As Bryson DeChambeau overpowered Winged Foot to win the U.S. Open by six shots in September, it was easy to think, This guy is going to dominate the game for years.
There seems to be something innate in this knee-jerk response; extrapolating from a small sample size to imagine that the future will look very much like a single moment in time. But golf rarely works like that. It’s one of the things that makes the sport so fascinating to observe. In the modern era, there are only a couple of exceptions to the rule, men who have achieved such a level of mastery over both the game and their competitors that they were the undisputed pre-eminent forces in golf for a decade or more.
Jack Nicklaus only finished outside the top 10 in six of 44 majors between 1970 and 1980, winning 10 of those events. And before that, he’d already won seven majors in a six-year burst between 1962 and 1967. Tiger Woods was similarly prolific between 1997 and 2008, winning 30 percent of the majors played in that period. He also won 48 other times on the PGA Tour between the 1997 Masters and the 2008 U.S. Open, and after a lean couple of years, won a further eight titles in 2012 and 2013.
That’s about as dominant as it gets in the golf world. When the best players in the world come together at the four majors, you won’t find any streaks resembling Rafael Nadal’s French Open record; he recently won his 13th Roland Garros title in the last 16 years. Nadal only has to beat seven opponents to take home the trophy, but Tiger had to beat anywhere between about 80 (at the Masters) to 150 other competitors each time he teed it up at a major. To me, the less-predictable nature of a golf tournament gives the sport an appeal that tennis can’t usually match. Even the very best players that golf has ever seen are much more likely to lose than win on a given week.
And yet I still find myself falling for a narrative which has failed to come true since Tiger’s heyday – the notion that Player X or Y has figured out how to play golf fundamentally better than anyone else in the world, and so, I imagine, will surely rack up the victories with ease for years to come. Just in the last decade, I think this argument could have been made for four golfers in particular in the men’s game. But their moment of hegemony proved to be relatively short-lived each time.
Rory McIlroy (2011-2014)
Rory was once considered the natural heir to Tiger’s throne. Like Tiger, McIlroy is a long hitter, and at first appeared to have few obvious flaws in his game. Rory emerged on the world stage at just around the time when Woods’ personal problems and injuries created a void at the top of the men’s game, and for a while it looked like McIlroy could be the one to stamp his authority over the next era in golf’s history. At the age of 22, Rory won his first major at the 2011 U.S. Open, and by the end of 2014, he had added two PGA Championships and an Open Championship. In the process, McIlroy became only the third player to win three of the four majors at the age of 25 or younger, after Nicklaus and Woods.
But, of course, Rory hasn’t won a major since. It’s not that he hasn’t had success since then – he has won a further 11 times worldwide since the 2014 PGA Championship, including some of the biggest non-major tournaments on the circuit. Nevertheless, his win ratio has dropped off a little, with his current drought extending almost a year to the WGC-HSBC Champions in November 2019. Some cracks in his game have started to open up, such as indifferent putting and a tendency to either start tournaments poorly or fade in the final round when in contention. Other challengers, some of which will be discussed below, have arrived on the scene in the last six years, too.
Although perception doesn’t always match reality with Rory – he did after all have a run of seven consecutive top 5s at the end of 2019 and early 2020 – his lack of wins on the biggest stages in recent years have confirmed the Northern Irishman as merely one of the game’s brightest stars, not the pre-eminent figure we once thought he might become.
Jordan Spieth (2015)
If Rory McIlroy’s early success was noteworthy, Jordan Spieth’s rise was even more meteoric. He first won on the PGA Tour while still a teenager in 2013, but his real breakout year came in 2015. After claiming victory at the Valspar Championship in March, he went to Augusta seeking to better his T-2 finish the previous year. Of course, he did just that, going wire-to-wire to win by four strokes. At 21, he became the second-youngest ever winner of the Masters, behind Tiger. When he won the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay in June of that year, he became the youngest winner of that tournament since Bobby Jones in 1923. Spieth won twice more on the PGA Tour in 2015, including the Tour Championship, and finished T-4 and second at the Open Championship and PGA, respectively. By the time Spieth turned 23, he had won seven times on the PGA Tour, plus an Australian Open and the Hero World Challenge, for those who attach any significance to that event. Spieth’s record at that point compared favorably to McIlroy, who at the same age had won six times, with one major.
Although Spieth’s golden era didn’t exactly end in 2015 – with a further six worldwide wins coming over the following 19 months – it would be difficult to make the case that he was ever as dominant again as he had been in the year of his first two major wins. Spieth’s victory at the 2017 Open Championship remains his last win to date, and right now it’s almost impossible to see where his next triumph might come, although at the age of 27, time is still on his side.
Driving accuracy is a massive problem for Spieth. He has been 181st on tour on this stat in each of the last two seasons, putting him constantly on the back foot. Spieth has also suffered from the proliferation of talented young players on tour in recent years. Not so long ago, Spieth looked to be a better prospect than his good friend Justin Thomas, but few would say so now, even though Thomas still lags Spieth in major wins.
Dustin Johnson (2017)
Johnson is nothing if not an enigma. There is a strong case for him being the best player of the post-Tiger era, with his 23 PGA Tour wins dating back to 2008. Fourteen of those victories have come in the past 5 years, but the fact that he has one solitary major win at the 2016 U.S. Open stands out as a significant shortcoming on his résumé.
Johnson’s outstanding (if somewhat inconsistent) recent form has propelled him to world No. 1 again, but perhaps the period in which DJ looked most unbeatable came in early 2017. Johnson won three consecutive titles, starting at the Genesis Open in February, followed by victories at the WGC-Mexico and the WGC Match Play in March. Going into that year’s Masters, he was the clear favorite in the eyes of many, but, in one of the weirder twists of modern golf history, fell down some steps on the eve of the tournament. He injured his back, forcing his withdrawal. We’ll never know if Johnson would have been slipping on the green jacket on that Sunday instead of Sergio Garcia, but I, for one, can’t help but think it was a strong possibility.
There is no sign of Johnson’s ability to churn out victories coming to an end anytime soon, as his three post-restart wins in 2020 testify, but given the strength-in-depth of men’s golf at the moment, it seems unlikely that he will have it all his own way in the coming years.
Brooks Koepka (2018-19)
There was a time, not so long ago, when I would only ever have one answer for the likely winner of a given major: Brooks Koepka.
In 2019, already with two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship to his name, Koepka defended the latter title, and could easily have picked up one or two more, finishing T2-1-2-T4 in the majors. It seemed almost inevitable that Koepka would before too long be celebrating the career Grand Slam and, perhaps, be heading for a double-digit major haul. At the time, Brooks seemed a notch above his peers in terms of athleticism, and his strength endowed him with not only prodigious length off the tee, but also the ability to muscle his way out of long rough if he strayed off line, while generating enough spin to keep the ball on the green. Personality-wise, he appears to be the antithesis of his laid-back, erstwhile buddy Dustin Johnson. Koepka’s intensity, concentration and nerves of steel under pressure have paid dividends in the biggest tournaments, even while Johnson hoovers up titles in tour events on which Brooks appears to place a lower value.
How times have changed. Knee and hip injuries have kept Koepka out of a number of tournaments in 2020, including the U.S. Open. Furthermore, he has been deposed from his place on the throne of Bomb-and-Gouge-Land by Bryson DeChambeau. While Koepka’s career is by no means over, the big question is whether his body will stand up to the strains of competitive golf over the long run. Even if it does, his comparative advantage has been blunted, as his rivals chase distance with some success. At the age of 30, Koepka is already a future Hall-of-Famer, but the next phase of his career may not be anywhere near as glittering as the glory days of the recent past.
And so we come to Bryson. He is the clear betting favorite for the Masters, and understandably so. It is fair to say that the buzz around DeChambeau is due to more than just good recent form. There is a sense that what Bryson is now doing is akin to the paradigm shift that took place when Tiger burst on to the scene in the 1990s. In some ways, Bryson is only extending a trend that has been taking place for decades. Technology has allowed greater distance to be unlocked, while a better understanding of, and appreciation for, the physiological aspects of hitting a golf ball has encouraged – though not forced – players to spend more time in the gym than would have been dreamed of by previous generations.
The striking difference with Bryson is that he called his play in advance, telling us a year ago that he planned to put on weight to gain distance, and now he’s doing it again with a 48-inch driver and potential 400-yard carries. Theoretically, DeChambeau is going about this pursuit with such scientific rigor that he believes his body will be able to cope with the stresses to which it is being subjected. However, that’s an assertion that will only be proven over time, while one serious injury could see Bryson in a similar position to Brooks Koepka. The other obstacle on Dechambeau’s path to a historically-significant number of major wins is the fact that other golfers will react to the new challenge that he poses, especially younger players coming up from college.
A win at the Masters would cement Bryson DeChambeau’s place in the Hall of Fame. But even back-to-back majors would not necessarily mean that we are entering the Bryson era. Recent history reads like a cautionary tale of golf’s young stars shining brightly for a time, but then fading, if not exactly burning out. Despite all the recent talk of chasing distance, perhaps the greatest quality that Bryson should be searching for is that of longevity.