New winners galore, it's like the pre-Tiger days

IN CASE YOU haven't been paying attention, the golf world, as a wise man once sang, is a-changing.

The 2011 season is half-over. Tiger Woods has played nine holes in the last 11 weeks. Phil Mickelson is 41. Baby-faced Rory McIlroy, who is 22, just won the U.S. Open by eight shots, after blowing a four-stroke, 54-hole lead at the Masters in April. International players have won the last five majors, the last four by guys in their 20s. There are three Americans in the top 10 of the world rankings: No. 5 Steve Stricker, who is 44 years old himself, Mickelson (6) and Matt Kuchar (7).

None of them is in Newtown Square for this week's PGA Tour stop, the second and last AT & T National to be played at Aronimink Golf Club before it moves back to its original home in suburban Washington. Nobody else from the top 14 is here, either. Not Dustin Johnson (11) or Bubba Watson (12). And certainly not Martin Kaymer (4), the reigning PGA champion. Or Graeme McDowell (8), the 2010 U.S. Open champ, or Charl Schwartzel (10), who prevailed at Augusta when McIlroy flamed out. Not even Jason Day (9), who played well here last summer and has been runner-up in the last two majors.

Yet if you go back to the 2009 AT & T at Congressional, the field wasn't exactly loaded. But Woods won, which made everything else irrelevant. Woods, by the way, is here. He's just not playing. But the tourney, which he once hosted before his personal life got in the way of his sponsorship deal with AT & T, continues to benefit his Tiger Woods Foundation. It also honors the military, something close to his heart. So the man who has fallen to 17th on the food chain at least showed up in a supporting role.

Having Tiger actually playing still makes all the difference. There's no getting around that. Just check out the television ratings. If you can't get him, Lefty's the next-best attraction. And now, maybe McIlroy. The dilemma for the time being is, he's not teeing it up all that much on these shores.

It's nobody's fault, merely the way things work.

Golf always has been marquee-driven, from Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to Greg Norman. Woods took it to a whole other level, thanks in large part to the ESPN world in which we now exist.

So now folks are ready to anoint McIlroy as the next king. Fair enough. But how about we let the kid win two or three majors first?

Even McIlroy seems to get that much. Great for him.

Yo, perhaps he really is the newest Pied Piper, about to carry the torch for this generation. Even though the game has become global, and he does appear to generate mass appeal, I still think it's hard for Americans to totally wrap themselves around someone who's trying to take their side out every other year at the Ryder Cup. Just a thought. That stuff does get venemous. Ask most of the other Europeans.

Anyway . . .

Following McIlroy's walkover at Congressional, it didn't take long for those Tiger comparison questions to rear their inevitable head.

"It would just be nice obviously for him to be healthy again and be back out on the golf course, because he does bring a little something extra to golf tournaments," McIlroy duly noted. "He's Tiger Woods. The game is a better place with him playing well."

Tiger might never be Tiger again. His left leg might not allow it. But who knows what he could have left in him, if he can ever get himself even close to 100 percent again? And before we start McIlroy's majors countdown, remember that Woods eight of them by the time he was 26. Or that he won an Open at Pebble Beach by 15 strokes, when nobody else broke par.

McIlroy has won three times as a pro. Woods has 71 PGA Tour victories, including one epic run of six straight, a dozen more internationals and 13 unofficial others. If McIlroy has done half that by the time he calls it a career, let alone by the time he's 35, he'll go down as the best golfer of his era. Tiger has put himself in the running to be the best, period. That's context.

It's not hard to pull for McIlroy. He's that kind of package. And Tiger has his share of detractors, which he has helped create through his deeds. Yet the bottom line remains that he's the show. Even when he's not being Tiger-like. The galleries don't fib. Last year at Aronimink you couldn't get near him, even though he was never a factor.

Before McIlroy did what he did at the Open, what was this season's highlight? Well, if you went with Tiger shooting 31 on the front nine in the closing round at Augusta National and eventually pulling into a tie for lead, you wouldn't be wrong. Even more than Schwartzel birdieing the last four holes to win. Think about that. It has been the way for 15 years. He's the story. And he has finished in the top four in three of the last five majors he has played in. Not too shabby for a used-to-be.

McIlroy looks to indeed be the marquee of the future. Whether Woods can also be an adversarial part of that transition, perhaps not even his doctors know for sure. But it could be historical. Tiger's never had a rival, unless you count the ghost of Nicklaus.

Woods was on top for a long time. We love to see our kings go down, especially the way Tiger did. But we love redemptions, too. That could be an even more riveting chapter.

Yes, the landscape has shifted. Perhaps permanently. But let's allow it to evolve, before we make too many assumptions.

Remember, there were a ton of next Nicklauses before Tiger arrived.

For years, we pondered what golf would be like once Tiger stopped dominating. The last 10 majors have gone to 10 players, with eight of the last nine being first-time major winners. It's different. Does that make it better? It sounds like we're just waiting for someone else to dominate.

In other words, back to where we were before Tiger arrived. How's that for perspective? *

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