By Andrew Both
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (Reuters) - A major season that began with the Masters favorite falling down stairs ended with one of the game’s best young players capturing the PGA Championship, a reminder of the ephemeral nature of the most unpredictable of sports.
Dustin Johnson was the focus of the golf world on the eve of the Masters, coming off three successive victories, having ascended to the world number one ranking and for a few months an unstoppable juggernaut.
Four months later, Johnson is almost a peripheral figure and Justin Thomas is the talk of the town, though the latter barely figured in discussions on the eve of the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow which finished on Sunday.
Instead, the media was obsessed with Jordan Spieth’s quest to surpass Tiger Woods as the youngest man to complete the career grand slam, while Rory McIlroy was the pre-tournament favorite, at least in the eyes of those who like to place money on the outcome.
But Spieth was never a factor at Quail Hollow, while McIlroy ended the week saying he might take an extended break in an effort to deal with pain in his back and left arm.
How do you make sense of it all? It’s golf, a sport where almost every major offers a different cast of lead characters, and nobody takes the starring role more than occasionally.
“We won one of the majors,” said British Open champion Spieth, the 'we' referring to himself and his caddie.
“I understand that’s a great year in the majors. If I did this every year, I would go down as the greatest player ever to have played the game.
“Winning them is so difficult you can have a fantastic year without winning a major. Look at what Tiger (Woods) did in 2013. He won five events, including a Players Championship (but did not win a major).”
Masters champion Sergio Garcia does not need to be told how difficult it is to win a major. The former teenage phenomenon was 0-for-73 until he beat Justin Rose in a playoff at Augusta.
“I did think about am I ever going to win one?” Garcia said after putting on the prized green jacket. “I've had so many good chances and either I lost them or someone has done something extraordinary to beat me. So it did cross my mind.”
Brooks Koepka blew away the field in the final round to win the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, while Spieth produced an astonishing finish -- five-under over a four-hole stretch -- to edge Matt Kuchar at the British Open.
The PGA Championship, which plodded along laboriously for three days, suddenly came to life on the back nine on Sunday, with five tied for the lead at one stage before 24-year-old Thomas emerged triumphant.
Golf fans must now wait eight long months for the next major, during which time the spotlight will turn again to Irishman McIlroy and his quest to become the sixth man to complete the modern grand slam.
So who will be the next player to join the major champions club -- Hideki Matsuyama? Rickie Fowler? Jon Rahm?
Maybe it will be one of that trio, but it just as likely to be someone barely on the radar right now. That’s golf.
(Reporting by Andrew Both; editing by Ken Ferris)