Recent major winners prove depths of current fields
We are undoubtedly ensconced in the Tiger Woods Era of professional golf. The game's top-ranked player has won 11 of the past 32 major championships. Yet when he heads to Tulsa, Okla., for the PGA Championship in two weeks, he'll do so with exactly zero majors to his name this season.This fact has less to do with any noticeable, rapid decline in Woods' performance than with a propensity for new and different players to step up and have their moment in the spotlight. For much of the past decade, those thought to be most affected by this era were the game's other top players. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Duval, Retief Goosen, Colin Montgomerie and Sergio Garcia have all finished as runners-up to Woods at a major, but now it's the first-timers who are getting in on the act, with three such players having claimed the sport's most prized possessions so far this season.
So what does it all mean?From the evolution of the Arnold Palmer-Jack Nicklaus-Gary Player heydays to the revolutions of Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman, fields have never been better or deeper than they are right now. Exhibit A: Zach Johnson. The self-described "normal guy" from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was ranked 56th in the world before this year's Masters, but he used a deft strategy and unflinching short game to defeat some of the game's elite players en route to the green jacket. "Bottom line is if you were to poll any player, in my opinion, any given week, any one of us can win," he said in the days after the victory. "Yes, I realize it's the Masters. Every now and then, yes, I just start going, 'Oh, my gosh, what the heck happened?' But there's surprise winners every year all over the world. I just feel very fortunate." Among the final-round pursuers at Augusta National was Woods, who eventually finished in a share of second place with Goosen and Rory Sabbatini, 2 strokes behind Johnson. The Masters champion oozed humility throughout his title run, but he said not being afraid of Tiger played a major part in his ability to succeed. "They say a giant has to fall at some point, and maybe that's the case," Johnson said. "The next person to come along like [Woods], who knows how long it's going to be? It makes it that much more gratifying knowing that I beat Tiger Woods, there's no question about it." Exhibit B: Angel Cabrera. A top international player since garnering his first victory in 1995, Cabrera wasn't on many short lists of contenders for the U.S. Open crown despite making the cut in all seven of his previous appearances. But at Oakmont, the Argentinean held off a hard-charging Woods and Jim Furyk -- Nos. 1 and 3 in the world, respectively -- earning the title when Tiger's final-hole birdie attempt missed by a matter of inches. Yet Cabrera was steadfast in his stance that holding off Woods was merely part of the equation. "No, no, no. I beat everybody," he said. "Not only him." Exhibit C: Padraig Harrington. Although the Irishman didn't win his British Open title with Woods breathing down his neck like the previous two major champions, he does understand the notion of all players looking out for No. 1. And he disagrees with it. "I think more players are capable of winning a major now," Harrington said. "Besides the one standout player, because a lot of other players are capable of winning majors, there's no point in me looking at one person and thinking he's a rival. Just so many people out there that you're competitive with. "So I think it was easier to know who your competitors were back in the '80s. My competitor on the golf course is me, always. I'm always trying to win the battle with myself." Even in the Tiger Woods Era, that seems to be the prevailing theme. On any given week, any player is beatable, and by anyone else. Perhaps we should call it the Deep Field Era, too. Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.
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