PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Tiger Woods walked off the 18th green in his Sunday red shirt before players in the final few groups even sat down for lunch.
This constitutes progress for Woods.
And for golf.
Never mind that only four other players had a worse score than Woods in The Players Championship. It was the first time in 18 months that Woods completed 72 holes in consecutive starts, and only the sixth time during that period that he was even seen in his red shirt.
So how is this progress for golf?
Because there was a time that when Woods left the golf course, the majority of fans left with him.
That might not ever happen at the TPC Sawgrass, not with the spectacle that is the island green on the 17th hole, or with Rory McIlroy in range to start the final round. And it’s a big championship, as big as it can get without being a major.
But golf has options now, and a lot them.
Rickie Fowler winning – and the way he won – was the latest example why the PGA Tour is so healthy even when it’s biggest star is ailing.
Consider the last two months that featured two World Golf Championships, one major and one tournament that feels like one. The winners were Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, McIlroy and Fowler. In the last seven PGA Tour events, the worst-ranked winner was J.B. Holmes, who was at No. 20 when he won the Shell Houston Open in a three-man playoff that included Spieth.
The timing of Fowler’s victory was impeccable.
It was too easy to connect the dots to the magazine survey of anonymous players who voted Fowler and Ian Poulter as the most overrated players on the PGA Tour. Each received 24 percent of the vote, which led them to refer to each other as ”24.” Fowler did his best to disguise the hurt. This is a 26-year-old who doesn’t speak negatively about anybody, even in playful banter.
He said it would motivate him, though Fowler derived far more pleasure from the crystal trophy and all the perks that go with it – a three-year exemption to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour and a $1.8 million check.
But this win was far more significant as it relates to all of golf, not just Fowler.
McIlroy has established himself as a clear No. 1 with two majors and two World Golf Championships in the last 10 months. Spieth was mentioned as the top challenger with his wire-to-wire Masters victory, which completed a stretch of four tournaments in which he won twice and was runner-up twice.
Fowler’s name was mentioned without trophies because of his appeal – particularly to young fans – and his work ethic, which often got lost in all the hype over his astute activation of social media, often referred to as ”Rickie 2.0.”
He had a pair of runner-up finishes in the majors last year, and joined Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only players to finish in the top five at all four majors. The difference was they won, and that’s why it was so important for Fowler to win a big one for his game – not just his name – to be part of the conversation.
But there’s a broader significance to his victory, coming on the heels of Spieth and even Johnson.
It’s hard to let go of heroes. Woods and Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut last week and is approaching the two-year anniversary of his last win, carried golf for the better part of two decades. And in some respects, they still do.
McIlroy, Spieth, Fowler and a growing list of others – Jason Day, Patrick Reed, Hideki Matsuyama – are making it easier to embrace the future instead of clinging to the past.
”The game, I don’t think, could really be in a better place,” Fowler said. ”There’s a lot of great players right now, a lot of young guys playing well. Rory has distanced himself a bit from this group of younger guys, but there’s going to be a lot of good competition in the years to come.
”A lot of great young players, and none of us are afraid,” he said. ”We’re ready to go to battle and have some fun.”
As for Woods?
Due mainly to injuries and swing change, he has finished only six tournaments in the last 18 months and he has not been closer than nine shots to the winner. He fell to No. 133 in the world this week.
It’s still too early to rule him out.
Even in a closing round of 72 on Sunday, there were signs he was caught between his old swing and his new one. He has been down this road with three other coaches. It won’t be any easier to win once he figures it out because the competition is younger and just as good, if not better, than Woods at 39. As good as golf is now, that would make it even better.