For those still keeping score at home, the Big Four is now the Big Two, although it might have been the Big Five before Retief Goosen shot that big, fat 81 in the final round of the U.S. Open. Regardless, it's as if all hope of a roundtable rivalry has vanished in less than two months, a swift evaporation caused by Tiger Woods' performance at St. Andrews more than Goosen's meltdown at Pinehurst or Ernie Els busting up his knee while surfing the Mediterranean on an inner tube.
As broad-brush media tribes issue last rites to the Big Whatever, even golf magazines seem compelled to examine the sudden end of pro golf's dominance by committee. Why the rush? If Goosen -- who emerged atop a weak leaderboard last week at Castle Pines -- or Phil Mickelson were to win this week's PGA Championship, the Big Whachamacallit takes on another contrived life. If Vijay Singh defends his PGA title, we revive the process of attempting to identify the world's best player, a storyline best used to fill space as another long-winded PGA Tour season limps to a close.
What comes around goes around, then comes around again. Woods was cast as an idiot for leaving Butch Harmon, then flying solo, then adopting the swing principles of Hank Haney. Now Tiger's a genius -- and Mickelson's supposedly a moron for abandoning the course-management applications that led him to his first major title. Els, meanwhile, is portrayed as reckless for jeopardizing his career while on vacation, as if someone nicknamed "Big Easy" should limit off-course activities to an hour per week by the kiddie pool.
We're trying way too hard here, folks. The Big Four/Five was a timely, interesting hook, and in a perfect world, it might have lasted a lot longer than the year or so it took Woods to refine his Swing by Hank. But in 2005, as was the case from this point in 1999 through the middle of 2002, there is little evidence of a competitive equal to Tiger when he has all the dials turned to the proper settings. He is beatable mainly in the sense that golf is contested on the most level playing field in sports, because a lot of weird stuff happens when 144 guys traverse 30,000 yards of earth over four days. For living proof, see Michael Campbell.
True rivalries, however, are best viewed through a wide-angle lens, which guarantees clearer perspective but also takes time, which turns analysis into dated retrospect. That won't cut it in today's society. We keep trying to define the big picture solely off the latest results. When Mickelson won the 2004 Masters, for instance, we envisioned the new-and-improved Phil tangling with Tiger in multiple Duels in the Sun. When Goosen holed two miles' worth of putts to win last year's U.S. Open, we conveniently figured the unflappable South African would never miss another one that mattered.
When Els kept contending deep into the most important Sunday afternoons, one might have sensed he was bulking up for the day when Woods would be firing on all cylinders again. Now he is, but only Singh appears capable of matching Tiger's current standard, though it's worth mentioning that two of Singh's three major titles (the '98 and '04 PGAs) occurred as Woods underwent swing reconstruction, first with Harmon, then with Haney.
Having defended Woods' tinkering tendencies since he kicked Butch to the curb in the summer of '02, I'll admit I got a bit skeptical at times, wondering if Tiger was merely biding his time while scrambling for a technique that would allow him to hit more than half his fairways. The entire Butch-to-Hank thing became incredibly overblown, but unlike most cynics, I figured a guy with eight major titles deserved the benefit of the doubt, especially when doubt was at an all-time high.
So as statements go, last month's runaway British Open triumph might have been the loudest of Woods' career. The switch to Haney has been fully validated, the critics muzzled, his primary foes disquieted by the notion that their best may not be good enough. He's longer than ever off the tee and straight enough to crush all comers at roomy cathedrals such as Augusta National and St. Andrews. Baltusrol's 4-inch rough and 25-yard-wide landing areas play away from Tiger's strengths, but it's not like tight ballparks are ideal for Singh, Goosen or Mickelson, either. The 2003 PGA was the last major played in similar conditions on a parkland course. Mickelson's tie for 23rd at Oak Hill was the best of the bunch.
Woods is a very different player than when he finished T-39 at Oak Hill. He bears a stronger resemblance to the guy who won the '99 PGA a year into the renovations with Harmon, triggering a run of five major titles in six starts. Who knows -- we might someday remember 2005 as the year history began repeating itself, the point at which golf's Big Four quickly succumbed to the Big Fore.
John Hawkins is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.