There is no more powerful cultural signifier of athletic dominance than a video game cover. Whosever visage graces the casing of an annual EA Sports product is understood to be the star in his or her domain, literally the poster child of that sport. Beginning in the late 1990s, shortly after his breakthrough year of 1997, Tiger Woods quite rightly adorned the cover of 16 straight EA Sports golf games named after him. He was by far the sport’s best and most popular player for nearly all of these years. Though he’s now hundreds of world ranking spots away from being its best player, he remains its most popular.
Woods and EA Sports ended their partnership in late 2013, even though Tiger had just delivered his best season since the Incident. The game manufacturer did not release an edition in 2014 as it tried to determine where to take the franchise. When it returned in early 2015, the game was rebranded under the figure presumed to be Tiger’s heir: Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy.
It made sense. McIlroy—who since approximately age 18 had been prophesied as the next Tiger—fully arrived in 2014 after a lackluster 2013. He won the season’s final two major championships, the European Tour’s prestigious BMW PGA Championship, and his first World Golf Championship, solidifying his world No. 1 ranking. He backed up his solid 2014 with a strong first half to the 2015 season, posting three worldwide wins and a Top 5 finish in the Masters. But then a soccer injury cut his momentum off at the ankles.
Now McIlroy’s stellar play for much of the year won’t even go down as a footnote when looking back at 2015. No one is even talking about him as the season-ending Tour Championship gets underway at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. Two other players, of whom much had also been expected, roughly equaled McIlroy’s 2014 season and took turns claiming the No. 1 ranking that had previously belonged to him.
Jordan Spieth, the college-age phenom from Dallas, won the season’s first two major championships, missed a playoff by one stroke in the third, and finished runner-up in the fourth. Spieth’s reign as the sport’s alpha and official world No. 1 didn’t last too long, though. Immediately after Jason Day’s own near miss at the Open Championship—where he tied with Spieth for fourth, one shot out of a playoff—Day began winning in torrid fashion. Since mid-July, the Australian has won four of his six starts, including the season’s final major and two of three PGA Tour playoff events. He won all of these fairly easily. Day enters East Lake as the world’s top player.
The emergence of McIlroy, Spieth, and Day has the golf industry swooning. As the age of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson wanes, a new generational rivalry has supposedly arrived to grow the game among casual golf viewers.
But in observing this blooming clash of titans, it’s important to consider one thing: “Rivalries” just don’t happen in golf the same way they do in other sports, if they happen at all. This fact might pour some cold water on the expectations of those who believe that we may be in for a new golden age of growing golf fandom.
Golf is measured less in eras of rivalry than in eras of dominance. That dominance went from Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods. But one player was always in command. The sport’s most famous on-course rivalry, between Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, really only spanned about half a decade in the 1960s. Those years are more appropriately viewed as the first leg of the Nicklaus age, a 20-year period during which Palmer gave way to Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson, and others as temporary foils to the game’s greatest champion.
The iconic “rivalry” of the past 20 years, between Woods and Mickelson, was no such thing. Not once did the two compete in any meaningful way during the back nine of a major championship—perhaps exempting the 1999 U.S. Open, when Payne Stewart defeated them both. Mickelson never got as close to displacing Woods as David Duval or Vijay Singh did in their ephemeral glimpses at the top; Woods’ rivalry with Bob May, which lasted all of one spectacular tournament in 2000, produced more drama in a single Sunday afternoon than Tiger v. Phil did in two decades.
Rivalries don’t stand out in golf for a simple reason: aside from match play competitions, players don’t play against each other. Nearly every tennis Grand Slam of the past decade-plus has featured some combination of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic going head to head. In golf’s majors, the world’s 125 or so best players—any of whom can get hot, or cold, in less time than it’s taken me to write this sentence—are bunched together. If your ability to visualize putts runs afoul by a millimeter, you can miss a cut and are no longer a rival in that event. McIlroy, Spieth, and Day may remain the tour’s three best players for some time, but the fickle nature of the game ensures that they won’t finish 1-2-3 in every major championship during that stretch.
Since the weekend leaderboard is so unpredictable heading into any given tournament, high viewership from casual fans hinges on maintaining at least one constant. At his peak, Tiger Woods could always be relied upon, winning an astonishing one-quarter of his career starts; if he held a third-round lead heading into Sunday, he went on to win nearly 100 percent of the time. Jack Nicklaus exceeded Woods in his dominance at the majors, famously posting 19 runner-up finishes to go alongside his all-time best 18 victories.
Golf succeeds as a monopoly, when it maintains one cover star for an extended period that can tangle with a rotating cast of characters. So far no figure from this new supremely talented, deep generation that grew up with Woods has been able to break from the pack for a prolonged, consistent period. Outside core golf fans, the game still belongs to Tiger Woods, as reflected by the number of eyeballs that flipped to CBS to watch him hack it around at a dinky space-filler tournament last month. Only one player can snatch it from him. Three’s a crowd.