This was supposed to be a crescendo year, the kind professional golf is lucky to see once a decade. Such special seasons only happen when several exceptionally talented and well-matched rivals clash in their finest hours.
The prototype was 1962, when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player dominated and divvied up the four majors. Almost as good was 1974, when Nicklaus, Player, Johnny Miller and Lee Trevino at their peaks knocked heads. The class of 1992 -- Nick Faldo, Fred Couples, Nick Price and Davis Love III -- came close to meeting the criteria. And perhaps 2004 would have qualified if Tiger Woods had been on form.
But if nothing else, it was the year that teed up 2005. Which, alas, hasn't turned out as anticipated either. While the story of the year has been Woods' reemergence as The Man, the back story so far has been the wanting performances in the major championships by the rest of the so-called Big Five -- Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen.
As Woods has finished first (Masters), second (U.S. Open) and first (British Open) in the three majors, the other four have barely lurked. Goosen managed a distant third in the Masters, while Singh has two mostly invisible ties for fifth in the Masters and British Opens. Meanwhile, Mickelson and Els, each 35, have been shockingly mediocre, with Mickelson's best a 10th at the Masters, Els' a T-15 at the U.S. Open.
Who would have thunk it? Not only was 2004 a year in which all four consistently contended in the majors (out of 15 starts, the quartet produced three victories, three seconds and 12 top-seven finishes), but also the momentum carried over into this year.
Mickelson, coming off a 59 at the Grand Slam of Golf late last year, shot 60 at Phoenix and 62 at Spyglass Hill on his way to three victories before his defense at Augusta. Els won three times worldwide before the Masters, while Singh notched three PGA Tour wins by early May. Only Goosen, whose bonafides are almost completely founded in his two U.S. Open victories, was lying in wait.
But Woods' resurgence and narrow victory at the Masters -- his first major title since the 2002 U.S. Open -- surely increased the space his specter takes up in his rivals' psyches. At the U.S. and British Opens, all four reverted to a pattern established in Woods' previous hegemony, when they were habitually unable to summon their best stuff at the biggest moments.
Now, with three majors gone and the clocks on their primes ticking ever louder, all four are facing if not a lost year, a discontented one. The most bereft has been Els, whose knee injury has forced him to look ahead to 2006. Singh, Mickelson and Goosen have a chance to salvage a piece of history at Baltusrol. But they also know that even if they do, 2005 will go down as the year Tiger closed his challengers' window of opportunity and, if he wins the PGA, slammed it shut.
What went wrong? Who knows, probably not even the principals themselves. It's still too early for public soul-searching, and it is, after all, golf. Still, we will venture some educated guesses.
After three straight years in which he has started the year strong and in varying degrees faded, the popular culprit has been Els' globetrotting playing schedule. Insiders also have noted that this year Els has been taking the club back slightly closed, requiring a compensation that can inhibit the customary freedom of his forward swing and causing inaccuracy. And while his PGA Tour ball-striking stats have been less than impressive, his putting has been even worse. Before his knee injury, he was 111th in scrambling and 108th in three-putt avoidance.
It would be completely understandable if Els hasn't fully recovered from his fate in the 2004 majors. A stroke better in the Masters, British Open and PGA could have produced three victories (and the career Grand Slam), and he was two back of the leader at the U.S. Open after three rounds. To come away without a victory made it the most heartbreaking year in the majors since Greg Norman won the Saturday Slam in 1986, and even Norman emerged with one title.
Although Els insists he is thinking forward and not backward, he still might be hesitant about getting into the hunt at a major. His year started ominously at the Mercedes Championships when he drove out of bounds on the 72nd hole at Kapalua to lose a chance to win, and Els has been strangely disconnected in the majors, getting behind the eight ball early and finishing 47th at the Masters and T-34 at St. Andrews.
"Something like what happened to Ernie [in 2004] stays with you a while, I don't care how strong your mind is," says fellow South African Gary Player. "Overcoming is part of being a champion, and Ernie's a champion."
In the end, Els' time off may help heal more than his knee.
As age continues to thicken Mickelson's mid-section, it adds to the cynical perception he's a doughboy grown complacent since winning his one and only major. Turns out the opposite is much closer to the truth.
For better or worse, Mickelson has been stricken with major-itis. No longer satisfied with piling up regular tour victories -- 26 and counting -- Mickelson has become maniacal about preparing for the four majors in the interest of leaving a greater mark in the age of Woods. But this year at least, the hard work hasn't paid off.
