The Tour Championship begins today, and it's the first time since 1992 that neither Tiger Woods nor Phil Mickelson qualified. We are, by any reasonable observer, toward the tail-end of a generational torch-passing at the top. The world's No. 1 certainly qualifies as a reasonable observer.
Rory McIlroy was asked about the absence of Woods and Mickelson, the latter especially visible—Mickelson withdrew halfway through last week's BMW Championship, under penalty of fine, because it was clear he wouldn't take the top-four finish he needed to qualify for the Tour Championship. Woods has missed extended time with injury; neither has won on the PGA Tour this year.
Considering that, and considering their ages—Woods is 38, Mickelson 44—McIlroy was pretty complimentary.
"Phil has played well in parts this year," he said. "I feel like he's gotten a little better as the year has went on. ... Tiger is not here just because he's been injured, or he is injured. He hasn't had the opportunity to play. But I think if he gets back, and when he gets back to full fitness, you'll see him back here again. They're just getting older. They're getting into the last few holes of their career. And that's what happens."
This turned out to be slightly controversial, almost certainly among those who are still struggling with the idea that golf must face a future without the man who singlehandedly made it a mainstream sport, and his chief foil. Which is an entirely natural reaction—golf without Tiger or Phil is inconceivable to anyone under 30, and slightly terrifying for those dependent on the health of the sport.
Which doesn't make McIlroy wrong! It's just uncomfortable to hear one of the most likely candidates for the next face of the sport put in such stark terms. So I'm glad that, in the face of blowback, McIlroy didn't back off his comments. In fact, he went with a different golf metaphor, just to make sure he got his point across.
It's going to be weird and scary and maybe even boring without Tiger and Phil. But golf could do a lot worse than what it's got now.