Nothing embodies the duality of beauty and mental anguish like the game of golf. And considering the abundance of youthful aptitude, the game has never been more interesting.
The 2017 year-long chase of high temperatures and low scores commenced last week in dreamy Kapalua, Hawaii. A select field consisting of 32 of last year’s PGA Tour winners competed at the SBS Tournament of Champions.
Emerging victorious among the field was quietly confident 23-year-old Justin Thomas. Holding off 24-year-old Hideki Matsuyama, who has been one of the hottest players on the planet over the last few months, Thomas captured his third career win on tour. He also drew acclaim from friend, former world No. 1 and Under Armour poster boy Jordan Spieth.
”I think it’s potentially floodgates opening,” Spieth said. “The guy hits it forever. (Thomas has) got a really, really nifty short game. He manages the course well. He’s playing the golf course the way it should be played, and, honestly, he’s taking advantage of the easier holes.”
Under the direction of new forward-thinking commissioner Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour continues to evolve, but it’s clear that the kids are in charge of this traveling fairways-and-greens show.
Golf’s talent has personality; several in fact. The game is in its best shape ever.
Last year, 16 golfers won on tour for the first time. That kind of balanced barrage was only topped by the astounding feat that four first-timers also claimed all the majors.
Gone are the days where Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson occupy a top-heavy field. They still move the needle, however. It’s just that they now mostly fall into that “wouldn’t it be nice…” category.
Wouldn’t it be nice if they were in contention on Sundays? Or, wouldn’t it be nice if they won another major? Or perhaps, wouldn’t it be nice if they were paired together? That sort of thing.
The overwhelming truth is that no one player dominates because too many guys are too good, which for golf fans will make for storylines aplenty in the coming year.
Thomas and Matsuyama each have three career wins on tour and three top-10 finishes since the start of the 2016-17 season. Both have the capability of multiple wins in them, and it should be interesting to see if they end the year as competitive as they’ve started.
Part of that wave of young 20-somethings finishing in contention more frequently includes Daniel Berger, 23. He has one tour victory and 13 top-10s despite playing in just 61 career events.
Another one to watch is the young left-handed American Cody Gribble. In just 12 career starts, he has two top-10 finishes and a PGA Tour victory — the Sanderson Farms Championship in October of last year.
And then there are the 20-somethings that are in a different subset entirely; the ones shouldering the weight of the youthful takeover.
Spieth. Rory McIlroy. Jason Day. Ricky Fowler. Patrick Reed.
Spieth readily admits he had a poor 2016. His year was low-lighted by a historic Masters collapse. He won only twice overall. But it’s his own lofty standards that really set the trend for his counterparts. Expect him to contend at every major, and be a man possessed at the 2017 Masters.
Like Spieth, McIlroy had just two tour victories last year, one of which was the Tour Championship, which put an exclamation mark on what was a rather average year for him to that point.
Day, the newly outfitted Nike man and world No. 1, won three big tournaments in 2016 — the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play and THE PLAYERS Championship. However, he blamed his pace of play for not winning more.
“In my opinion, I don’t care so much about speeding up the game,” he said. “I’ve got to get back to what makes me good. If that means I have to back off five times, then I’m going to back off five times before I have to actually hit the shot.”
Fowler was winless last year, but did register eight top-10s and a second-place finish. He has underachieved the most of this group. Conversely, he has perhaps the most devout following. Fans hope he recaptures his 2015 form when he won THE PLAYERS and the Deutsche Bank championships.
If Reed weren’t to win a major this year, which would be his first, it would come as a surprise. He had 11 top-10s, a second-place finish and a victory at The Barclay’s last year. Plus his Ryder Cup dominance proved that he belongs among the greats and can thrive under immense pressure.
With so much young talent primed to do big things in 2017, it’s anyone’s guess who will truly emerge. But it’s more than likely to involve the under-30 guys that have a stranglehold on the game.
Ultimately, it’s like the late great Arnold Palmer said: “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated.”
Follow Benjamin on Twitter at @benjaminblock21