Compiling a list of the 15 best golfers of a generation and labeling it the 'Tiger Woods Era' might seem slightly disrespectful to the other 14 golfers on that list. But how else do you really define a period of time that brought such formidable sporting dominance from one man?
Several things happened in 1996 that marked an epoch in golf. Faldo won his final major. Norman blew up one last time and begin his descent from the pinnacle of the world rankings the following year. Seve failed to make an impression on world golf for the first time in 20 years. And Tiger Woods' turned pro and changed everything. From then on, any golfer who aspired to win major titles needed to raise their game just that little bit higher. So, exactly who went along with Tiger for the ride? That question is the basis of this article.
There are no prizes for guessing who is top dog in this lexicon of greatness. Never will a list in ascending order produce less anticipation for the revealing of the number one spot. But we ain't here to pick a solitary winner. This is a list of champions. It charts the best of the best: golf's finest practitioners in the sunset of the last millennium and the dawn of the new century.
For the purpose of this article, we'll define the Tiger era as 1996 to the present day. Many would argue that this era came to a close in 2008 or 2009. But Tiger still prowls menacingly in the world top ten. Few sports fans would be foolish enough to bet against him adding to his tally of 14 major championships. In 2012, he is still golf's biggest draw and its highest earner. His dominance may be dead, or on hiatus, but the era continues.
You might wonder how one goes about compiling such a list? Certainly it is not based on an exact science, although we have numerous criteria at our disposal such as major victories, world golf ranking standings, tour victories and money won. A very high degree of subjectivity is involved. Perhaps you disagree with some of my choices? Please leave your opinion in the comments section at the end.
Without further ado, let's get started...
***All figures and statistics in this article are correct as of July 2012***
# 15. Rory McIlroy
A slightly controversial choice at #15 given his relatively recent appearance among golf's elite. But despite having only been a professional since 2007, Rory McIlory has already sealed big wins on the US and European Tours and generated comparisons with the younger Tiger Woods.
The manner of his victory in the 2011 US Open at Congressional was stunning. Only two months earlier at the Masters, McIlroy squandered a four shot lead in the final round. The green jacket had dangled tantalizingly close that Sunday afternoon but was snatched away as his swing and concentration disintegrated on the back nine at Augusta. The cruel nature of his Masters blow-up left many commentators pondering how long it would take the young star to recover. Few would have expected him to bounce back at the US Open with such assurance. His eight shot victory was undoubtedly the performance of the year and perhaps the greatest four rounds of golf since Woods left the entire field competing for second place in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach.
In March 2012 McIlroy topped the World Golf Rankings for the first time, becoming only the 16th man to reach such giddy heights since the inception of the official ranking system in 1986. He is also the second youngest behind Woods.
If fate has nominated a successor to Woods, Rory McIlroy is the likely candidate. There could well be a sequel to this article in 2025 titled: "The 15 Best Golfers of the Rory McIlroy Era". But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Golf can be a cruel sport and many a young star has been chewed up by the professional game. But with McIlroy's ball striking talent and self-assurance, he should be among the best for many years to come.
# 14. Luke Donald
England's Luke Donald did the unthinkable in 2011 and finished as leading money winner on both the PGA and European Tours. Zipping back and forth across the Atlantic that year, he won three times in his home continent and twice in America. A narrow loss in a play-off to Brant Snedeker in The Heritage prevented him from balancing his trans-Atlantic title haul with three apiece.
Donald's achievement should not be understated. Finishing first on either tour is hard enough. Topping both in the same year is the stuff of legends. Many of the game's top commentators have suggested that we'll probably never see it happening again, such is the freakishness of it.
Donald is something of an old school golfer. His lack of length from the tee is redeemed by an exquisite short game and uncanny feel for the greens. He moves the ball around the toughest courses with the same use of systematic maneuvering and risk analysis that a chess grandmaster employs to plot the downfall of his opponent.
Donald is currently enjoying his fourth stint atop golf's world rankings, amassing 53 weeks on that coveted pedestal since he first arrived at the summit a year earlier. A lack of success in the major championships leaves him languishing at 14th on our list but at 34 years old, time is still on his side. Expect to see him in contention at a British or US Open in the near future.
# 13. David Toms
At number thirteen on our list is David Toms, a man who has achieved phenomenal success on the PGA Tour without ever really stamping his name on the pantheon of super stardom. That Toms isn't a household name outside of golfing families is slightly peculiar considering that he currently lies in 7th place on the PGA Tour all-time money list with almost $40m. If someone had asked you to name those Top 10 all-time money winners, would you have included Toms in your list?
With 13 PGA titles to his name since 1997 including the 2001 PGA Championship and 2005 WGC Matchplay, Toms deserves his place among the 15 elite golfers of this generation. He might not hit the ball a hundred miles, dress in flamboyant clothing, possess a quirky name or unorthodox swing. Instead he lets his golf do the talking, grinding out millions of dollars and the occasional big tournament victory in the process.
Toms has never risen higher than #5 in the world rankings which is probably a reflection of his rather average showing in major championships - his victory at the '01 PGA being the exception.
# 12. Adam Scott
Adam Scott is the best player to come out of Australia since the colossal Greg Norman went into semi-retirement. Scott is to Australia what Lee Westwood is to England and what Sergio Garcia is to Spain. In Norman, Faldo and Ballesteros, those three countries produced the three eminent golfers of the pre-Woods era.
National expectations for the trio of young pretenders were always going to be high but it is perhaps Scott who has shouldered the greater burden of hope, given Australia's reputation for sporting excellence and the fact that Norman always seemed to lose his game in major championships when it mattered most.
Scott has had a pretty good stab at filling Norman's shoes, winning consistently on both the US and European Tours since 2001. He has some very big wins to his name, most notably The Players Championship in 2004, the Tour Championship in 2006 and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in 2011. He has regularly appeared in the top ten of the World Golf Rankings, climbing as high as third in 2007.
Scott is yet to find much success in major championships. At one stage, it looked like he would break through at the 2011 Masters but like so many others, no sooner had he got his nose in front on the back nine on the final day, he promptly dropped back into the pack again. Scott is still in his early 30s, has a great swing and Steve Williams on his bag. Expect much more from him over the next decade.
# 11. Davis Love III
The elegantly named Davis Love III is one of golf's perennial players, having been a contender in PGA Tour events since the mid eighties. Although half of his 20 victories on the PGA Tour came before 1997, his success continued well into the Tiger era.
Being the son of a respected golf professional and instructor, Love was introduced to the game early but also played competitive ice hockey in his younger days. After excelling on the college golf circuit, he turned professional in 1985 and secured his tour card the very same year.
His proudest moment came in the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot where his five shot victory over Justin Leonard earned him his first major victory. Prior to Winged Foot, many golf observers felt that Love was the best player in the world never to have won a major. Further majors have failed to follow since that solitary win in 1997 but Love currently stands at #6 on the all-time money list on the PGA Tour with over $41m.
Love was one the last players to swap his old persi