More than anything, it looks remarkably like the professional game has entered a new era, a time of its own that doesn’t depend on the blurry past or uncertain future. All of the pieces are in place to focus on a group of players who no longer are cursed with unlimited potential but now are the game’s established stars, even though many are only in their 20s.
What we have to look forward to in 2018 is competition the likes of which we haven’t seen since before most of these players were born. In the 1980s, Jack Nicklaus won three majors and was one of golf’s stars, with Greg Norman, Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Nick Faldo and the late Seve Ballesteros.
But Nicklaus was on the back nine of his remarkable career, and none of the aforementioned achieved anything close to the Nicklaus standard. Until Tiger Woods.
Since Woods said, “Hello, world,” in 1996, he has been the topic of conversation – on and off the golf course. Even when he was absent, any Woods-related news commanded most everyone’s attention. He not only moved the needle; he was the needle.
Woods dominated the game like no one has in the modern era. And now that he’s on his third or fourth comeback, depending on who’s counting, it’s not likely that he will be a factor week-to-week, maybe ever.
So, we have an amalgamation of supremely talented young players, many of them friends, who will butt heads with one another for the future, near or foreseeable.
And the list goes something like this, and in no particular order: Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka.
Hideki Matsuyama is not on this list because he still needs to prove that he can putt well enough down the stretch to win the big tournaments. And there are a handful of others who could play their way onto this list, including Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Daniel Berger. And let us not forget that Peter Uihlein will play full-time on the PGA Tour this year after a successful start to his career on the European Tour.
The No. 1 player in the world is 33 and has 16 PGA Tour victories, including the 2016 U.S. Open, but Johnson seemingly is just now sliding the shifter into fourth gear. He’s the best physical specimen in the game. If he can stay off stairs in his sock feet, the Masters could be his for the taking. Or any other major, for that matter.
Thomas no longer can fly under the radar that has been locked on Spieth for the past three years. Both players are 25, but Spieth got a running start to his career, leaving Thomas in his wake. With Thomas winning seven events, including a major, since November 2015, Spieth and Thomas are being mentioned in the same breath.
The most intriguing player on the list is Rahm. In his first full season on the PGA Tour, the 23-year-old Spaniard had one victory, the Farmers Insurance Open, two runners-up and six other top-five finishes. He also won twice on the European Tour. It was enough to vault him to No. 4 in the world. He has plenty of fire, but does that hinder him when trying to finish tournaments?
Expect to see him flourish at the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris. Is a Rahm-Sergio Garcia partnership in our future? Can’t you just see the Spaniards taking on Spieth and Patrick Reed? Ponder the possibilities.
Now that the USGA is back to a proper U.S. Open venue, a return to Shinnecock Hills, the Long Island course could be where McIlroy and Day shake off the rust and indifference of the past year to get back into the conversation of the world’s biggest tournaments.
Will this be the year when Fowler keeps the double-bogey bug at bay and wins his first major? David Duval on Golf Channel keeps gushing about Fowler’s putting stroke, but it doesn’t do any good when Fowler keeps putting up big numbers at the most inopportune times.
Does Woods have an ’86 Masters in his bag? Yes, yes, we’re getting over our skis here, but you have to ask. Don’t you?
And the biggest question of all: Now that Spieth is an engaged man, does that mean the bust-up of the annual boys’ spring break trip? Inquiring minds and Instagram want to know.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf