News & Opinion

Generational shift takes hold on PGA Tour

Collin Morikawa
Collin Morikawa, a 2-time winner in little more than a year on the PGA Tour, leads an emerging generation of talent on the PGA Tour that could help push American golf to new heights.

With young champions such as Bryson DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa and Matthew Wolff emerging under the stars and stripes, a big change is underway in U.S. golf. The coronavirus-induced delay of the Ryder Cup should give the youngsters time to develop … if only captain Steve Stricker will notice

Generations come and go without notice in pro golf, a game defined largely by the men who play it best and the footprints they leave on its historic landscape. One era ends, another begins. Jack Nicklaus ruled the earth for a lengthy stretch, as did Tiger Woods, but there was a period of 15 years between the two when there was no dominant player, which merely amplifies the greatness of the few who have.

It is the ultimate subjective measure, one based solely on interpretation. Generations have no actual borders, but if Bob Dylan recognized when times were a-changin’, perhaps pro golf is in a transition phase now. We can start with Bryson DeChambeau, whose swift self-reinvention as a power monger finally might force the R&A and USGA to move with a greater sense of urgency on equipment rollbacks and distance limitations.

Will we see other PGA Tour pros bulk up to the size of linebackers if DeChambeau starts winning three or four times a year? In that context, the beefed-up Bryson would become an obvious demarcation point, a game-changer like few we’ve seen. Then again, some hypotheticals are more realistic than others.

“The [game’s governing bodies] have got to wake up sooner or later,” tournament host Nicklaus said while sitting in on Golf Channel’s first-round coverage of the Memorial Tournament. “They can’t just keep burying their heads on this. They watch it on television. They see where these guys hit the golf ball.”

Nicklaus long has been a vocal advocate of such legislation, but it’s highly unlikely that the Golden Bear, now 80, publicly has begged for action. “Guys, stop studying it and do something,” he added. “Will you, please?”

Six weeks into the PGA Tour restart, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the United States will field a substantially different Ryder Cup team in the fall of 2021 than it would have if the matches had been held this September, as originally scheduled. With seven major championships slated to be played over the next 12 months, we’ll likely see a ton of shifting among the six qualifiers.

The PGA of America has added two captain’s picks to Steve Stricker’s original allotment of four, meaning half the roster will be chosen by the skipper himself. One would suspect that Stricker will be as partial to selecting veterans as any other recent U.S. captain, perhaps even more so because he’s so popular among the older guys. He’s also a softie, almost allergic to friction or confrontation. It’s difficult to imagine Stricker diverting from the path of least resistance and going with rising stars over aging vets, as unsuccessful as the old methodology has been.

Maybe Stricker will surprise us. Or maybe young guys such as Collin Morikawa (ranked ninth entering Memorial) and Matthew Wolff (28th) will play their way into the top six. With his sudden-death triumph over Justin Thomas two weekends ago, Morikawa, 23, became the first player since Woods (1996) to pick up his second Tour victory before missing his second cut. He’s a U.S. Open champion waiting to happen – the Tour leader in strokes gained on approach shots and eighth overall from tee to green.

Wolff, 21, isn’t quite as polished as Morikawa, but he hits it for miles (seventh in driving distance) and did win in just his third Tour start as a pro last July. Will these guys be Ryder Cup-ready in 14 months? Sometimes, you have to throw the babies in the water and see if they can swim, which is very different than throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

You can’t talk youth without mentioning Norway’s Viktor Hovland, who won in Puerto Rico earlier this season (12th Tour start as a pro) and has better statistics across the board than either of the two Americans. It’s a pretty safe bet that Hovland, 22, will be among the dozen Euros who square off against the Americans in September 2021. Does Stricker have the balatas to include a pair of unproven Ryder Cup rookies if they play well but fail to qualify?

Hey, everybody on the U.S. side is basically unproven. It goes with the territory when you’ve lost nine of the past 12 meetings. Stricker should be viewing his captaincy as if he has no choice but to take some chances on personnel. Besides, the longer you look at the big picture, the less likely you are to feel optimistic about the composition of America’s roster right now.

Dustin Johnson won in Connecticut three weeks ago, which is certainly fine and dandy, but it was his first top-five finish in the U.S. since the PGA Championship in May 2019. He missed the cut by 13 shots at the Memorial. His career Ryder Cup record is 7-9.

Brooks Koepka has one top-five since winning the WGC in Memphis last July. He was sidelined for three months with a knee injury, returned to action in a pair of overseas events and has made six starts on the PGA Tour in 2020. His best finish is a solo seventh at Hilton Head.

Thursday will mark the three-year anniversary of Jordan Spieth’s most recent victory, the 2017 British Open. Not even the world’s biggest sourpuss could have imagined that he’d plummet to 61st in the Official World Golf Ranking, where he resided entering the Memorial. It’s hard to make any noise on the weekend when you rank 205th in driving accuracy and 200th in greens in regulation.

Spieth ranks 19th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings. He’s right behind Rickie Fowler, who has won once in the past 3½ years, and Bubba Watson, who has but three top-fives in his past 42 starts. One era ends, another begins. Nobody taps us on the shoulder until the curtain has already closed.

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