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Golf searches for its next major icon after Tiger Woods

The year started with a buzz about the dominance of a new Big Three – Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, which for fans brought back memories of the battles fought by Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. But that did not last for long.

other sports Updated: Aug 31, 2016 14:06 IST
Rajesh Pansare
Jordan Spieth of the United States lines up his fourth shot on the par 5, 13th hole.
Jordan Spieth of the United States lines up his fourth shot on the par 5, 13th hole.(AFP Photo)

Jordan Spieth seemed to be cruising as he commenced the back nine of the Augusta National Golf Club on the final day. He looked certain to retain The Masters, the first Major of the year.

Then, catastrophe struck. On the 10th, 11th and 12th holes, dropped six shots with a quadruple bogey on the 12th. In less than an hour, his five-shot lead was reduced to a three-shot deficit. It was described as the biggest ‘meltdown’ in golf’s history.

He did regroup to finish tied second but the opportunity was lost as he ended three strokes behind champion Danny Willett.

Victory here in 2015 made him the ‘Next Big Thing’ in a sport that is searching for a global icon since Tiger Woods’ fall. He followed it with the US Open crown. Suddenly, Spieth was spoken of in the same breath as Woods and Jack Nicklaus.

The three holes and an hour of play changed all what Spieth stood for – a calm demeanour, immune to pressure, in the same mould as Woods in his prime.

While Spieth says that he has ‘laughed off’ the most demoralising phase of his young career, the results say a different story. Since then, the American has finished T37, T30th and T13 at the other Majors – US Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship this year.

The year started with a buzz about the dominance of a new Big Three – Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, which for fans brought back memories of the battles fought by Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

The reason Spieth, McIlroy and Day were spoken of in the same breath was for their form coming into the season. Spieth was flying high after a successful breakthrough year in 2015. Day, the world No 1, finally came good in a Major at the PGA Championship and McIlroy, after struggling with form and injuries, came good at the end of the year.

Spieth never recovered after The Masters’ debacle, Day’s best finish was a second at The PGA Championship while McIlroy suffered one of his worst seasons, missing the cut at the US Open and PGA Championship. His best effort was a T5 at The Open, but he never threatened, finishing 16 shots off the pace.

Instead, 2016 saw four first-time winners --- Englishman Willett at The Masters, American Dustin Johnson at the US Open, Swede Henrik Stenson at The Open and American Jimmy Walker at The PGA Championship.

It was for the first time since 2011 that there were four different first-time winners.

The failure of top players to stamp their authority at the Majors suggests that parity has returned in the post-Woods era. Woods dominated for more than a decade, winning 14 Majors between 1997 and 2008 while nobody else among active players has more than the five collected by Phil Mickelson.

While McIlroy has won the most Majors among the players in top-10 with four in his kitty, there’s no one with the same aura as Woods.

Since Woods’ last title --- the 2008 US Open --- there have been 17 one-time winners of Majors and only McIlroy (in 2014) and Spieth (in 2015) have won back-to-back titles since Padraig Harrington’s victories at The Open and PGA Championship in 2008.

The 28-year-old Day, after failing to defend his title, said expectations may have been driven too high by the exploits of Woods in his heydays.

“I think the bar’s been raised ever since Tiger Woods kind of came around. I think everyone expects if you’re in the lead or if you’re a favourite to win, they expect you to win, and if you don’t, then you’re in a slump,” said Day.

“It’s very, very difficult to win golf tournaments. Golf is a very difficult game, on top of trying to manage the mental part of the game, as well.”

Former world No 1 McIlroy, who missed the cut at the PGA Championship, said: “There’s no doubt that the fields are very deep. You know, any number of guys can turn up on a Major championship week and win.”