Where is golf going?
Recent majors, including British Open, provide no map for Tiger-less world
SANDWICH, England -- Here in the nearly deserted Open Championship media center, lip-smudged Champagne glasses still sit atop some of the work desks. Sniff hard enough and you can even smell the faint scent of Bollinger's bubbly in the air.[+] EnlargeStuart Franklin/Getty ImagesCould Gareth Maybin have the next major in his sights? He's from Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Darren Clarke.
A night earlier, after the 42-year-old Clarke stunned perhaps even himself by winning his first major, Clarke had cases and cases of Champagne delivered to the media tent. They ran out of glasses, but the bubbly flowed. I drank mine out of a paper cup and toasted the Northern Irishman.
But that was Sunday; this is Monday. As workers began returning Royal St. George's to its previous non-grandstanded state, as TV and golf equipment semi trucks squeezed their way onto the bolo tie-thin roads surrounding the course and out toward the M2 highway, as Clarke completed his post-Claret Jug bender, we're left with a simple question:
What the hell is going on in golf?
A cigarette-puffing, beer-drinking Irishman just became the oldest guy to win the Open Championship since Roberto de Vicenzo in 1967. He began the tournament ranked 111th in the world and ended it ranked 30th. Prior to the tournament, ESPN even inquired about his availability as a guest commentator for the telecast. Then he won! Not only won, but won with one Guinness tied behind his back. He finished three strokes ahead of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, who each had their chance to overtake Clarke and who each lost a wheel or two during the last lap.
Darren Clarke won the 140th Open Championship at Royal St. George's. View the gallery »
The only sure thing in golf these days is that there are no sure things. Wait -- there's one: a Northern Irishman will win next month's PGA Championship.
Do you know Gareth Maybin? Me neither until I looked at the latest world rankings: he's 158th. Doesn't matter. He's the next Northern Irishman on the list after countrymen Rory McIlroy (2011 U.S. Open, ranked No. 4), Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open, ranked No. 11) and now Clarke (2011 Open Championship, ranked No. 30).
After that, I've got no clue in this Tiger Woods-less golf world. We're in some weird, post-TW incubation period when conventional wisdom means as much as a James Harrison apology.[+] EnlargeDavid Cannon/R&A/R&A via Getty ImagesDoes anybody expect to see Darren Clarke, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson atop the PGA Championship leaderboard?
Think about it: Woods is out of the top 10 and almost out of the top 20. He's clinging to the 20th spot by one of those hairs in his goatee. He hasn't played since the ninth hole of the Players Championship in May and there's been no definitive word on Pravda (otherwise known as TigerWoods.com or his Twitter account) about the rehabbed condition of his left knee and Achilles tendon. Woods has less than four weeks before the PGA Championship begins at Atlanta Athletic Club. If and when he does come back, will he be Tiger or Matteo Delpodio (ranked No. 1,129)?
Twelve different players have now won the past dozen majors. Only three of those players have been Americans. None of them were named Woods, though, and only one player from the U.S. (Mickelson) has won a major in the past two years.
I think the world rankings are about as reliable as Clarke's vow to go on Weight Watchers this week. But if you believe in such things, there are no Americans in the top four and 33 in the top 80. Golf needs Woods. Or it needs somebody to play like Woods, pre-fire hydrant.
No. 1 Luke Donald has been a check-cashing machine this season, but he was no factor at the U.S. Open and didn't even make the cut at the Open Championship. And when I last saw No. 2 Lee Westwood at Royal St. George's, he was sitting slumped in front of his locker, waiting for official word that he too had missed the cut.
No. 3 Martin Kaymer has quit tinkering with his swing, so maybe he'll win a second consecutive PGA Championship. And I make no apologies for my golf crush on McIlroy. If anybody is going to make a run at history, it will be McIlroy.[+] EnlargeStuart Franklin/Getty ImagesShould we expect Raphael Jacquelin to invade U.S. soil and to avenge France's honor?
No. 6 Mickelson showed he can talk himself into anything. He used to treat the Open Championship like a plate of cold cauliflower. But last week he did the Vulcan mind meld with Tom Watson's karma and suddenly was treating the Open as if it were his happy place. So there's still hope for Lefty, especially when he returns to American soil.
No. 7 Johnson should win a major one of these days. He's been in the final group of three of the past six majors and finished in the top 10 in four of the past eight. That's impressive. Not so impressive is how Johnson keeps doing face plants when he has a chance to win. But I'll say this for him: win or lose, he's the most laid-back dude this side of a Barcalounger.
Maybe Sergio Garcia, who was supposed to have at least one major by now, will finally fulfill his supposed destiny. Then again, maybe Rickie Fowler will wear a pair of khaki pants, a navy blue shirt and a hat with a curved brim to cover his crew cut.
And who knows, maybe Tiger returns from his injury exile soon. If he does, he'll have some catching up to do. Golf has moved on without him.
The question is, to where?
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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2011 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
2011 champion: Darren Clarke
Course: Royal St. George's
Where: Sandwich, England
Yardage, par: 7,211 yards, par-70
Topics: The Open Championship