The signs have been there for longer than some folks might want to admit, but the past two seasons on the PGA tour have definitely established the post-Tiger Woods era in professional golf. We’ve seen a genuine tussle at the top of the rankings between Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth (along with multiple major wins for both), second major wins for Bubba Watson, Martin Kaymer, and Zach Johnson, and, this past weekend, a convincing major win at the PGA Championship for Jason Day. If there is a player on tour whose background could be described as Dickensian (Shane Ryan covers it brilliantly in his essential chronicle of the 2014 PGA Tour season, Chasing the Tiger), it would be this young man. His hard road to this moment was evidenced on the final hole; he could not hold back tears even prior to holing the tiny putt that sealed his victory.
Day had come close before in major championships in the past, and this year was shaping up to be another year of disappointment. At the US Open, he started very strongly before collapsing to the ground as he attempted to exit the 9th green at Chambers Bay, a result of an inner ear virus that caused vertigo-like symptoms [NOTE: The Golf Nerd has suffered in the past from this malady, which, among other things, makes a simple act like getting out of bed a struggle]. He managed to finish out the tournament quite respectably, but had to wonder what might have been.
More vexing was his finish at the Open Championship. He came to the final hole needing a birdie to tie for the lead, only to leave a makeable downhill putt woefully short. The look of self-loathing on his face after that miserable roll was almost too much to bear.
But he came back the following week to win the Canadian Open, which seemed to galvanize him. He arrived at Whistling Straits full of confidence and simply pulverized the course; his 20 under par total set a major championship record and sprung him to #3 in the World Rankings. While talk of a new “Big 3” of Spieth, McIlroy, and Day may be a tad premature, it’s definitely worth contemplating.
Meanwhile, Spieth’s runner-up finish allowed him to take over the world #1 ranking from McIlroy, which I’m sure rankles the Irishman, and sets up a nice future rivalry. The two were paired in the opening rounds last weekend, which had the TNT/CBS broadcast team salivating. Round one found them both at a rather pedestrian -1, but after a somewhat indifferent start to round two, Spieth holed a bunker shot for birdie and began leaving Rory in the dust. To be fair, this was Rory’s first tournament since his ill-advised pickup soccer boondoggle, and while he certainly seemed physically able, the rust on his game was evident.
It’s been a frustrating year for McIlroy – big wins in Dubai and at the WGC Match Play and Wells Fargo tournaments coupled with some inexplicably poor performances, including a jaw-dropping 80 while on his way to missing the cut at The Irish Open. But there’s no reason to think that he won’t return to top form.
As for Spieth – despite coming up (just) short in the last two majors of the season, the young Texan has become must-see viewing. While not possessing the length off the tee of a Day or McIlroy, his skills around the green are ungodly, and there is the added bonus of his conversations with caddy Michael Geller and his commentary/evaluation of his in-flight shots (“DUDE!” he’ll scream at a misdirected effort. Although my favorite observation of his came during Sunday’s final round when, faced with a nasty lie in one of Whistling Straits 1,000-plus bunkers which required a splay-legged stance in and out of it, he muttered, “Man, this is a tough shot” – and then proceeded to nearly hole it out. ).
At my advanced age, I’ve learned not to completely give my heart over to any athlete, but Spieth is severely testing my cynicism. One scribe describes his demeanor at press conferences thusly – “He is the young man who has come to your house to meet your daughter and wants to make an impression.” He answers every question earnestly, gently correcting an interrogator when he thinks said individual has gotten something wrong rather than wearing a look of constipation, and manages to acknowledge his own special talent with honesty and humility. One would be justified in wondering if there’s a bit of Eddie Haskell in him, but he seems pretty well grounded.
But what’s obvious and most refreshing is his sense of sportsmanship and decency, particularly in defeat. His embraces of Zach Johnson in St Andrews and Day this past weekend were sincere, and more than once he’s been seen giving a thumbs-up to a fellow competitor’s good shot.
Quite simply, he’s the most likeable golfer since Arnold Palmer and the most gracious runner-up since Jack Nicklaus, while being as fiercely competitive as Tiger Woods ever was.
Be still, my heart.