Passing of the Torch: Golf’s New Generation

It is time to end the summer hibernations and return to the Millennial man. It has been a long couple months away, but I’m refreshed and full of vigor. The first topic back was actually suggested to me via Facebook by my old High School Golf teammate Daniel Murphy and it deals with a changing of the guard in the game we used to play together. Golf will always be a game to me, not a sport. Sport requires a lot of physical exertion while a game challenges one’s mental fortitude a specific skill set. Golf is more similar to the game of chess than a sport like basketball or football. 

This past Sunday, in almost complete darkness, Rory McIlroy completed his second victory at the PGA Championship, his second major championship in a row and fourth overall. The victory puts him in rare company, joining Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only two golfers to win four major championships by the age of 25. The connection to Tiger is even stronger as McIlroy’s latest triumph happened on the same course and same tournament as Sir Eldrick Woods’ closed out his 25th year with his fifth major, 14 years ago and he also had won the British Open in the previous major tournament. Eery!

Rory's triumph has him in rarified territory.

Rory’s triumph has him in rarified territory.

Tiger was in the middle of the greatest three year stretch any golfer has ever seen. He won 7 out of 12 major championships, giving him 8 total by the age of 27, which was well ahead of the pace needed to break Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships. Over the next 6 seasons, Tiger would tally on 6 more major championships giving him 14 after his last Major victory at the 2008 US Open. At age 33 and needing only five more majors to break the record, it was difficult to find a person willing to bet against Tiger breaking Nicklaus’ record, let alone never winning another Major tournament. Yet here we are 6 years later and the draught continues. It is interesting that in that draught McIlroy, who was only 19 years old when Tiger last won, has been the only player to emerge as a dominant force in Eldrick’s absence. His four major victories is twice as many as any other golfer has over 26 majors Tiger has gone without winning.

As the wait for Tiger’s next triumph continues the question on fan’s minds has shifted from, “when will Tiger be back?” To, “Is Rory McIlroy the next Tiger Woods?” The second question is far more interesting and at this point the answer is more unclear than the former question, whose answer seems to have become a defiant – “Never!” Let me be clear, the answer is only interesting on the course, not off of it. Rory will never match Tiger has far as public interest, no golfer ever will, unless a Mexican immigrant with familial ties to the Royal Family treks across the border and rattles off 12 majors in a row, while breaking 60 every single round.

Tiger had the marketing power of being fresh. A young half black/half-Asian face in a sea of old white faces. Golf never had much mainstream attention in the sports world till Tiger came around. No one ever would’ve predicted that EA Sports would have a Golf franchise to rival its Madden series. Tiger changed the face of the sport forever, the only problem was that he was the sport. All of the new fans and media attention was solely based on one person, Tiger Woods. If he wasn’t around, then people weren’t interested in watching. In his absence from dominance over the past six years the PGA has taken a big financial hit with dwindling ratings and attendance at events. Promoting a new star like Rory helps a bit, as fans always enjoy watching greatness, and this year’s PGA hit its highest ratings since Tiger lost to Y.E. Yang on the back nine of the 2009 PGA Championship. The last major before his fateful car crash that Thanksgiving that would forever alter his career. 0001463315211_500X500

As great as Rory’s accomplishments are on the course, he just doesn’t have the freshness, historical relevance,  or mainstream appeal as Tiger. However, he does have a killer competitive edge to him that fans love to see and his age makes him very adept at the new wave social media, which helps him connect with younger fans in a way most golfers cannot. A quick comparison of his twitter  page to Tiger’s makes that abundantly clear. As long as he keeps up this recent run of dominance he will serve as a great pseudo-Tiger replacement. What are his chances of doing so? Very high indeed.

Yes, Rory is one Major win behind Tiger’s pace at this point in his career. Especially when you consider that Rory only has one Major, next year’s Master’s, before he turns 26 and Tiger had 6 major victories at that point. But if you consider the lead he blew at the 2010 Masters, at which time he was only 20 years old or two years younger than when Tiger had his breakthrough triumph. Plus there is the Caroline Wozniacki theory to consider. The two started dating in July 2011, one month after his first Major victory at the 2011 US Open. During the time of their relationship McIlroy won only 1 out of 11 Major tournaments. This stretch included McIlroy’s tumultuous 2013 season where he failed to win a PGA tournament and his only notable win came in the Australian Open. Now consider that since McIlroy called off the engagement in May of this year, he has gone on to win 2 out of 3 possible Majors. Coincidence? Absolutely not.

Wozniaki's loss could be Golf fans' gain.

Wozniaki’s loss could be Golf fans’ gain.

I’m not trying to place any blame on Wozniacki, it just seems pretty obvious that McIlroy’s career is better off without her. Plus looking ahead to the 2015 Major schedule, McIlroy has the Masters, on a course that is perfectly set up for him and it is only a matter of time till he prevail’s there. Then the US Open at Chambers Bay up in Washington State, which if placed next to a course in Northern Ireland it would be hard to tell apart. Next up is the British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews, a bomber’s paradise that McIlroy should be able to torch like Woods twice before him and John Daly back in 1996. And finally, next year’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin. A course that can only be tamed by long hitters as the length and high winds off Lake Michigan make it nearly impossible for shorter hitters to succeed. It would be shocking if McIlroy didn’t pull out at least two majors next year, if Vegas sets the over/under at 1.5 take the over immediately before the line moves. Two Majors in 2015 would put Rory at 6 by age 26, putting him on pace with Tiger moving forward.

Beyond Rory’s pursuit of Tiger’s Major pace and by proxy his pursuit of Jack’s record of 18 Major championships, another factor good help him replace the ratings and media attention Tiger garnered, a significant rival. Fans love rivalries, Bird vs Magic helped launch the NBA to new heights in the 80s and the PGA may have a similar rivalry brewing in Rickie vs Rory. Rickie Fowler finished in 3rd place, two shots behind Rory, on Sunday giving him a four top five finishes in the Major tournaments this year, nearly as impressive as Rory’s two wins this year. Fowler is only five months older than McIlroy and seems set to compete with him for the next decade plus. But he cannot be considered a true rival until he wins at least two majors of his own. If Rickie can parlay his consistent success at Majors this year into a couple of victories next year and let’s say three over the next two years, then Rory would have something that Tiger never did, a true rival.

Rickie has his eyes set on trying to catch Rory.

Rickie has his eyes set on trying to catch Rory.

Add in the fact that both Rickie and Rory are pleasing to the eye and have the power to draw in a younger audience that is not typical for golf and the PGA may have its answer to the Tiger problem. As much fun as it is to see a great performer dominate his competition, it is more fun to watch two guys battle for the right to be called “The Man.” Neither Rory or Rickie are capable of taking the Tiger mantle on their own, but together they might just be able to fill enough of it to sustain Golf’s place in the mainstream sport’s conscious. No matter what, this year’s PGA Championship set the table for golf’s future that should carry over to this Fall’s Ryder Cup showdown and make it interesting heading into the 2015 golf season.

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