Golf is more about the competing against the course than other competitors.  But the course is not fixed…it’s a living, breathing organism.  Conditions are fair but not equal.  Wind can sometimes turn on a dime. The sun at 10am is different from the sun at 6pm. Rain can extend a round into the next day…with a tight turnaround for those finishing late.  And a full day of tread can wear down a fairway or green…for better or worse. And those are only the physical conditions.

Golf exists on multiple planes–including the now, the future and the forever. While everyone in this past weekend’s field was competing towards this year…a handfull were fighting two-front wars. And for some, the results won’t be known for a while. Because although everyone was playing the same course at Merion Golf Club–there were many courses competed upon.

Justin Rose was competing against a course of possibilities. Although the thirtysomething had built up a mild resume of sporadic victories plus occasional top five major finishes, his Sunday 71 secured him a spot as a Major Champion. Despite the stigma of “one over par”…Rose has his major.  He doesn’t have to retire wondering what he could have done differently…and anything else he accomplishes is gravy.

Meanwhile, the likes of Adam Scott, Charl Schwartzel and Jim Furyk plus all the other one-time major champs were competing for gravy this past weekend.  Nobody who has a #1 hit wants to remain a one-hit wonder… just ask Dexy’s Midnight Runners.  Now instead of leaving the club-they have to welcome a new member.

Rory Mcilroy was competing against the course of rollercoaster expectations.  He’s got major wins and major meltdowns on his resume…and an underwhelming 2013 where things just don’t seem to be clicking.  And he’s still getting used to those new Nike clubs.  Remember after his US Open win at Congressional how silly the world was getting over him?  Since then it’s been one feast and more than a few famines:  his 2012 PGA Championship win was by 8 shots (just like his 2011 US Open victory) but he also posted 25th and 60th place finishes at the British Open, 25th and 40th place finishes at the Masters, a 64th place showing at the PGA and last year’s missed cut at the US Open before this year’s 41st place showing.  While nobody thinks he’ll be the next David Duval, you’d think the 2nd ranked golfer in the world would have at least more than one top 20 finish in two years.

Phil Mickelson was competing against a course of ghosts…runner-up finishes in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2011 marking his career as much as his three Masters and one PGA Championship win.  If he had won Sunday it would have been a fitting finish to a career that saw his first serious challenge for a major under the shadow of his wife due to give birth…because that child became the 14-year-old whose 8th grade graduation speech he caught before flying overnight to make his first round tee time.  Can you imagine if he had won?  Rumors of David Stern leaving the NBA for the USGA would certainly gain traction.  If Phil had held on Sunday he would have won on his birthday as well as Father’s Day.  Instead he continues down the final fairways of his career (this is just the 3rd time in 12 majors he’s posted a top 10 finish–a far cry from his peak period of 2004-06 when he notched 8 top 10’s and 3 wins over 10 majors) with the great prize eluding him.  

Tiger Woods was competing against a course of history…while fighting off a narrowing window.  A few years ago it appeared as though reaching Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships would be a cinch…but now his drought has reached 5 years and counting.   And every tournament he doesn’t win gives one cause to think that 2008 wasn’t the most recent one…but the last one.  Tiger was 32 that day at Torrey Pines…and while Jack Nicklaus won 9 of his 18 after turning 32, there’s no guarantee of continued greatness.  Arnold Palmer was only 34 when he notched his last major victory at the 1964 Masters.  Tom Watson’s run to double-digit titles was derailed in the early 80’s–his last win coming at age 33 in the 1983 British Open.  I know Tiger’s in great shape and is extremely focused on his game-and you’d think his winning window would last up to around age 50-but nobody thought Palmer and Watson would stop winning when they did.  And now with a strained elbow Tiger tries to get healthy for the British Open.  Jack Nicklaus had two distinct eras of dominance (1962-67 and 1970-75) where he won 7 majors;  followed by 4 victories in the sunset of his career (1978-86).  Tiger’s enjoyed two peak eras (8 major wins from 1997-2002 and 6 from 2005-08)…and one wonders not when the next run will occur but if we’ve missed the sunset somehow.

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