Masters preview: Golf's new Big Three rivalry rooted in Tiger Woods' dominance
By Dan Mann
Apr 01, 2016 | 9:49 AM
The golf world was desperate then, desperate for any storyline other than "Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer to ever walk the face of the earth."
And although Jack Nicklaus appears to have a lock on longevity — he leads Woods 18 majors to 14 — nobody walked it better than Woods for his 12-year major-championship blitz.
The writers were out of angles, the commentators out of superlatives. So circa 2004-05, they began to spin a new tale.
They called it the Big Four.
A USA Today article put it this way in March 2005: "They've jockeyed on the money list and world rankings, creating rivalries and causing flashbacks to golf's Sans-A-Belt days of the 1970s, if not the game's storied battles of the '50s and '60s. Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson — the Big Four, in order, according to this week's Official World Golf Ranking — meet for the second time this season in The Players Championship. Seldom have superstar careers in any sport arrived at such a rare intersection of talent, finesse and power."
Yes, Woods went without a major title from his victory at Bethpage Black in the 2002 U.S. Open through the end of the 2004 season — a drought of 10 majors — so he did his part to allow the storyline to unfold.
Still, the Big Four was always a concoction. It was really Woods versus the rest.
But nearly two decades after the Woods era took off, things are different.
Jordan Spieth was 3 when Woods won his first green jacket in 1997 and 11 when Woods broke his major drought in 2005.
Still, "there's nobody who had more influence in my golf game than Tiger," Spieth said in December.
They watched him and wanted to be him — just as Mickelson and Singh and Els did — but the difference for the new generation of superstars is both obvious and important: They didn't have to play against Woods at the peak of his powers.
Rory McIlroy reportedly wrote Woods a letter when the Northern Ireland native was 9. The exact wording is unclear, but McIlroy in effect told Woods that he was on the rise (at 9!), that he would one day take Woods down. This wasn't long after Woods won the 1997 Masters by a record-breaking 12 strokes.
Jason Day, the Australian who won his breakthrough major in record-breaking fashion at Whistling Straits in August, said this: "I've idolized the guy ever since I was a kid. He changed my life for the better."
There won't be another Tiger or Jack from this group of phenoms, but there will be a generation of rivals. Showdowns on the back nine of major-championship Sundays, between the best of this time, surely are in the offing.
Jason Day returned to No. 1 in the world by making it to Sunday. It felt even sweeter when he beat Rory McIlroy in an epic semifinal, and then beat Louis Oosthuizen in a championship match so one-sided that it might as well have been a victory lap around Austin Country Club.
Harmon would know. He was Woods' swing coach at the height of Tigermania.
Even to the untrained eye, Day was looking a lot like Woods during a dominant two-month run that spanned most of the summer.
After missing a playoff at the British Open by a stroke, Day went 1st-12th-1st-1st-12th-1st, picking up his first major championship and reaching No. 1 in the world.
He won the Canadian Open 3,300 miles and six days removed from his near-miss at St. Andrews, finished 20 under par in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits to break Woods' major-championship record and won two of the first three playoff events to briefly overtake Spieth at the top of the world rankings.
But Harmon was talking about Day's swing — and the shots it produced — as much as the results, and the swing is a thing of beauty.
It's quick but not fast, with a pause at the top, though the motion never really stops. It's right on plane at every checkpoint, and when you're right on plane, you can unleash all the power you want.
"He took it back. He wailed it. It was a stripe show," Spieth said after his runner-up finish to Day at Whistling Straits.
Only a swing that good can make a game this hard sound that simple.
Day now, and Woods in his heyday, produced some of the longest, highest, most impressive drives of their time, with iron and wedge games to match.
Under Harmon, Woods' swing was as solid as ever. A golfing generation later, Day's is better.
That's not a knock on Woods, just evolution. At the turn of the century, there was no blueprint for a swing as sound and as powerful as Woods'. He and Harmon were perfecting it on the fly.
But for this generation of golfers, the blueprint was Woods, and Day has made full use of it.
Day is on a roll again — and back to No. 1 in the world — after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago and the WGC-Match Play last week. He has won six of his last 13 starts, a Woods-in-his-prime type of run.
So can Day win his first green jacket this week after coming so close in 2011 and 2013? Is any course more suited to the longest, highest, most impressive drives than Augusta National?
JORDAN SPIETH: The moxie
"I knew he would make it," Rocco Mediate said of Woods' 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
Of all the big putts in the 156-year history of major-championship golf, were any greater than this?
