When will we see a fully dominant player again, or are we in for major parity?
CROMWELL, Conn. -- The week after a major championship is always an opportune time to examine the state of the game in some aspect. After the U.S. Open last week gave us a seventh straight first-time major winner, the obvious focus is: Are we going to see a dominant player come to the front for an extended period of time or will major parity continue on?
Let’s backtrack a moment. You can trace back to Old and Young Tom Morris of Scotland in the last half of the 1800s and make a case that there had been a steady stream of “kings” or “rulers” of the game, many of them born at a rate of roughly every 10 years, up through Tom Watson’s reign.
After Watson lost control of the throne, however, golf was not ruled in the way it had been for more than 130 years until Tiger Woods came along, and he was born 26 years after Watson. With Woods now having abdicated, however, the best we’ve got going is an ebb and flow of players at the No. 1 position. Actually, we’ve been in a low ebb position for some time now.
Since Woods’ last major victory in 2008, 19 of the 36 major winners have won just the one major. The roll call of the last seven winners is impressive for their power by and large: Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia, Jimmy Walker, Henrik Stenson, Dustin Johnson, Danny Willett, and Jason Day. If you add in the youthful multi-major winners since ’08, you’ve upped the talent ante: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, and Bubba Watson. Might our next true king come from those 11? And if not, how much does it matter? The longer we are away from a longstanding dominant player, will golf observers be used to parity year after year and just enjoy that environment for what it is, a new, fresh story each time a major is won? Those covering golf should actually find that refreshing and an excellent challenge to reporting.
Inconsistency among the top players is one of the big reasons for sporadic forays into contention. Of the top 10 ranked players in the world entering the U.S. Open, six missed the cut, as did major winners such as Justin Rose and Adam Scott. It was the first time since the official World Golf Rankings started in 1986 that the top 3 players all missed the cut in the same major. No. 4 Hideki Matsuyama and No. 9 Rickie Fowler were the only top-10 players to be in the hunt on Sunday.
A legitimate simple question for a major winner is, How does a one-time major winner become a multi-major winner? At The Travelers on Wednesday, two multiwinners spoke to the difficulties involved in winning a major in these days of bombers golf, let alone winning more than one.
Jordan Spieth said, “I was very fortunate to have two by 21. So it’s hard to speak to what they [young players] feel about it. But in my opinion, they shouldn’t feel any [pressure] because…you follow the process, you’re a good enough player, you’re winning enough that it’s bound to come during a major championship week when you win.”
McIlroy, making his Travelers debut, acknowledged past dominant players but said it’s not that easy to be dominant with so many players able to overpower a course and play aggressively. “Obviously I’d love to try to emulate some of that dominance, but I think in this day and age, it’s a little more difficult.
“Guys aren’t afraid to be aggressive and to score. I don’t think it’s necessarily gotten harder. It’s always been hard to win a major championship. I just think…the depth of talent out there is as deep as it’s ever been. There are a number of factors: the teaching is better, the knowledge is better, there are just more [good] players.”
While no one doubts that today’s world-class pros are trying and working hard to be No. 1 for an extended time, and that they are incredibly skilled and talented, but you have to wonder if the loose shots that derail a rally on the back nine of the final round really affect a player. How deeply do they feel the pain when a challenge falls apart? Today’s elite player has a financial life off the course that perhaps makes damaging stray shots less hurtful and less likely to damage the psyche as much.
That is a mental advantage players prior to the money boom had. When every missed shot and fizzled opportunity meant the mortgage and grocery bills were going to be more problematic to pay because you needed to finish near the top to make real money, the pain must have lingered and stung to the nth-degree. In today's game, we seem to be developing top-level players who are pluggers, who keep plugging away to win a major and eventually get theirs, but then their game and ascension stall out and getting anymore is difficult.
It is enjoyable to see new story lines and new winners, but I also like to see victories in the majors have a historical element and impact.
I feel golf is healthiest when it does have a central figure who is regularly stacking up the major titles. For nearly three decades we watched majors leader Jack Nicklaus tack on Grand Slam titles, and then Woods came along down the road to get us excited again about the march toward history. We’re presently stalled with watching the majors add up for a select few. The last time we were able to get to four for anyone was McIlroy’s 2014 PGA victory, but that is a distant memory. It would be nice to start his tote board again, to start predicting where he might reach on the standings chart.
If the trend continues of a new winner at every major, will it bother the golf fan base? Will fans want a ruler or an endless string of princes? How that is answered will be golf’s Game of Thrones.