Golf's fearless new guard poised to upstage long-reigning stalwarts
With Morikawa, Wolff, Hovland, Champ, Im, and Nieman staking their claim, golf's old guard is set to be challenged for supremacy in days to come.
There is a sense of fearlessness, something that is more commonly seen in youth. You could even call it an all-or-nothing attitude. Coming to the 16th hole with a good chance to land another title, Collin Morikawa, who, in less than 30 starts on the PGA Tour, has seen the highs of two wins and the agony of a few other close calls.
Going for the green on a drivable Par-4 was perfectly fine, but executing it under the gun was the key and then he nailed that seven-footer. That all but sealed the PGA Championship.
A few weeks ago, the same 23-year-old was nearing Tiger Woods’ streak of ‘made cuts’ after turning pro. Now he has a bunch of records and this is just the beginning. A Major in the first three PGA Tour wins, and only on the second start in a ‘biggie’ is indeed a sign of things to come.
Even as Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods continue to battle Father Time, Morikawa and his ilk are getting ready to take over. That is even when the likes of Jordan Spieth are now struggling, while Justin Rose, 40, is unable to get past his first Major, and Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas are stuck at one Major each, which Rickie Fowler has none. And McIlroy has been stuck at four for a long time.
Morikawa is the latest to hit the headlines, but the list of under-25s ready for the big prizes and Majors is long and getting longer.
Matt Wolff, fourth behind Morikawa this week, and a PGA Tour winner, last year itself; consistent and ever-smiling Norwegian Viktor Hovland is 22 and already a PGA Tour winner. Yes, they play golf, too, in Norway, but Hovland, who did not have a Twitter account till some months back, honed his skills in the US.
Cameron Champ, who tied with Wolff at fourth at PGA Championship, is just 25. He knocks the daylights out of a golf ball and has won once each in 2018 and 2019 and he could add to that any week.
There are many more. And they are not just from the United States. Chilean Joaquin Nieman, 21, and already a winner and charting his own path, while Korean Sungjae Im is 22 and a winner, too, besides being the Web.Com Tour player of the Year in 2018 and then graduated to Rookie of the Year on PGA in 2019. In 2020, he also led the FedExCup standings for a while. Then there are the likes of Mexican Abraham Ancer, 29, and Argentine, Emiliano Grillo, 27.
In all my years of covering golf, and that is 20-25 years and more across the world, I have noticed that every five years there is a bunch of youngsters, who are ready to take on the world and take apart the others.
Around 2010-11, a curly-mopped Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy led the brigade. He was not even 20 when he won in 2009 in Dubai on the European Tour and in 2010 he won his first PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow. In 2011, he won his first Major, the US Open. Now he has four Majors and 18 PGA Tour wins out of 28 pro wins worldwide. At 31, he is almost old!
The brigade that McIlroy led included Ryo Ishikawa, the Bashful Prince from Japan, the alluring Matteo Manassero from Italy, the forever-loved Rickie Fowler, and the Australian Jason Day, who has fought all odds in life to emerge as one of the best.
Alas, Day was the only one of them to win a Major, but all of them were heat-throbs, who continued to win and then break out hearts.
Then came the lot including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Daniel Berger, all of whom are now 27 but already being put in the ‘grizzly bear’ category.
Spieth broke out first and forced us to think he would put Woods out of the history books. In 2014, he won in Australia and then flew on a jet directly to Orlando for Tiger Woods’ Hero World Challenge and won it by a record-margin.
In 2015, he won both the Masters and the US Open before turning 22 and would later add The Open, too, in 2017 after coming close to a few other Majors. But three years on, he is yet to add any title – he is stuck at 14 wins worldwide of which 11 have come on the PGA – as he searches for both his form and the PGA Championships, which will complete a Career Slam, just as McIlroy waits for a Green Jacket to do likewise.
Spieth will surely come back, as will McIlroy, who last won a Major in 2014. Their names spell class, but right now ‘Class of 2019 and 2020’ seem to be ruling.
Thomas seems to have been around for a long, long time. Yet, he is just 27 and was only 22 when he won his first PGA Tour win in Asia at CIMB. The following year in 2016 he defended his title. And among those he beat was India’s Anirban Lahiri, who had led after 54 holes. Thomas has 13 PGA Tour wins and has been a World No 1 – McIlroy, Spieth and Day have all had their stints on the peak.
Daniel Berger, too, seems a veteran at 27, but when he first won in 2016, he was 23 and then won twice more, including two months back at the Charles Schwab Challenge, the first event in PGA Tour’s ‘Return to Golf’ this year. Guess who he beat in the play-off? Yes, it was Morikawa, who missed a short putt on the first playoff hole.
In between the generations led by McIlroy and then Spieth-Thomas, there was also Patrick Reed who was either loved or loathed, but he snatched a Green Jacket from Fowler and as Captain America, he piloted the US team to a Ryder Cup win.
And who can forget Brooks Koepka, who collected more frequent flyer miles than anyone else before arriving onto the PGA and after travelling and playing on all continents with a strong pro Tour. He was already 25 when he first won on PGA Tour, but quickly won two each of US Opens and PGA Championships and has a total of 14 worldwide wins – including seven on PGA Tour of which four are Majors. He has won in Korea, European Challenge Tour, Japan and more.
Each generation, call it a brigade, if you will, had their big achievers and then there were under-achievers. Maybe this one, too, will have them. But as of now with Morikawa, Wolff, Hovland, Champ, Im and Nieman, it seems anyone’s time, even though one has a sneaking suspicion that Morikawa has taken the early lead.
But don’t count out the DJs, Koepkas, Spieths, and Thomas; or Bergers and Reeds. And certainly not Mickelson and Woods. They know how to turn on the magic and turn back the clock every now and then.
The youth brigade once watched the ‘veterans’ on YouTube and now they challenge them. The fearlessness of youth that once marked the earlier generation now belongs to this current lot. And they are embracing it, just as we are finding golf exciting all over again, even without getting to see it live on the courses.
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