Marcus Hayes: Who will take the baton from a declining Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson?

Tiger and Phil are the Jack and Arnie of their generation,
Apr 3, 2014

 

The Tradition Unlike Any Other this year might earn its motto in a most undesired manner.

Unlike any other year in recent memory the giants of the game could be absent, with no field of worthies to fill their shoes.

Tiger Woods, 38, underwent back surgery on Monday and will miss the Masters for the first time in 20 years.

Phil Mickelson, 43, announced on Tuesday that he has recovered from a muscle strain in his right side and will play in this week’s Houston Open, after withdrawing from last week’s Texas Open.

Woods, with a violent swing and a litany of leg injuries in his recent past, has been brought to his knees this season.

Mickelson has been in grief most of this year because of back issues.

Tiger and Phil are the Jack and Arnie of their generation, and what might happen this year might match what happened in 1969. That was the only Masters in which neither Nicklaus nor Palmer contended from 1958-1979.

Even when age finally ran down the Bear and the King, there were obvious, popular successors with personalities as big as their games: Faldo, Norman, Langer, Ballesteros.

A week from the first tee shot, there is no similar cast of successors, save one:

Adam Scott.

He won last year. He is playing well. He is telegenic. And, so, Scott is fated to be the focus of the show.

This is no one’s fault. Tiger is a fitness maniac, and Phil’s attention to his body has increased as his age advanced.

It is coincidence that the most hallowed of American tournaments this year falls at a time when the most recognizable faces are blemished.

Rory McIlroy, 24, is the most intriguing young player in the world, but he hasn’t played since March 9, when he posted a final-round score of 74 for the second consecutive tournament, continuing a pattern of flagging finishes.

Since the end of 2012, when he won his second major, became an international superstar (and changed all of his equipment!), McIlroy has been less predictable than Irish weather. He will start in the Shell Houston Open this week, but he has not finished better than 15th in his five Masters starts.

McIlroy might be the golf world’s third biggest name, but his play has not equaled his fame in more than a year.

For that matter, Scott isn’t the most accomplished golfer this season. That is journeyman Jimmy Walker, and Walker isn’t going to draw TV viewers, but not for lack of a heartwarming backstory.

He won three times by early February, but, at 35, he had never won before in his seven full PGA Tour seasons. Lately, while he has played good golf, he has not played great golf . . . and he has never played great golf on the biggest stages.

In fact, Walker has only played in six major championships, with only four starts in majors since 2002. He has made one cut.

And he has never played in the Masters.

No Masters rookie has won the tournament since Fuzzy Zoeller won in 1979; which, really, was the only time it happened, since the other two rookies played in the first two tournaments. There is too much to learn at Augusta for a first-timer to stand a real chance.

It won’t be the first Masters for Henrik Stenson, who turns 38 on Saturday, but it will be the first time since he was anointed Best Golfer in the World after his hot finish in 2013. He recently admitted that the physical and mental strain of his run to No. 3 in the world taxed him through the calendar’s turn. He will play in Houston this week, where he hopes to sharpen his game, but even Stenson has said that he should not be seen as a favorite in Georgia. With good reason: He has never finished better than 17th and he missed the cut in three of his eight starts at Augusta National.

Justin Rose, the English prodigy who finally is fulfilling his promise, never missed a cut in his eight Masters starts. However, the reigning U.S. Open champion has sputtered since he foiled Phil at Merion, in part because of shoulder tendinitis that forced him to withdraw from the Honda Classic in late February.

He bogeyed five times in a fourth-round fade at the Valspar Championship on March 16; only one player in the top 24 collapsed worse. He missed the cut the next week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where his 79 in the second round included six bogeys and two doubles.

That’s the last competitive golf Rose will have played before the Masters. He visited Augusta last week to practice but he played in neither of the Texas tournaments that precede the Masters. Tendinitis is, as he pointed out, an injury that worsens with repetitive use. A golf swing is, of course, a motion that improves with repetitive use.

There appears to be an impasse.

Certainly, the game would be well-served if a colorful player such as Rickie Fowler or Ian Poulter was to win his first major this April.

Perhaps it would be as well if a fading great — Ernie Els, Fred Couples, even litigious Vijay Singh — was to pull a Nicklaus and win the Masters as the curtain falls on his career.

In all likelihood, though, it will be Scott on whom the spotlight shines.

Maybe it would be best.

There is a measure of Phil Phatigue. Tiger now is despised as much as he is revered.

The game could do much worse than to see Scott ascend as its newest king. The National could be his Versailles.

Scott has not finished outside of the top eight in his last three Masters starts and he has been in the top 20 in his last four Masters.

He is the James Bond of the golf world: achingly handsome, obscenely fit, maddeningly elegant, unfailingly polite, beautifully spoken, impeccably dressed.

He finished in the top 12 in six of his seven starts this season.

Yes, Scott is in fine form; his best form, probably, since he won the Masters last year.

The game, and its most revered stateside venue, at least should be grateful for that.

 

 

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