Golf has seldom had so much talent. But post-Tiger Woods, it still lacks an icon for the ages.
Many of them probably have the same talent and dedication as the greats of former ages. But golf has evolved into the sport in which it may be hardest to stay at the very top of the mountain for very long.
If you want to challenge for G.O.A.T. or even the top dozen ever, go pick an easy sport such as football, basketball, hockey or baseball. Don’t mess with golf — it’s too mean.
Documentation? Since 1975, only two men have come on the scene who won more than five major titles — Tiger Woods (15) and Nick Faldo (six). Two others have won five — Phil Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros. That only gets Mickelson and Ballesteros in a six-way tie for 14th place on the all-time majors list. Talk about a tough ladder to climb.
The crazy gap between Woods and the rest shows how great his career has been and how lucky we are that he’s still grinding to play at 44 with a bad back. But it also proves how difficult it is to boss golf around or even to dominate your flaws for more than a few years.
The current top 20 combined have won 14 major titles. The man ranked 21st — Woods — has 15.
The current elite are part of a difficult era when everybody knows all the same technical secrets of a video-dissected sport, as well as the psychological tricks of mental coaches. The edge one player has on another is either tiny or disappears after a few years because the golf swing is far harder to keep in perfect working order than a jump shot, forward pass, slap shot or slider.
The grind to the top wears out backs, knees, willpower, self-confidence and nervous systems.
Thomas flourishes on normal courses, where wayward drives are followed by creative scrambling. He needs three more days of pure ball-striking to survive the U.S. Open’s ankle-chewing rough, the kind of long stuff that, in the past, has not suited his game or calm.
Even Woods and the beloved Mickelson, 50, a favorite after six U.S. Open runner-up finishes, are part of the general grinding grimacing here. Woods, rusty after playing little to protect his back, hit it like us — everywhere. His good shots produced five birdies. His bad ones went places that make us whimper, “I’m picking up. Go on without me.” His first-round card included six bogeys and a double.
Golf always has had fabulous careers in which the primes of its superstars were relatively compact. Arnold Palmer packed all seven of his majors into eight years. Ben Hogan, Tom Watson and Bobby Jones had their nine, eight and seven major wins in a span of eight years.