Spot Tiger Woods a four-stroke lead going into the final round — at his own tournament, no less — and the winner's check is a gimme.
At least, it used to be.
Not only did Woods fail to cash in at the Chevron World Challenge earlier this month, he went the entire year without winning a single tournament, a first in his career and a drought unthinkable just 13 months ago. But Woods was hardly the only one to have a rough year. From Brett Favre to Roger Federer to Derek Jeter to the Texas Longhorns, many of the old reliables looked, well, old.
It's a new decade, and the sports stars are bound to change. In many ways, 2010 felt like the year the big shift began.
Sure, Woods will (probably) win again and Michael Phelps is in no danger of being lapped. Yet their struggles, coupled with the emergence of some new phenoms, have given us a glimpse of what the sports world might look like a few years down the road.
Imagine a Super Bowl where Clay Matthews III is chasing down Sam Bradford or Andrew Luck. Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler battling it out for golf's No. 1 ranking, perhaps. Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and John Wall could be the NBA's Big Three for the 20teens.
"The takeaway on the competition side of 2010, more than anything else, was the tremendous interest in young players coming up," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said earlier this month. "I've never in my tenure seen so much buzz and interest about rookies and young players creating exciting performances. Actually, it has led us to conclude that we really need to focus on that dynamic as we go into 2011."
Before we say goodbye to 2010, however, let's take a look at some oldies, and a few who may be the new goodies:
The Thanksgiving night car crash in 2009 that revealed Woods' infidelities wrecked his marriage and made a mess of his personal life. No surprise the turmoil spilled over into his golf game, too. At one point, Woods went seven starts without a top-10 finish, the longest stretch of his career. He posted the worst score of his PGA Tour career with an 18-over 298 at Bridgestone, a place he's won seven times.
And on Oct. 31, for the first time in 281 weeks, someone other than Woods was No. 1 in the world.
Woods' divorce was finalized in late August. With help from new swing coach Sean Foley, his golf game is slowly taking shape again. He had back-to-back top-10 finishes at the HSBC Champions at Shanghai and Australian Masters, then was in contention for the first time this year at Chevron. But Woods couldn't keep it together, blowing that four-shot lead and losing to Graeme McDowell on the first hole of a playoff.
Favre insists he is done after this year, and he might really mean it this time.
He might not have a choice.
A season of hard hits, broken bones and missed chances has taken its toll on the former MVP, topped by the sprained throwing shoulder he got when the Bills' Arthur Moats decleated him. That ended the QB's epic streak of consecutive starts at 297.
"Relief, in one sense. There wasn't a whole lot of pressure on me today," Favre said after his first game on the sidelines since 1992. "I'd much rather be playing, that's just my nature. I don't want to say it was time, but it's probably been long overdue. There's probably been a lot of times the streak should have ended."
He made one last rally, returning a week later to start against the Chicago Bears, only to be knocked out of the game, suffering what he called a concussion when he was slammed to the frigid turf.
Federer opened the year by winning his 16th major title at the Australian Open but didn't look very mighty in the months that followed.
The French Open is the major that has given Federer the most trouble over the years, but his loss to Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros was simply stunning. It had been six years since he'd failed to reach the semifinals at a major, a record span of 23 straight Grand Slams.
An even bigger shock was in store at Wimbledon, where the six-time champion was beaten handily in the quarters by Tomas Berdych. It was the first time since 2002 he'd failed to reach the final at the All England Club. The loss also dropped him to No. 3 in the rankings, the first time since November 2003 he'd been that low.
Federer then lost to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at the U.S. Open, unable to hold his lead when he was up two sets to one and again when he was a point from victory in the fifth set.
Jeter continues to be the poster boy for athlete decorum — "I was pretty angry" was the worst he could muster after the New York Yankees pointed out his advancing age and declining numbers during contract negotiations — but the Yankees have a point. The plays come fast and furious at shortstop and, at 36, Jeter's arm and legs have a lot of innings on them.
His numbers at the plate were down significantly last season, too.
"You'd like to think that last year was a hiccup, I guess," Jeter said. "But it's my job to go out there and prove that it was."
With the London Olympics still 18 months away, Phelps didn't need to be in gold-medal form. Still, it's strange to see the 14-time Olympic champion race and not win. Ryan Lochte beat Phelps in the 200 individual medley and 200 backstroke finals at the U.S. championships, then won six gold medals to Phelps' five at the Pan Pacific championships.
Because, as these athletes reminded us this year, there's always some newcomer ready to step in:
- It's a challenge for any rookie quarterback to adapt to the NFL, let alone one who carries the burden of being the No. 1 draft pick and is recovering from shoulder surgery. But Bradford has managed quite nicely and is giving St. Louis Rams fans reason to cheer — something they haven't had in a long, long time. Even if the Rams miss the playoffs, this season has been a huge improvement from last year's 1-15 finish.
- If the Green Bay Packers make the playoffs, much of the credit will have to go to Matthews. The former USC walk-on has developed into one of the NFL's best linebackers, and he was so disruptive the first half of the season he generated some MVP buzz. Keep this up, and father Clay Jr., the Cleveland Browns great, soon will be the family's second-best linebacker.
- All Durant did last season was become the youngest scoring champion in NBA history, take the Thunder to the playoffs for the first time since they moved to Oklahoma City and lead the U.S. to a gold medal at the world championships. While LeBron James was thumbing his nose at Cleveland in favor of Miami's glitz and glamour, Durant quietly re-upped with Oklahoma City.
Rose, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NBA draft, has emerged as one of the league's best point guards and fellow John Calipari protege Wall, the top pick last summer, appears to be following close behind.
Not to take anything away from their accomplishments on the course, which were considerable, but McIlroy and Fowler's best results might have come in Rookie of the Year voting. Fowler won, but the debate that raged over the vote and whether McIlroy got snubbed showed golf will have plenty to offer in the post-Tiger era.
Whenever that may be.