Nearly two years into the post-fire-hydrant era, golf is still searching for its identity. Tiger Woods, 35, remains diminished as an icon and a competitor. Phil Mickelson, 41, could have owned the sport, but he has been sidetracked by health scares—his and those of loved ones—and an early onset of the yips, which has left him desperately experimenting with the game's latest fad, the belly putter. In this vacuum, golf is trying to reinvent itself through globalization, young talent and some familiar faces we gave up on long ago. All those forces collided last week.
Woods returned to action at the Frys.com Open after two months of rehabbing assorted leg injuries and further retooling his swing. Whether he reclaims his former glory remains one of sport's most compelling mysteries, which explains the record crowds at CordeValle Golf Club, in San Martin, Calif., and the wall-to-wall coverage on Golf Channel of what is otherwise a playing-out-the-string tournament for golf's journeymen. But, as has been the case throughout Woods's two-year victory drought, his performance relegated him to a sideshow. His putting—which once separated him from everyone else—has been erratic for a while and was downright awful in a two-over-par 73 last Thursday. Woods scored better in the ensuing three rounds, all 68s, but was still haunted by some alarmingly loose shots. He finished a distant 30th, 10 strokes behind winner Bryce Molder, who beat Briny Baird in a six-hole sudden-death playoff.
More intriguing, in fact, was the resurgent play of Ernie Els, the Hall of Famer who is now also brandishing a belly putter. Els, who tied for fourth in San Martin, had the misfortune of having to compete against Woods when Woods was at his overpowering best, and suffered accordingly. So did Adam Scott and Sergio García, once broken men who are also showing new signs of life. A Woods comeback remains golf's best-case scenario, but it's also riveting to watch these other proud champions toil to get back to where they once were.
In this age of parity, a handful of new stars have emerged, none bigger than Rory McIlroy, 22. At last week's Korea Open, the game's boy king finished second as he continues his fine play since a breakthrough victory at the U.S. Open. But the real story in Korea was the guy who beat McIlroy: Rickie Fowler, 22, the flamboyantly dressed, Hollywood-handsome young American who has had everything to offer his public but a professional victory. The intensely driven Fowler can now focus on closing the gap on McIlroy, a juicy rivalry that goes back to the 2007 Walker Cup.
Fowler's ascension would be particularly welcome given that the top three spots in the World Ranking, and six of the top eight, are held by non-Americans. (The highest-ranked Yank is Steve Stricker, 44, who has never won a major and was recently diagnosed with a herniated disk in his neck.) For the rest of this year the most interesting golf will be played in China, Australia, South Africa and Dubai. Woods will be largely out of the picture, but golf fans are getting used to that. In the meantime, there are plenty of other compelling story lines to carry the sport.