did it at Augusta, and he didn't look great in winning the CA Championship at Doral last month. He used to pay off vacation homes at those two tracks, along with Torrey Pines (Buick Invitational) and Medinah (PGA) and Firestone (NEC, Bridgestone).
There was never any question that he was going to reel in Johnson and win his fifth green jacket; we kept watching only to see how he would do it. Even now it's hard to say what happened. Why didn't he hit driver on the par-5 8th hole on Sunday at Augusta? Why did he insist that he lost the tournament on the two days he finished bogey-bogey instead of Sunday, when he really did lose it?
Woods understands winning better than anyone who ever lived, as attested by his 56 victories in 219 starts, but he's played only five times on Tour this year. That's not enough to be sharp when it counts. He'll presumably take more days off work when his wife, Elin, delivers the couple's first child in July. Woods could potentially miss the British Open.
Oakmont, the site of the U.S. Open in June, is expected to be so hard it'll make Winged Foot look reasonable, which is cold comfort for a guy whose driver has been leaking aiming fluid for years. And don't look now, but Woods could summon only a T12 at the 2001 U.S. Open at Southern Hills, the site of August's PGA Championship.
In other words, it's hard to be confident that he'll win a single major this year.
Els keeps morphing into Greg Norman with every passing opportunity. He has 15 wins on Tour, yes, but he also has 15 runner-up finishes and 14 thirds, which wouldn't be so bad if golf were the Olympics.
Kudos to Ernie for almost holing his second shot on 18 at Hilton Head on Monday, which surely would have put a scare into Boo, tying him at 14-under, but the 37-year-old South African hasn't won on Tour since 2004.
Only the most ardent American golf geeks will recall that Els captured the South African Open last year, and even Els seems perplexed by his inability to get it done. Here's a sample of his press conference Monday:
Q: "Are you starting to get frustrated by this venue, as close as you've been the last few years? The last six years you've had top-threes."
A: "I've got quite a few of these kind of venues on my schedule (laughter). I've come close on many occasions like this, on many tournaments."
He's got that right. Els's almostism has gotten so virulently bad that Weekley, asked if he felt extra satisfaction from defeating one of the most accomplished players in the world, replied:
"No, sir. I mean, I just didn't beat Ernie, I beat however many people was in the field this week, 130 people. And I beat the golf course."
Sigh. Speculation about Mickelson, and more specifically his psyche, has been rampant since his Winged Foot disaster.
And while we're on the subject, let's have a moment of silence for that loveable old cyborg, two-time U.S. Open Champion Retief Goosen, who's been M.I.A. since he shot a final-round 81 in the 2005 Open at Pinehurst. He was on his way to taking his first green jacket two weeks ago when his rep suffered another body blow with a back-nine 37.
Mickelson is to be commended for keeping it together in the cold wind, not his favorite weather, through 54 holes, but his triple-bogey 7 on the first hole Sunday gave new life to the doubters and armchair psychologists.
You might think he'd play in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans this week, since he almost won the tournament in 2004. But that was at English Turn Country Club, the old host site, not the TPC Louisiana, which is back this week after a one-year hiatus due to Hurricane Katrina.
In a nod to the legacy of Byron Nelson, Mickelson most likely will begin his run-up to the Players Championship with the EDS Byron Nelson Classic next week. Woods is almost certain to wait until the following week's Wachovia Championship.
And so we can only guess as to the state of Phil's game, and Tiger's, but not Ernie's, which is as it always seems to be: almost there but not quite.
Meanwhile players like Howell, Johnson, Adam Scott and Geoff Ogilvy aim to eclipse guys like Els and Mickelson, if they haven't already, slowly but surely rearranging golf's constellation of stars.
Weekley was asked Monday to talk about his old school, Abraham Baldwin College in Tifton, Ga., since few if any of the assembled press had ever heard of it.
"Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, yes, sir," he said. "I played one year there. I don't even think it was a full year. ... They did away with the golf program, I think for bull riding or something like that."
It was a funny line, but it highlighted a truism for golf superstars as much as golf teams: Nothing lasts forever.