There are two ideas we need to come to terms with if we're going to look realistically at the unbelievable fortune of golf in the year 2015:
Idea A: Tiger is finished. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about this that made a lot of people very angry after the British Open, and while the tone was a snarky response to the endless, obsessive questions about the state of his game that a complicit media facilitated -- in the face of far more compelling stories -- I meant what I said. With Tiger's 40th birthday looming in December, you'd be wildly optimistic to expect him to win one more major, and a fool to believe he can win two. (I'm not allowed to print the applicable insult if you still think he has a prayer at tying Nicklaus' record.)
Idea B: There will never be another Tiger. The confluence of many factors -- including his race, his background, the hype leading up to the beginning of his career, the way he fulfilled and exceeded the hype with passion and charisma, the spectacle surrounding his downfall, and even his brief resurgence -- made Tiger a larger-than-life figure who cannot and will not be duplicated. He was an icon and a giant, and we're not going to see his like ever again in golf.
If we ground ourselves in reality and accept those two premises, it's possible to envision an answer to the sport's critical question: How do we replace him?
Using that question as our guide, let's travel back in time to January 2015, as the real season began, and pretend we have no idea how the year played out. In a perfect world, how would you script 2015?
Here are my answers.
1. Rory McIlroy can't win a major. Since there is nobody who can replace Tiger, we don't want anybody to try. If Rory wins even one more major in 2015, he asserts his dominance as the star of the younger generation, and the rest of us start to seriously wonder whether he can catch Tiger, or even Jack. But let's remember the dirty secret of the Tiger Woods era, which is that he had no rivals, and the few majors wins that were actually competitive came against nobodies. It didn't matter -- he was Tiger, and watching him win was enough. Rory is not Tiger, and if his career took on a Tiger-like trajectory, it would produce the same boring narrative but without the unique, once-in-a-lifetime star power that Tiger embodied. Golf does not want to place its future in the hands of a poor man's Tiger -- especially a non-American version.
2. The early season features PGA Tour wins by young rising stars, and the start of a phenomenon I like to call "Tiger-by-committee," where a group of interesting young players, rather than just one, produces a climate of perpetual rivalry and fills the vacuum left by Tiger en masse. If we accept that no single player can accomplish that goal, then we need a pack. We need guys like Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, and Dustin Johnson to win.
3. Jordan Spieth should win the Masters, and out-duel an established veteran on Sunday. Considering how close he came in 2014, and the name he's already made for himself as a very young, very incredible talent, he's the man that needs to carry the banner for the Americans. He needs to break through fast -- we don't have the luxury of giving him five or six years to finally figure it out, in the Fowler or Day mode, and we certainly can't wait a decade, as we had to do with Rose and Scott. He needs to win now, or there's no credible alternative to Rory.
4. Jason Day and Rickie Fowler need to win big tournaments. They're two of the most charismatic personalities the sport has to offer under the age of 30, and they've both shown that they have the talent to win a major. They've also shown an inability to close when they get close, and the last thing we want is two more Sergios whining their way past 30. Neither are old enough to hold a negative reputation, but again, they're indispensable to the future of golf, and time is of the essence -- establishing a Tiger-by-committee requires these types of stars to pose a real threat, over and over again, and there can be no real threat without real victory.
5. We need a terrific finish with a big name at the Players Championship to solidify the idea that even though the PGA Tour's flagship event doesn't quite reach major status, this is an important tournament with high stakes and high drama.
6. Around and between the majors, we need big names like Jim Furyk, Justin Rose, Rory, Bubba Watson, and Jimmy Walker to win events. Wins by no-names are inevitable, but in terms of sustaining interest in the off-weeks and ensuring the continued allure of the PGA Tour, the fewer, the better.
7. We need a storyline that keeps people watching at every major event. It would be crazy to expect somebody to have a legitimate shot at a Grand Slam, but if there were any kind of irresistible thread running through the season, it would be a huge bonus.
8. Something weird has to happen with Dustin Johnson to stir dramatic interest after his return from his susp...uh...leave of absence.
9. A new player needs to inherit the No. 1 spot in the world, so that even with the rest of the perfect results playing out, it creates a sense of anticipation for the FedEx Cup and the 2016 season.
10. Fox has to prove itself as the golf network we've all been waiting for, with spectacular U.S. Open coverage that doesn't rely on Vertigo-related sensationalism and where the dialogue flows smoothly between analysts with real chemistry.
OK, I'm kidding about that last one. But as for the rest, it all sounds pretty familiar, doesn't it? I'll admit to a certain amount of bias -- I wrote a book about emergence of the younger generation, featuring many of the players who came through in 2015 -- but I don't think it diminishes the objective truth here, which is that with the year's majors wrapped up, the powers-that-be in golf must be absolutely ecstatic.
It's almost frightening how well things worked out, right down to the last Sunday -- there are very few better results at Whistling Straits than Day beating Spieth, and Spieth inheriting the world No. 1 anyway. Maybe Fowler winning. Maybe Rory beating Spieth. Maybe Obama invading Wisconsin and all four golfers leading a citizens' militia against the government and inspiring a worldwide revolution that leads to unending peace and prosperity. Aside from that unlikely scenario, it doesn't get much better than what actually happened.
Like every athlete who has ever joined Twitter, golf has been blessed. And since we're riding a hot hand, let's finish with one final request for the universe:
11. Something interesting happens at the FedEx Cup.
Give me Fowler, Patrick Reed, or Billy Horschel to propel one of them somewhere near the dizzy heights that Spieth, Rory, and Day now occupy, and let's steer this healthy, happy ship of state into 2016.