News & Opinion

Can’t-miss kids sure do whiff a lot lately

Rory McIlroy hasn’t won a major championship in almost five years, since a hot August night in Kentucky when he outlasted Phil Mickelson in one of the best PGAs played this century. It ended with the final two groups playing the 72nd hole as a foursome and golf’s curly-haired kid king hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy in complete darkness, a peculiar scene with strong metaphorical overtones.

Eighteen hundred sunsets ago, nobody possibly could have seen what the future would mean.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy, who had won 4 major championships by age 25, hasn’t claimed one of golf’s biggest prizes in 5 years. He is headed home to Northern Ireland next week to try to renew the run.

The young Northern Irishman’s reign as back-to-back major champion and PGA Tour player of the year soon would be usurped by Jordan Spieth, who picked off the next two major titles and would pile up 10 PGA Tour victories in a 28-month span. “The next generation is here!” CBS golf anchor Jim Nantz crowed once the fair-haired Texan had applied the finishing touches to his 2015 Masters triumph. Even from a man prone to dramatic overstatement, Nantz’s proclamation arrived with too much syrup.

Had he forgotten how McIlroy was just the third player in the modern era to win four majors by age 25? Or that two of those majors were accomplished by whopping eight-stroke margins? When you enter historic property owned exclusively by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, you walk like a man. McIlroar instead resorted to a jaunty little strut, the perfect physical accoutrement for a guy who seemed to know exactly where he was going.

Nowhere fast, as it turns out, and in rather fashionable company. Spieth hasn’t won a tournament of any size since grabbing his own share of Nicklausville two years ago, when he became the second golfer ever to claim three legs of the Grand Slam before his 24th birthday. The 2017 British Open champ has fallen to 36th in the Official World Golf Ranking, 18 spots behind Jason Day, another former No. 1 who has vanished from the top 10.

Very few guys made it to 20 Tour victories faster than Dustin Johnson, a tournament winner in each of the past 12 seasons, whose career is nonetheless defined as much by the big ones that got away as the smaller ones that didn’t. Currently second in the OWGR, D.J. just turned 35, which qualifies him as inspiration for an updated designation among the game’s close-but-no-cigar types:

Best Player Never to Win (More than One) Major.

Fair or unfair, the more that a man achieves, the more we’re likely to expect. Justin Thomas has cooled off considerably since copping 2017 Player of the Year honors and back-to-back money titles. His recent lackluster play can be attributed to an injured right wrist, but Thomas hasn’t been the same since squandering an excellent chance to defend his PGA title last August at Bellerive, which lands him on common ground with the four guys who preceded him atop the world ranking.

Very high ceilings, unstable floors.

As we head into the final major of 2019, Generation Next is clearly perplexed. McIlroy, Spieth, Day, Johnson and Thomas combined to win eight majors in a span of just over three years, five of which came during a 13-month stretch in the chronological center of the decade. In early 2015, Woods was stuck at a red light on yet another journey to the crossroads, searching for past brilliance between back surgeries. Neither the hunt nor the medical procedures was going all that well.

It was right around the same time that Brooks Koepka became a full-time member of the PGA Tour. Perhaps he needed a couple of years to get acclimated, but once Koepka began showing up wearing tighter golf shirts and a customized game face, he chased down those five No. 1s with an urgency not unlike Buford Pusser’s pursuit of Tennessee moonshiners.

Four major titles later, Koepka has reconfigured the most precious real estate on golf’s competitive landscape. Never was this more evident than during the third round of the PGA two months ago, when Spieth played his way into Saturday’s final pairing alongside the defending champ, who led by a touchdown at the time. Koepka routinely drove the ball 30 yards past his fellow competitor, leaving him with short irons that rendered the rough largely insignificant, even into elevated greens.

Spieth, meanwhile, endured another terrible day off the tee, shooting 2-over 72 on an afternoon when his brilliant short game saved him at least four strokes. Koepka turned in a ho-hum 70, leaving him ahead of the field by seven, a lead so large that he could shoot 39 on the back nine Sunday and still win by two.

Perhaps Koepka hasn’t captured the public’s overall fancy because some golf fans consider him to be an intruder. A guy who walked into the post-Woods Dynasty party well after midnight, baseball bat in hand, and started busting up everything in the room. Spieth was the golden boy, so grounded as a young adult, so tenacious as a competitor despite his lack of power, so easy to admire as the humble boy next door.

Thomas hasn’t done enough to earn such high popularity marks, nor does he transmit the same comfy vibe as Spieth. McIlroy is from Northern Ireland and Day is from Australia, and though both clearly are fine people, America loves its own first, second and third, which takes us to Johnson. The handsomest enigma in golf, a man of otherwordly talent who seems to take losing too well, a player who seems to find himself in the wrong places at the worst possible times.

If you were to roll the five together in an attempt to build the ultimate composite golfer, you’re looking at 10 major titles in six-plus years, then none in the past two. High ceilings, unstable floors, and maybe a couple of flimsy walls, too. Brooks Koepka and his baseball bat didn’t need long to take care of that.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: