Three weeks ago, the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Connecticut, gave us the second-best golf moment of 2017 so far. On the first hole of a sudden-death playoff, Jordan Spieth found his way into the bunker at 18. Spieth was up against Daniel Berger, who had won his first tournament of the year two weeks prior in Memphis.
Standing in the sand with a chance to end the round, Spieth chipped the ball up and onto the green, and as the bellows of “GET IN THE HOLE” crescendoed, the ball rolled in. That shot won him the tournament, and carried with it the frenzied crowd excitement of a Hail Mary, a walk-off homer, and a buzzer-beater rolled into one.
Spieth’s celebration — a club toss transitioning into a flying hip bump with his caddy — was awkward and nerdy and also fantastic. His out-of-breath walk up to retrieve his ball was soundtracked by a screaming crowd, which was piled into the hole’s amphitheater-like setting with cheers echoing off one another. Spieth uncharacteristically leaned into the moment, snapping his wrist up as he pulled the ball out of the hole and pumping his fists before he turned around and shushed the crowd for his opponent’s putt.
The clip of that shot lived on in blogs and tweets and highlight shows for days, and talk of the Travelers — the Travelers — dominated that Sunday sports cycle — a strange occurrence for a nonmajor. Exuberance in golf is fun. And fans want to celebrate it — especially when it comes from a player for whom they have great expectations.
The win propped Spieth up with Tiger Woods as the only two PGA Tour players since World War II to have double-digit victories before the age of 24. As the crowd roared and media rushed to get out clips and reactions, we saw what makes golf thrive: dominance and favorite sons. And while we got that combination at the Travelers, we’ve been largely missing it from major tournaments.
Speculation about the 2017 Open Championship began as soon as Brooks Koepka walked off the 18th green at Erin Hills. Koepka had just won the U.S. Open, his first major-tournament victory, making him golf’s seventh straight first-time major winner. After the victory press conferences, photo ops, and strange media gaffes ended for the day, questions about the next major started piling up: Will we see the eighth straight first-time winner in a major? Who from the field of prior major winners could end the run? Is this overwhelming parity good or bad for golf?
Starting with Jason Day at the PGA Championship in 2015, seven pros have taken their turn hoisting a major tournament trophy for the first time: Day; Danny Willett (2016 Masters); Dustin Johnson (2016 U.S. Open); Henrik Stenson (2016 Open Championship); Jimmy Walker (2016 PGA Championship); Sergio García (2017 Masters); and Koepka. It’s the second-longest streak of its kind since 1934, the first year the Masters was played. The longest started with the 2010 U.S. Open, and ran until the 2012 Open Championship, when Adam Scott bumbled away his lead, tallying four bogeys in his final four holes and Ernie Els swooped in to take the Claret Jug (a Scott victory would have made it 10-straight for the first-timers). From 1934 until that streak began in 2010, the longest run of first-time major winners was six tournaments.
The timing of these streaks is telling. Golf’s landscape has changed radically in the last decade, as its biggest star has spent almost as much time lying on a surgical table and recovering than playing in tournaments. As ESPN’s Jason Sobel put it last month following Koepka’s win, “the prevailing predictive question entering majors [used to] be: ‘Tiger or the field?’” Now, that looming figure is absent. Tiger paced the field, as Arnold, Jack, and others did before him. During his prime, the course itself wasn’t the biggest challenge in a tournament — it was staying poised if you somehow held a late lead and saw flashes of red in your rear view.
Tiger’s impact on golf cannot be overstated, from his Jordanesque mentality to his social impact and the financial gains his greatness left behind (golf site No Laying Up even formulated a “Tiger Tax” to determine how much money Tiger’s successes made his fellow competitors).
Starting in 1997 with his 12-shot Masters win and ending with the 2008 U.S. Open playoff that he won on a broken leg, Tiger’s prime fostered a generation of golf fans. His Sunday rounds were simultaneously the most sweat-inducing and serene moments in sports fandom. I could barely watch Chris DiMarco start to close him out at Augusta in 2005, but there was always a little sense of calm lingering in the back of my mind: “This is Tiger. How could he not pull this off?” More often than not, he proved our faith right.