His partner in preparation is the ultra empirical Dave Pelz. It was Pelz who before the 2004 season finally convinced Mickelson -- with the kinds of charts, graphs and statistical data that appealed to Phil's considerable wonky side -- that he had to play more percentage golf and in particular improve his skills from inside 150 yards. Mickelson went on to win the Masters and contend seriously in the other three majors.
This year, Mickelson's career-long infatuation with technology has led him to again become fascinated with longer driving, arguably to his detriment. It's also fair to wonder if Mickelson's intense early preparation created confusion and its own mental burden. His intricately scheduled run-up to the Masters was undone by persistent wet weather, and even though he won at Atlanta the week before, he arrived in Augusta less than satisfied or confident with the state of his game. At Pinehurst he based his greenside strategy on the turf as it existed three weeks before the championship, only to see it play differently. He also was thrown and eventually frustrated by tee-to-green rough that was thickened dramatically just before the championship. At St. Andrews Mickelson spent hours refining his ability to hit low irons shots to better handle heavy wind, only to see conditions remain relatively calm all four rounds.
"To be the best, you've got to keep incorporating new stuff, but it takes time to ingrain," says Pelz. "Phil has more options and more game than ever, but he might still be thinking about how to do it as he's doing it. That's not always a comfortable feeling, and to be successful under the most pressure on the planet, majors, you can't be uncomfortable. Phil has been on a learning plateau, but he's due to make a jump."
While emerging as Woods' most consistent rival, Singh has never seemed consumed by the task, taking whatever comes in his long, languid stride. And although he has a history of playing indifferently against Woods head to head, he took a giant stride in reversing that trend at last week's Buick Open, where, paired with Woods in the third round, Singh laid down a stunning 63 that beat the world No. 1 by seven. And when Woods made an epic back- nine charge Sunday, Singh rebuffed him with two brilliant sand saves to lock up his fourth victory of the year.
The 42-year-old Singh argues convincingly that his swing and his physique are getting better with age. His problem in the 2005 majors has been a regression to the inconsistent putting that plagued him for much of his earlier career.
Singh was dead last in the field in total putts at both the Masters and the U.S. Open, even as he was finishing T-5 and T-6. He was barely better on the greens at St. Andrews, where he also was T-5.
Last year, Singh's putting improved dramatically when he changed (at the Buick Open) from the belly putter and a left-hand-low putting grip to a regular-length putter and a conventional grip. Pelz, who has helped Singh with his putting over the years, believes the longer putters helped Singh's stroke become smoother and more pendulum-like, so that when he switched to conventional, he retained the improved motion.
However, Singh's stroke lost its effectiveness this year. A missed two-footer in the Honda Classic against Padraig Harrington may have hurt his confidence. But when Singh came to the Buick having changed his putter and his style -- from conventional to left-hand-low -- he had his best putting performance of the year.
"Vijay is an independent thinker who is totally pragmatic," says Dr. Joseph Parent, the author of Zen Golf who has worked extensively with Singh. "For him, a change that most would consider drastic simply wipes the slate clean. It helps him relax and be more intuitive, so his talent takes over. That's when he makes putts."
The least decorated of Woods' rivals has come the closest to winning a major this year, taking a three-stroke lead into the final round at Pinehurst only to melt down with an 81 to finish T-11.
Although many chose to use the round as a rebuttal of Goosen's reputation as an iceman, its real significance was the way it pointed out the shortcomings in the 36-year-old South African's swing. With a top of the backswing position in which the club crosses the line (points right of the target), Goosen has an arm-dominated downswing that is prone to producing low pull hooks under pressure. It's the shot Goosen hit repeatedly during a shaky 74 while paired with Woods in the final group at the 2002 Masters, and the same shot plagued him at Pinehurst.
It's an action that keeps Goosen's ball-striking a notch below the other members of the Big Five, making him a less frequent winner and a slightly less consistent performer. Indeed, it's why the group at the very top of the game is just as often referred to as the Big Four.
On the other hand, Goosen might be the best pure putter in the game. He showed miraculous nerve and touch on the evil surfaces at Shinnecock Hills in the final round of last year's U.S. Open, and he provided a recent glimpse while draining the killing putts at the Battle at the Bridges. His stroke gives him the ability to continually save par on tough courses, which, when he's swinging in rhythm, makes him a particular threat at majors.
As Woods prepares for his assault on a never-before-accomplished triple (the Masters, British Open and PGA), the viability of the Big Five hangs in the balance. For the label to have legs going into 2006, it's important that Singh, Mickelson and Goosen get into the mix at Baltusrol, and that much better if one of them wins. The problem is, the Woods they are now playing against may already have returned to being the Big One.
Jaime Diaz is a senior writer for Golf World magazine