It was the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who wrote in 1849 “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
That popularly translates as “the more things change, they more they stay the same.” Karr’s epigram is the perfect synopsis on the first month of the 2013 golf season.
A year that started with a celebration of 20-somethings classified as golf’s “now” generation has quickly reverted to old school. Dustin Johnson’s statement win in the season opener, Russell Henley’s record maiden performance and Rory McIlroy’s mega-hyped rebranding already seem like yesterday’s news now that the old guard has seized the stage.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson delivered back-to-back messages to golf’s youth movement that the winningest active golfers haven’t let go of the baton just yet. Their vintage performances at Torrey Pines and Phoenix have them both penciled in – again – as Masters Tournament favorites in two months.
“I’m excited about this year,” Woods said after his seventh career season-opening victory at Torrey Pines, a threshold that has delivered major-winning follow-ups five times prior.
“I think that sets up the tone for the rest of the year,” Mickelson said of his wire-to-wire romp in front of the most raucous galleries in golf.
No offense to the new blood that will be carrying the torch for the next couple of decades in golf, but Woods and Mickelson are still the gold standard. And as long as Woods keep redefining his game right back to the highest level, it will take more than McIlory putting on the swoosh logo to knock him off the pedestal of public opinion.
“If you’re looking at that brunch, over to the left there’s prime rib and it’s never going to change as long as Tiger Woods is playing golf,” said Brandel Chamblee, the former tour pro turned Golf Channel analyst. “His constant and complete reinvention of his game – disassembling, reconstructing and dominating the three or four times that he’s done that in his career – is the craziest thing in the history of the game. And him doing it again is perhaps the most dissonant thing in the history of the game. As long as Tiger Woods is playing golf, he’ll hold our interest far above anything else.”
A week after stealing overseas headlines by missing the cut in Abu Dhabi thanks to a rules violation, Woods and his Swing 4.0 were back to flirting with victory margins from his glory days of domination. He was eight clear of the field on his cliffside playground along the Pacific before the tedium of an absurdly slow Monday finish lulled him into a never-in-doubt four-shot win. His 75th career tour victory relaunched his campaign to chase down the milestones of Sam Snead (82 wins) and Jack Nicklaus (18 majors).
It has people already wondering where the mastering of his Sean Foley swing will rate against his two Butch Harmon and one Hank Haney version in the tournament body count.
“I’m not going to compare it to those years, because each one’s different,” Woods said. “I had a different swing then, just like I did back in ‘99, 2000, 2001. Those are all different swings. But the commonality is I won golf tournaments, and that’s what I’m doing again.”
So, too, is Mickelson, registering a tour victory in 20 different seasons (41 wins in all). Two weeks after stirring things up with a comment about making “drastic changes” because of his tax burden and a week after a drifting around his home course at Torrey without much fanfare, he danced along the edge of historical scoring records for four days in Phoenix.
His Thursday flirtation with 59 was brilliant theater right up until his putt horseshoed around the rim of the cup and left him smacking his palm against his head in disbelief. Then he just kept pouring in birdies that never left the door open for anyone to catch him on the weekend.
Mickelson credited his new Callaway driver for recharging his game.
“For me, the rest of the year took a turn on Tuesday when I got my new driver,” he said. “It just changed my whole deal. ... And now that I’m able to make the same swing with my irons as the driver and not to have two different ones, I feel like that’s going to make a monumental difference in my game and that I could potentially play some the best golf I have ever played.”
There’s a lot of season left for McIlroy, Louis Oosthuizen, Justin Rose, Brandt Snedeker and all the other stars in today’s game to leave their mark.
But they’ve been served notice that golf’s reigning Elvises have yet to leave the building.