Eight feet away a new era awaited. That was the length of a putt that a stone-faced young German stood over late on a gray Saturday afternoon in the high desert north of Tucson. Funny, he had a putt of the same length to win his first major championship six months earlier in a far-off dairyland called Wisconsin. Odder still, lurking nearby, watching with chagrin, was the same lanky, lefthanded opponent with the homemade swing and bewildered smile.
Martin Kaymer poured in this putt at the Ritz-Carlton course at Dove Mountain just as he had at Whistling Straits last August. That earlier putt closed out Bubba Watson on the first hole of sudden death and won the PGA Championship, and promised bigger things for an impressive young achiever who was only 25.
This putt, before a considerably smaller and more sedate gallery in the saguaro-dotted (and briefly snow-covered) Arizona foothills, at first glance meant less. The putt knocked out the affable Watson—this time on the 18th green in the Accenture Match Play Championship—but didn't spell victory. The putt advanced Kaymer to the final match, where the next day he lost 3 and 2 to Luke Donald of England in the $8.5 million World Golf Championship showcase. More important, the win over America's new most famous man named Bubba ensured that Kaymer would pass Lee Westwood and ascend to golf's slipperiest pinnacle—the No. 1 spot in the World Ranking. And so the torch was passed.
It was a great ride for the last 15 years, gang, but the Tiger Woods--Phil Mickelson era has never felt so over. A new generation of stars, led by Kaymer and fueled last week by Rickie Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Matteo Manassero and Ryo Ishikawa, to name a few, pushed golf into a new phase.
No pass-the-baton moment seemed so obvious as when the 22-year-old Fowler drubbed Mickelson 6 and 5 in a second-round match. On this day Fowler's rainbow-sherbet ensemble featured hot-pink shoes, shirt and hat, and he radiated so much energy that Mickelson, even decked out in a loud orange shirt of his own, looked tired by comparison, and worse, ordinary. Mickelson needled Fowler that one of his daughters has similar pink shoes: "She wears them to dance class." But it was Fowler who tangoed the heartiest, ending the match at the par-5 13th hole by rocketing a four-iron shot to two feet for a conceded eagle—just the kind of heroics a certain lefty used to perform.
Woods departed even earlier, failing to make it past the first round. He looked like his old self for an instant, holing a must-make 10-footer for birdie on the 18th to square his match against Thomas Bjorn of Denmark. But then he drove a three-wood into the desert on the first extra hole and eventually conceded. Asked by NBC reporter Roger Maltbie where he was with his game as he continues to overhaul his swing, Woods shot back, "Pissed. That's where I'm at right now."
NBC analyst Johnny Miller compared Tiger's situation to that of ex--heavyweight champ Mike Tyson. "Sort of invincible, scared everybody, performed under pressure," Miller said, "until Buster Douglas came along."
We're not entirely sure who will define this new era—Kaymer, Westwood, U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell or a young gun to be named later. We simply know that the days of Tiger and Phil as the players to beat week in and week out have gone the way of pay phones and square grooves.
The top four players in the World Ranking are Europeans: Kaymer, Westwood, Donald and McDowell. That hasn't happened since March 1992, when the first four were Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo, José María Olazábal and Seve Ballesteros. The continent where the game began has climbed back on top, a slow-building trend that culminated in the Donald-trumps-Kaymer finale outside Tucson. Overall, seven of the top 13 players in the world are Europeans. Clearly, the U.S. is lagging.
"Take Tiger Woods away from the 1,050 weeks of the World Ranking history, and an American player has occupied the top spot for only 32 weeks," says Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. "That tells you all you need to know. The U.S. doesn't have the best golfers in the world anymore, we have the most good golfers. I'm not denigrating American players. The Europeans are simply that good."