Recently, I was asked by a fellow golf fan whose generation of golfers
was better: basically his or mine. What a terrible question. It always
has been and always will be. Who would win Ali in his prime or Tyson at
his best? It usually depends who you’ve seen more.
The Open Championship is golf’s oldest, most historic event. Scanning
through the past champions might lead one to form opinions on any
particular side of this fruitless debate.
To substantiate my claim in favor of the more recent generation I
pointed towards Ernie Els. “Bah” scoffed the Nicklaus/ Watson/ Palmer
yada yada yada fan.
Well at least I am excited to watch Ernie in double defense of the
Claret Jug at Muirfield. Ernie defends the title he won last year at
Lytham St. Anne’s and also happens to be the reigning champ from the
last Open held at Muirfield in 2002. The 10 year drought for the Big
Easy is the longest in Open history (Henry Cotton went 11 years between
Open wins from 1937 to 1948 but 6 of those years saw the championship
suspended due to WWII).  This came in a year where Ernie failed to gain
entry to the Masters for the first time in nearly 2 decades. No Ernie at
Augusta? Where he has finished in the top ten 6 times, including 5 in a
row bookended with runner-ups in 2000 and 2004? It didn’t feel right. He
had basically reached his career low where he was feeling the sting of
critics telling him to hang ’em up. I felt bad for Adam Scott bogeying
the last 4 holes to lose last year, but I felt even better for Ernie
winning. He had played well at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San
Fran (finished 9th) leading into last year’s Open – one of his 10 top
tens at the U.S. Open. This year at Merion, Ernie back-doored a tie for
4th without getting much fanfare at all. Ernie has played the Open 21
times and finished in the top ten 13 times, including his 2 wins. Add a
successful Open title defense to his resume and Ernie has to race up the
list in that best-of-all-time discussion.
To provide some kind of carthasis for his tragic downfall at the Open
last year, Adam Scott won his first major at Augusta only 2 majors
removed from his collapse. At Merion he raced out to a fast start and
had many, I’m sure, thinking he might be the first to win the Masters
and then the U.S. Open since Tiger in 2002. It was not to be. Scott, as
well as Tiger, faded to an also-played over the weekend. A win this year
for Scott would surprise few at this point.
Another feel good story might be brewing for one of this generation’s
(or any other’s!) fan favorites: Lefty. Phil Mickelson finally broke
through across the pond this last week at the Scottish Open at Castle
Stuart in Inverness where he came from 2 back starting the final day in
difficult windy conditions. These are the exact sort of conditions which
are likely to play a huge role in determining this week’s “champion
golfer of the year.” A win would give Phil 3 out of 4 for the career
grand slam. And with a record 6 runner-ups at the U.S. Open, Phil would
have to at least come up in that best-of-all-time discussion, right? I
mean, Sam Snead never won the U.S. Open and he still holds the record
for most all-time PGA wins (Tiger will likely have something to say
about that before his career is done).
Can Tiger do it this week? He has 4 wins in 9 starts this year; not bad.
He had a very disappointing 2013 U.S. Open. But, he finished T4 at the
Masters. He was certainly off his game at the Memorial. He shot over
forty for nine holes, salvaged a 35 on the back just to eke out 79 and
break 80; but, it was his 2nd worst 18 hole score as a professional. His
Tiger entered the 2002 Open Championship as reigning Masters and U.S.
Open Champion. He was halfway home to winning the “grand slam” or all 4
majors of the year. He had, of course, won his own version – the “Tiger
Slam” – by winning the last 3 majors of 2000 and the Masters in April of
2001. The venue? The same as this year’s host site, Muirfield. He looked
in control of his game and was very much in the hunt until the weather
turned wicked and Tiger’s score ballooned to his career worst 81. A win
this week would end the longest major drought of Tiger’s career; 16
majors, 0 victories. Like for Scott at Augusta, a win for Tiger at
Muirfield would provide a profound catharsis and re-ignite the “when
will Tiger catch Jack” discussion instead of the “will he.”
P.S. Don’t fall asleep on Rory’s chances. Maybe the best young talent
any golf fan has ever seen? An Open win will give him the third leg of
his possible career grand slam and at a mere 24 years old!
Enjoy the Open. Cheers mate!