And as ruthless and awe-inspiring and terrifying as his run was, it was also unifying. Tiger pulled the rest of the sport along with him, and made golf appointment viewing to even the casual fan.
But for those that prefer parity, and the chance to celebrate a variety of talent, this “new era” of winners presents an exciting prospect. The individual strengths of the player seem to matter from week to week and course to course more than almost ever before, and different names are always showing up at the top of the leader board. We’re seeing that, even though the game’s brightest, streaking light isn’t part of the picture anymore, the landscape can still be thrilling if you give your eyes time to adjust.
Take a look at the Open this weekend: Four of the 10 players with the best betting odds on Bovada have never won a major, and four others won their first major within the last two years. Youth and inexperience are no longer betting detriments in major tournaments . In fact, since the 2010 U.S. Open, first-time major winners have been 20 of 29 possible major champions. Non-major winners are becoming the new favorites.
Everyone has an opinion about the “necessity” of a superstar in the golf world. Longtime fans of the sport seem to enjoy the current parity — at least for the time being — while the casual fan has been less interested. Players are also split on what’s the better avenue for the game.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Rickie Fowler said of the rash of new winners. “It’s a lot of the new blood, young guys. Some of the younger crew is coming in. I’m not saying the older guys are out, by any means, but I think we’re making our presence a little bit more known.”
“You need to have one guy push everybody to get better,” Brandt Snedeker countered, “which Tiger did and Jack did before that. I don’t know who this next generation guy is going to be … but for the casual fan they want to know who is going to win every week.”
There are a few current front-runners for that role, but none that have definitively pulled ahead. In 2011 Rory McIlroy won his first major and recorded nine top-20 finishes. He had four major wins by the end of 2014 and, as my colleague Katie Baker detailed, he seemed to be molding himself into golf’s version of the Terminator. But due to a rash of injuries, club changes, and missed tournaments, McIlroy’s been out of rhythm and hasn’t won a major since 2014.
Jason Day threw his hat into the ring for a while, winning the PGA Championship in 2015 and finishing 2016 with the no. 1 World Golf Ranking, but with four missed cuts so far this year (including a disastrous showing at the U.S. Open) he’s fallen back to no. 6 in the ranking. Jordan Spieth earned himself a Sports Illustrated cover in 2015, one that declared his “era begins now,” but his sure-handedness has been missing in major tournaments since the Hole Who Shall Not Be Named at the Masters in 2016. More recently, coming into this year’s Masters, Dustin Johnson looked ready to become golf’s stalwart champion until a rogue set of stairs interfered.
In the absence of a recurring winner and a figure to chase, we’re getting champions who say things like “golf’s my job, not my life,” and others who have, in the past, openly doubted their ability to close out in a major tournament.
While some sports are tilting towards superteams, showcasing their dominant athletes, and concentrating star power, golf has moved the opposite direction. The talent of the field is so widespread that an event can really be, across the board, anyone’s tournament.
The Open isn’t traditionally a favorable major for potential first-time winners, especially Opens played at Royal Birkdale. The course has the lowest rate of first-time major champions of any in the tournament’s rotation, with only two of its eight champions having never won a previous major (no first-timer has won there since Ian Baker-Finch in 1991).
Golfers have stayed diplomatic this week when asked if the streak will continue — “It could be anybody this week”; “There’s so many good players now” — but if there’s any place for it to end, it’s on the links in Southport.
Ending the streak would require someone to emerge from the realm of expectations and hypotheticals and win a difficult tournament. And even then, one more major win does not necessarily a superstar make. But a superstar cannot exist while the streak survives, and as we saw with the frenzied gallery surrounding Spieth at the Travelers, stars are good for golf. Dominance is a positive for the sport. And there are a few players positioned to fill that role. The 2017 Open could be the start of this battle’s breaking point — but only if someone is willing to strike first.