A downhill, late-afternoon right-to-lefter ... on the imperfect poa annua greens of California ... with a trail of spike marks between the swoosh and the hole ... playing on a broken leg ... needing to hole it to avoid losing his first 54-hole lead in a major ... yes, Woods had major moxie.
And so does Spieth.
He hasn't made one like that, but he made more in the moment than anybody in 2015.
At the Masters last year on the way to his first major title, Spieth was at his best. Augusta National was playing soft, but Spieth played it better than anyone, finishing at 18-under 270, the same score Woods posted in his record-breaking romp 18 years earlier.
There were times Spieth was pushed on the weekend of his four-stroke victory, but when the pursuers made a move, he always seemed to hole it.
"He has that ability to perform at his best when the pressure is on," said Mickelson, who finished second for the 10th time in a major at last year's Masters. "That's something that you really can't teach. Some players are able to do it, some players aren't. And he is."
At the U.S. Open 10 weeks later, Spieth never had it all together. But with a two-stroke lead on the 16th green at Chambers Bay, with the tournament still up for grabs, he made an improbable 20-footer to provide the cushion he needed, eventually topping Dustin Johnson by a stroke.
Remember the way those must-have Woods putts felt? It was as much the performance as the putt: Woods reading the break from behind his ball, then his determined walk around the hole, then reading the break from behind the hole and back again. The anticipation would build — "Is he going to make it again?" one of the commentators would say — then Woods would hole it, normally with his putter raised as the ball fell.
Spieth's performance on the 70th hole at Chambers Bay looked awfully familiar.
"I didn't have my best stuff ball-striking at all," Spieth said afterward, but he got the job done, without his "A" game, an accomplishment saved for the rare talents.
Spieth went on to finish one stroke out of the British Open playoff and runner-up at the PGA to complete one of the greatest years in major-championship history, then won the Tour Championship — and FedEx Cup title — with more clutch putting on Sunday.
Under pressure, Woods had and Spieth has (so far) the greatest short games of their generations.
As Woods was, Spieth is a thinker and a grinder, always believing what he has that day is enough, never faced with an impossible shot.
And as Woods did, more often than not, Spieth pulls it off.
RORY McILROY: The firepower
"It seems like we're not playing in the same ballpark right now," Els said after finishing 15 strokes behind Woods — and in second place — in the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
It was the largest margin of victory in major-championship history, a performance that came three years after his 12-stroke win at Augusta National, a Masters record, and one month before his eight-stroke win at St. Andrews, the largest margin in the British Open since 1913.
When Woods had it going, everybody else was playing for second.
And there's one man of this generation who has shown similar flashes.
No, McIlroy hasn't won by 15 or 12 or even 10, but he has blitzed major fields with regularity like nobody else in today's game.
• The most dominant performance in a major since Woods' U.S. Open-British Open double in 2000? McIlroy's eight-stroke victory in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional. He led by three after Round 1, six after Round 2 and eight after Round 3 on the way to his first major title, setting U.S. Open records of 268 and 16 under par.
• The largest margin of victory in PGA Championship history? Eight, by McIlroy at Kiawah Island in 2012.
• The largest 54-hole lead at the British Open since Woods in 2000? Six, by McIlroy at Royal Liverpool in 2014.
"He has probably the most talent I've ever seen from a golfer," Luke Donald said after McIlroy's win at Congressional, when Donald was No. 1 in the world.
That talent was on display before he won his first major. Ten weeks earlier at the Masters, McIlroy took a four-stroke lead into the final round. But he struggled on the front nine on Sunday, turned with a one-shot lead and then completed the collapse: triple bogey on 10, bogey on 11, double bogey on 12. A final-round 80 and a 15th-place finish.
Woods went 14-for-14 with the 54-hole lead in majors before finally falling to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship, a run that might never be matched. McIlroy started 0-for-1 but has gone 4-for-4 since.
All told, he's 18 holes short of not only the career Grand Slam, but one in which he torched 'em all.
Now four majors and 20 months removed from his last major title, McIlroy is working through a new cross-handed putting grip. He lost a lead on Sunday in the WGC-Cadillac Championship four weeks ago, raising questions about his ability to close for the first time since the 2011 Masters, then missed some makeable putts in a big-time semifinal match last week against Day.
His putter, though, never was the club that carried him, and the rest of his game — the parts that have overpowered golf courses and overrun major-championship fields — is the same.
There's a freeness to McIlroy's game that even Woods never had. Woods always was grinding, never wanting to give up ground, no matter how large the lead. McIlroy plays loose and fast, usually maintaining that pace no matter how high the stakes.
As Woods got older, his margins of victory got smaller, and maybe McIlroy is on the same path.
For now, any win at the Masters — the one major he has failed to dominate — will do.