Jordan Spieth just turned 22. Rory McIlroy is 26. Jason Day is 27. Those three young men arecurrently ranked 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, respectively, in the Official World Golf Ranking. The OWGR is nearly impossible to untangle without at least a semester of post-grad mathematics, but, right now, they’ve got it right.
Spieth won the Masters, won the US Open, missed the British Open playoff by 1 shot, and finished runner-up at the PGA. That’s the single-best major year since Tiger’s otherworldly 2000 campaign. Spieth’s early success compares favorably with the game’s greatest players, but he does it differently. Unlike every other truly elite player to win major championships at such a young age (Jack, Tiger, Rory), he doesn’t hit the golf ball better and farther than everyone else. He hovers around 75th on the PGA Tour in driving distance. He swing is unique, and he ignores one of the oldest axioms of golf instruction (“keep your left arm straight!!”). It works for him. Spieth wins like a veteran. He thinks his way around courses. He avoids mistakes (bogeys) at all costs. Nobody makes more long putts when the pressure’s on, and he is incredibly consistent.
Rory is, at his best, the best player in the world. He was (marginally) in contention at a major for the first time at the 2010 PGA Championship, gave away the lead on the back nine at the Masters in 2011, then boat-raced the field at the 2011 US Open at Congressional. That’s an impressive learning curve. He’s since added the 2012 PGA (also a one-man show), and closed out 2014 by winning the British and the PGA. Rory has a swing that is the envy of every other player on the range. He’s the guy who hits it the highest. The longest. The “purest.” But to this point of his career, he’s been inconsistent. He misses cuts. This is overly simplistic, but it seems like Rory either wins, or he’s not really in contention. If Rory figures out how to bring his “A” game to the course more consistently, everyone else will be playing for 2nd place. Perhaps it seems premature to include Jason Day in this company. I’m not trying to make a case for Spieth, Rory, and Day as a new “Big Three.” After all, Arnold, Jack, and Gary Player had won 5 professional majors apiece before anyone referred to them as such. There are lots of very, very good young players on the PGA Tour right now. Day has the game and the talent to win more than anyone not named Rory or Jordan. Rickie Fowler won the 2015 Players (the biggest non-major title, against the best field in all of golf, majors included). Although he performed poorly in the majors this year, he has been in contention enough that you figure he’ll get one, maybe a few. Dustin Johnson has a long list of major championship heartbreaks. DJ seems less bothered by those losses than the golf media that covers him. I don’t mean that he doesn’t care. I just think he truly puts those losses behind him, goes and finds his golf ball, and bashes it a mile. Sure, Dustin Johnson can’t putt (as is always my take on his chances at whatever major is next), but his power and the fact that’s he’s been so close, so many times, makes me think he’ll stumble into one sooner or later. Of course, I thought the same of Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and many others. Hideki Matsuyama, Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, and Justin Thomas are all under 26 and possess enormous potential. None of them have really threatened on a championship Sunday. Yet.
Tiger is done winning majors. He just is. He’s done. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Jim Furyk are into their 40’s, and you figure their best opportunities to add to their trophy hauls have passed. The 30-somethings have Bubba, Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Zach Johnson, and Adam Scott. All are major champions, all will be around for a while and could win at any time, but none are cracking any golf fan’s list of all-time greats. Several young players took advantage of Tiger’s post-hydrant demise by getting their hands on major trophies, but none of them (until Rory and Jordan) appeared worthy contenders for the Big Cat’s crown. YE Yang was the first to beat him on the course, at a major, on a Sunday. Haven’t heard from him since (not true, he beat Tiger in a singles rematch at the President’s Cup, but, you know what I mean). Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley are good Ryder Cuppers and are both fun to watch for diametrically opposite reasons, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising if neither won another big one. Golf fans will look back on past champions lists and ask incredulously, “wait….Graeme McDowell and Webb Simpson won US Opens?!? How did that happen?”
The story of golf as the Tiger era ends will certainly be about Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth. There are a few reasons why Jason Day will also be an integral part of that story:
He’s another guy who hits it higher, farther, longer and purer than just about anyone. He’s also a rock solid putter. The only part of his game that comes into question is his wedge and short game. Great on the full swings, questionable touch. His stats in the 100-150 yard range have improved this year. If he continues to get better in that department, his peers should be nervous.
Day knows how to get in contention. Yes, it took him a little while to break through. Not everyone is Jack, Tiger, Rory, or Jordan. Lots of great players had to learn how to win a major by coming close and losing a few times first. Day owned 5 top-four finishes in major championships since the start of 2011 when he finally got across the finish line in record fashion at Whistling Straits. Some say he was overdue. I disagree. This was his time. Why was it his time? Because it’s the healthiest he’s been in his PGA Tour career. In the past few years, he’s had back issues, he’s had thumb issues. Those are nightmares for golfers. For illustrative purposes, I’d like to remind you that Jason Day collapsed to the ground at the US Open at Chambers Bay because his vertigo acted up (I don’t know if that’s the right expression), and this was, by far, the HEALTHIEST season he’s had. No more setbacks, and more often than not, he’ll be in contention at the majors.
Lastly, I think he’ll end up having a career closer to Tom Watson or Nick Faldo than Andy North or Dave Stockton because I WANT him to crash the Rory/Jordan party. He’s so darn easy to cheer for. By now, you’ve probably heard a little about his upbringing. He is biracial, which made things tougher where he was from. His first golf club came from the town dump (as did a lot of his childhood possessions). His family was very poor. Not “poorer than a silver-spoon country club kid poor.” Poor poor. His father died before he was a teenager, and Jason started going down a bad road. Drinking at 12, blowing off school. His mother moved him around their native Australia, trying to give him every possible opportunity to harness his talent. He finally found a father figure and a mentor in Colin Swatton. Swatton changed young Jason’s life, and he continues to serve as Jason’s caddie, best friend, big brother, and surrogate father. It’s a pretty remarkable relationship. He even helped fix up Jason with Ellie, Day’s wife.
Golf needed an overarching narrative to replace the nonstop circus that was two decades of Tiger Woods. In Jordan, Rory, and Jason, golf has three young stars from different worlds that can be neatly compartmentalized for marketing purposes. There’s the artistic, humble, aww-shucks Texan; the dominant, machine-like, occasionally aloof Northern Irishmen; and the gritty Aussie from the wrong side of the tracks who actually seems like a nice, happy guy despite the difficulties of his youth. Under Armour, Nike, Adidas/Taylor Made, respectively. It’s great for tv, and it’s great for golf. There is a spot for the game in the sports public’s imagination after Tiger, and those three men will be at the forefront of that renaissance over the next 10 or 15 years. Unless, of course, a new Rory, Jordan, or Jason comes along. They tend to do that.