State of the Game: The Next King of Golf?
A question hangs over men’s golf that no one wants to ask. Which is just as well because no one has an answer.
The Question is: What happens to golf after Tiger and Phil?
Did a cold chill just run down your spine? Golf without Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson? Yikes. They have been golf’s greatest show for the last 25 years plus. They are to golf in the 2000s what The Big Three (Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player) were to golf in the 1960s. The only bright spot here is that until recently, Tiger and Phil felt ready to be mentioned in the past tense. Tiger suffered a serious leg injury in a car accident that was potentially career ending, while Mickelson continued a two year stream of disappointing results, not counting those senior outings when he won his first two PGA Tour Champions appearances.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the old folks home. Tiger has been seen in photos on crutches and smiling. That’s progress, we hope. In deference to what he’s accomplished, let’s be fair: Tiger isn’t officially finished until he says he’s finished.
Phil, meanwhile, shocked the world by winning the PGA Championship a few weeks shy of his 51st birthday, becoming the oldest player to win a major. Even more shocking was how he outplayed and often out-drove Brooks Koepka in that final round. It was one heck of an encore after Phil’s first PGA Championship win 16 years earlier — another record, by the way. Maybe now he’ll be like the Doobie Brothers and do more than one encore.
So, The Question can wait. But you have to wonder, if and when Tiger and Phil do retire … then what? Pro basketball faced a worse gloom-and-doom scenario when Michael Jordan, the face of the National Basketball Association, finally hung up his sneakers. There was a lull, yes, but then along came Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Steph Curry and others, and now the NBA is printing money, even in China.
Golf’s potential post-Tiger/Phil world reminds me of the mid-1990s, when I wrote a magazine story headlined, “Where is the next King of Golf?” It was about how Nicklaus hadn’t been a dominant player for more than a decade, never mind the 1986 Masters, no clear heir to the throne had emerged and parity, though it sounds swell, turned out to be as fun as a keg-less frat party.
Individual sports such as golf and tennis just work better when there’s a narrative based around an obvious best player or, better still, an obvious rivalry. By the early ‘90s, Greg Norman and Fred Couples were the game’s most popular players, but they combined for three major championships, none after 1993. Norman was actually better known for his heartbreaking losses. John Daly won two majors and not much else; Curtis Strange won two U.S. Opens and quickly faded; Payne Stewart won three majors but only eight other titles; and Ernie Els won a pair of U.S. Opens in the ‘90s.
England’s Nick Faldo was the best of the bunch, winning six majors, but he played sparingly in the U.S., played with his head down, blinders on, and was never popular with American fans nor many fellow players.
So golf’s pinnacle featured a revolving door that continued until Tiger’s arrival in 1996, when a new King was crowned. Three decades later, we’re once again ready to look for the next heir to the throne. To whom will Tiger and Phil pass the game’s torch?
My nominees, in order of likelihood:
Most great golfers have an eight- to 10-year window in which they play their best golf. Rory is 32, has been a pro for 14 years and has gone seven years without adding to his four major championships. Has his window closed? He’s got a young family and a reason to stay home more and practice less. He also has a new coach and a revamped swing in the wake of a slump, perhaps the kick in the behind he needs to fine-tune his game and run off three, four or six more majors. He’s likable, he’s talented and he could still be The One.
He became the game’s biggest attraction when he bulked up and began hitting Happy Gilmore-length drives last year. He is smart and engaging, wears a Hogan-style cap that makes him instantly identifiable, and he’s trying to find a better game through science. DeChambeau used his length to crush Winged Foot and win a U.S. Open, but Augusta National kicked his butt twice after he claimed it was a par 67 course for him. He rubs some fans and players wrong with an apparent sense of entitlement and a belief that every rules official should bow to his wishes, and he whines when they don’t. He needs to win more big events and, oh yeah, especially the one in April.
Before he hurt his knees, Koepka was The Man in major championships. He won four in three years and held off Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Tommy Fleetwood, among others, to close out wins. If his knee problems are resolved, his stated goal of winning at least 10 majors seems reasonable. His main issue is his public image, that of a condescending, sneering bully. Winning solves everything, usually, but he’s never going to be confused with Arnie.
“SOMEONE, SOMEWHERE, WILL ASCEND THE THRONE, BUT YOU’D BETTER PULL UP A CHAIR. IT MAY TAKE GOLF’S NEXT DOMINANT PLAYER A FEW YEARS TO ARRIVE.”
He is like Tiger in that he is capable of hitting shots that most other players can’t. His career is off to a strong start — 14 tour wins, including a PGA Championship in 2017 and a Players Championship this year. Not bad for 28. He doesn’t have superstar charisma or looks, however, and consistency has thus far eluded him.
His first three major titles came quickly, maybe too quickly, and at 28, he’s trying to regain his peak form from 2015 — hey, that was six years ago already. He had golf’s best iron game, short game and putter during that run. He is a brand name, is likable and has an affinity for playing Augusta National. Was he just a guy who had three good years and some luck? Or can he become a name to be feared again when it appears on a leaderboard? The jury is still out.
He has already had a Hall of Fame career and he turns only 37 in June. He’s won a U.S. Open and a Masters and his only flaws are that he makes golf look too easy and the public and media don’t find him very compelling. Smiling or waving to the gallery now and then wouldn’t hurt. Neither would piling up three or four more majors.
The Spaniard is one of those can’t-miss guys who hasn’t yet hit it big. He’s had seven top-10 finishes in majors but check out his last four Masters showings — 4th, 9th, 7th, 5th. He’s going to get one of those sooner or later. Rahm is now No. 1 in the world rankings after winning last month’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. Are the floodgates open?
He’s 32 and has only five wins and zero majors in more than a decade, yet Fowler’s popularity is such that he scores far more endorsements than anyone. He’s got that “It Factor,” but he’s no kid anymore. However, Mickelson didn’t win a major until he was 33. It may not be too late to upgrade this brand’s image, but first, he’s got to find his game.
Or…a player to be named later. Chances are, none of the above will rise to King of Golf levels. It’s probably going to be someone we don’t know much about yet, or someone we’ve never heard of. It could be 2020 PGA champ Collin Morikawa, rising new star Sam Burns, Masters runner-up Will Zalatoris, some junior stud or college player, or maybe some seven year- old kid growing up in Asia. Someone, somewhere, will ascend the throne, but you’d better pull up a chair. It may take golf’s next dominant player a few years to arrive.
Meanwhile, thank your lucky stars you lived in the age of Tiger and Phil. It’s been a great ride.