News & Opinion

Taking the long view of golf’s Golden Age

Go ahead and order plaques for McIlroy, Johnson, Koepka, Spieth and Thomas in the World Golf Hall of Fame. After that, the list of 21st-century immortals should be written in pencil

This is a Golden Age of golf. Tiger Woods is still playing and still winning, so that’s as golden as golf gets.

Just how golden is the non-Tiger portion of this Golden Age? Sure, we’ve enjoyed watching superlative play by Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie over the years, to name just a few.

Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
Dustin Johnson (left) and Rory McIlroy already are locks for enshrinement in the World Golf Hall of Fame, Gary Van Sickle contends, and they’re far from done winning on the PGA Tour.

Those gents already are enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame, before the minimum age was raised to 50, from 40, in 2016. How many future Hall of Famers are playing right now? Your opinion may vary from mine, which means it’s probably wrong (just kidding… or am I?) but here’s my cheat sheet on who has or will have Hall of Fame credentials before they’re done …

Tiger Woods. He just turned 44 so he’s got six more years until he reaches the minimum age. Does 82 wins, including 15 major championships, make him a unanimous pick? Yes. It also makes him the co-GOAT (Greatest of All Time) along with Jack Nicklaus. Co-GOAT? Why not share the title? Can’t we all just get along?

Rory McIlroy. While you think of McIlroy as a Northern Ireland guy and a European Tour player because of his Ryder Cup heroics, McIlroy has won twice as many times on the PGA Tour as he has in Europe. He’s got 18 PGA Tour victories (as many as Nick Price and Dutch Harrison, among others, on the all-time list) plus seven more on the European Tour. At 30, he has won four majors, though none since 2014, as competitor Brooks Koepka pointed out. Virtually nobody thinks McIlroy is done winning majors. He seems to be just hitting his stride again. His Hall of Fame spot already is reserved.

Dustin Johnson. No player has won 20 times with less fanfare than Johnson. You can credit his brief-but-honest interview answers. The media like stories handed to them on a silver platter, with colorful quotes and insightful anecdotes. Johnson doesn’t bring glib to his press conferences. He just keeps showing up there on Sundays. He has won at least once for 12 straight years, a remarkable streak. Johnson, 35, got his major at the 2016 U.S. Open, and it would be a shocker if he doesn’t snag a few more. Is this a Hall of Fame career already? Yes.

Brooks Koepka. Is it too early to call him a future Hall of Famer? No. There is nobody over 50 with four major championships who’s not in the hall. Plus, keep in mind that the bar for getting into the hall these days is measured by Fred Couples (15 wins, including only one major) and Montgomerie (no major but a lot of posing). Koepka is 29 and oddly, his scorecard reads: four majors, three other PGA Tour titles. He’s got more majors than regular victories on Tour. If he retired tomorrow, would I vote him into the hall when he hit 50? Definitely.

Jordan Spieth. He’s 26 and in a bit of a career dry spell. He hasn’t won a tournament in two years. But he has amassed 11 victories, including three major championships, and endured several near-misses. It would be shocking if he doesn’t bounce back, and it would be shocking if he doesn’t hit 20 wins in his career. If he doesn’t win again, is he Hall of Fame stuff? That’s a tricky one, but a Masters, a U.S. Open and a British Open title say, Yes.

Justin Thomas. With 12 wins, including one major, his resume is not Hall of Fame material yet. But he is headed that way. I’ve thought since 2016 that he is the best player among the group of new stars. Then Koepka came along, and now I’m not so sure. Thomas hits shots other players can’t hit, and there is no major that he can’t win. He will pile up a bunch. Thomas, 26, has more work to do, but will he eventually earn HOF credentials? Absolutely.

Jim Furyk. He has 17 wins, which are as many as Curtis Strange and Jug McSpaden, but he’s got one fewer U.S. Open title than Strange. Still, he’s got two more wins than Fred Couples, who is in the hall, and he’s got career longevity that is similar to Couples’. There aren’t a lot of other strong candidates coming along in the next six years until Woods hits 50, so Furyk has got an opening. Future Hall of Famer? Possibly.

Lee Westwood. The Englishman is golf’s modern Nearly Man. He finished fifth or better 12 times in major championships; has the Triple-Quadruple (third place in all four majors); and three runner-up major finishes. He hasn’t slowed down much at 46, as evidenced by his tie for fourth in last year’s British Open. Westwood won only twice on the PGA Tour, but he has 40 wins globally, including 24 on the European Tour. Does he have HOF stuff? Without a major, it would be easy to say no. But Monty is in with a similar record and no major, so … maybe.

Jason Day. The likable Aussie hasn’t won since May 2018, and his only major title was the 2015 among seven top-4s. But one major among 12 PGA Tour victories means his record isn’t quite there. He’s 32 but has struggled with nagging back injuries. Day needs to climb back on the horse and win another major or two to get back into Hall of Fame consideration.

Adam Scott. He would be a lock for any Nice Guy Hall of Fame. Scott is on the cusp. He won 13 times on the PGA Tour, and 14 others worldwide, including the recent Australian PGA. He is the only Aussie to win a Masters, beating Argentina’s Angel Cabrera in a 2013 playoff. Americans probably will look at Scott’s PGA Tour victory total as being too low, but his international record shouldn’t be dismissed. He is not headed for the hall unless he wins three or four more times, and it would help his case if he could snag another major.

Justin Rose. He’s the English Adam Scott. He’s got one major, the 2013 U.S. Open, among his 22 worldwide victories, which includes 10 on the PGA Tour. Is that enough? Probably not. Rose has been runner-up in two Masters and a British Open, and he finished third in a PGA and in last year’s U.S. Open. That Olympic gold medal doesn’t hurt, either. What’s he need to make a run at the hall? A few more Ws, preferably one really big one.

Bubba Watson. Here’s an interesting case. Watson won the Masters twice among his 12 PGA Tour victories. He’s streaky good; he won three times in a five-month span in 2018. His record indicates that he deserves serious consideration. I’m not sure enough voters see him as true Hall of Fame material. A third Masters would do it, though.

Sergio Garcia. He had some heartbreaking near-misses in assorted majors but in 2017 finally won a Masters, the major that he seemed least likely to win. His 10 PGA Tour wins and 15 more in Europe look impressive, along with his longevity. I’d rate his HOF chances right now as somewhere between possible and questionable.

Matt Kuchar. He makes the ping-pong and trash-talking Hall of Fame. The World Golf Hall of Fame? Not unless Kuchar, 41, with nine Tour victories, wins a couple of majors.

Jazz Janewattananond. His name never would fit on a Hall of Fame plaque, so the recent Asian Tour Order of Merit winner is out.