August 10, 2008

A New No. 2? Not So Fast

Padraig wins his second straight major... but does it count without Tiger in the field?

"Harrington... has emerged as a master of emotions under pressure"

"Harrington... has emerged as a master of emotions under pressure"

So the answer to the question: "Who's going to take advantage of Tiger Woods' time away from the game" was shouted rather eloquently in an Irish brogue at Oakland Hills on Sunday as Padraig Harrington beat Sergio Garcia with an absolutely Tiger-like putting display down the stretch to win the PGA Championship. The answer, however, only raises another question: "Are we talking asterisk here?"

With his triumph last month in the British Open at Royal Birkdale, Harrington has won consecutive major championships and since winning last year's British Open has taken three of the last six majors. That's pretty impressive. But what's more impressive: winning one with Woods in the field or two with him on the sidelines? In the history of golf, only Tiger's domination has been so complete that such a question even need be asked.

Let's not sell Harrington short here. Winning major championships is difficult no matter who the competition is. Ultimately, winning a major is a Pogo-like competition. Remember the Walt Kelly comic strip featuring Pogo the possum that, among its pearls of wisdom, offered up this: "We have met the enemy, and they are us."

Winning a major is a lot about triumphing over your own doubts, fears and insecurities. At the age of 37, Harrington, who at one time struggled with those inner demons, has emerged as a master of emotions under pressure. He is also now to be considered in that conversation about the best players of the Woods Era not named Tiger. But for those who want to automatically elevate him to the top of the list, I say, "Slow down, Sparky."

Let's look at some numbers. There have been 48 majors played since Woods' first as a professional, the 1997 Masters. Tiger has won 14. Harrington now becomes one of three players who have taken three majors during that stretch, joining Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson. Ernie Els also has three major titles, but the first of those came in the 1994 U.S. Open, when Woods was winning the first of his three consecutive U.S. Amateur championships.

Harrington also joins Mark O'Meara (1998) as the only player to win two majors in a season during the Tiger Era, although O'Meara did it with Tiger in the field. The only other player with multiple majors since Woods turned pro is Retief Goosen, who won the U.S. Open in 2001 and '04. Nineteen players have gone one major and out since the 1997 season, although several (Jose Maria Olazabal, Payne Stewart and Lee Janzen -- all before the 2000 season) won BT (Before Tiger) as well as picking off one AT (After Tiger).

Here's another key factor to consider when evaluating the Woods also-rans. Before knee surgery after the U.S. Open ended Tiger's '08 season, there were two lulls in his career, both during stretches in which he was rebuilding his golf swing. Twice -- from the 1997 Masters until the 1999 PGA Championships and then again from the 2002 U.S. Open until the 2005 Masters -- Woods played in 10 consecutive majors without winning.

Interestingly, Els got both of his Tiger Era majors during those swing changes by Woods, winning the '97 U.S. Open and the '02 British. Singh got two of his three major titles during the Tiger lulls, taking the PGA Championship in '98 and '04. The other guy to take advantage of the less-than-his-A-game Tiger was O'Meara, who won the Masters and the British in '98.

Of the 14 players who won once during those 20 Tiger down-time majors, one is Mickelson. The significance of that is that Lefty is the only player to win multiple major championships with Woods both in the field and not undergoing a swing change. Say what you will about Mickelson's meltdowns, and sing the praises of Harrington's hot 13 months all you want, but Lefty is still the best player in the non-Tiger division, although you do have to wonder if that Winged Foot final-hole failure in the '06 U.S. Open might have taken the wind out of Phil's major-championship sails.

There won't be any asterisks in the history books detailing the majors won by Harrington while Woods was rehabbing his left leg, just as record books don't note that Cary Middlecoff won the 1949 U.S. Open while Ben Hogan -- who won the Open in 1948, '50 and '51 -- was in a hospital bed after his near-fatal car crash. But let's not jump to the conclusion that Harrington is now the second-best player in the world.

That is still very much a wide-open race waiting for someone to raise his head and shoulders above the crowd, although right now, for my money, that person is still Mickelson. One more major victory, however, with Tiger back in the field, and Harrington can lay claim to the title of Best in the Majors in the Tiger Era Not Named Tiger. But not yet, Sparky. There may not be asterisks, but there are still questions.