With a condensed major schedule in 2016, the abrupt end to the season’s four biggest tournaments leaves eight-and-a-half months of golf without a major. There will be stories (Olympics, season-ending points races, Player of the Year races, Rory and Jordan’s quest for consistency, Tiger’s back) that keep us interested, but a long wait for the drama that comes with the big quartet of golf competitions.
As we count down the days to the 2017 Masters, what can we learn from the 2016 major championships? Perhaps, a glimpse into golf’s future…
Golf is Hard – Those words were used by Jimmy Walker after capturing the PGA Championship, and he was the one who won. If not for Walker’s clutch birdie putt on the 71st hole and nervy up-and-down to seal it at the last, this may have been the year where the losers of the majors (outside of Dustin Johnson’s triumph at the U.S. Open) were the bigger story than the winner.
Jason Day eagled the last to lose the PGA Championship by one. Phil Mickelson shot 65 on Sunday, beat the rest of the field by 11 shots and still lost the Open Championship by three to Henrik Stenson. Jordan Spieth led by five heading to the second nine on Masters Sunday, gave it away, and history will likely forget that Danny Willett played his final six holes at 3 under.
In the losses, as much as in the wins, it showed how the depth of top-level golf (more on that below) has made winning a major a ruthless challenge. A great tournament is now no longer a guarantee to win. Golf happens. There just aren’t enough majors to go around.
It Has Taken a Village – Everybody wants the next Tiger Woods. He is already here. The next Tiger Woods is a group. Tiger recalibrated our expectations for what a major champion looks like. His assault on par in 2000 shifted how golf was played on the biggest stage.
The result: Four of the nine lowest total scores in major championship history took place in 2016 (Mickelson and Day the unlucky losers on that list), a year removed from Spieth matching the Masters scoring record in relation to par (18 under) and Day becoming the first to post 20 under in a major. We marveled when Tiger was the one running away from the field. Now, with the depth of the game at its all-time best, we get a Tiger-esque performance in almost every major. It’s the only way to win.
Nobody has singularly taken the torch as the next Tiger, but a collective group has equaled his heyday level of play.
There is Depth… At the Top – Until Walker (ranked 48th in the world heading to Baltusrol) won last week, you had to go back five years to find somebody ranked outside of the top 40 who won a major (Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA), with only four golfers outside of the top 20 at the time of their major win in that span (Ernie Els, Martin Kaymer, Jason Dufner and Zach Johnson) and none outside of the top 50.
The rank entering the week of the last 20 major champions (from 2012-2016) is as follows: 18th, 13th, 40th, 3rd, 7th, 5th, 5th, 21st, 12th, 28th, 8th, 1st, 4th, 2nd, 25th, 5th, 12th, 6th, 6th and 48th
That is a 55 percent win percentage for top-10 ranked golfers in that stretch.
In the previous four-year stretch from 2007-2011 there were more major winners (7) from outside of the top 50 in the world than wins (6) by players in the top 10!
What does it all mean?
We have consistent challenges from the best in the world at every major. It’s hard to say if the entire game is deeper, but there is little doubt that there is more depth of greatness. We may be in the early stages of the greatest collection of golf talent in history. The trouble is that the depth will diminish the likelihood of one dominant player, or one who could challenge the records of Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods. What it won’t do is eliminate the great theatre of major championships.
Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen – There are systems in place in our country and a global economy to protect us from monopolies. A competitive marketplace creates more ideas, opportunities and variety. When it comes to major championships, the execution of each tournament is as diverse as the game can get. Four different entities (Augusta National, the USGA, the R&A and the PGA of America) govern the four largest tournaments of the year. After 2016, maybe a monopoly wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
The irony in all of this is that the most organized, experienced and (arguably) profitable of them all, the PGA Tour, is not the one pulling the strings of the most visible golf tournaments seen around the world. Their marquee event, The Players Championship, is almost universally hailed for its success in all areas.
In a year where the USGA enraged an entire golfing community with multiple rules decisions that altered the competitive landscape of play (not to mention a pronunciation guffaw during the U.S. Open award ceremonies), one could only wonder what a group that contests multiple, high-level tournaments each week would have done in the same spot.
The same can be said for the PGA Championship and the failed decision to get players on the course earlier on Saturday. It ended up working out, somewhat, in the end, but would a dominant organizing body be less concerned about split tees or threesomes on the weekend?
Let’s be honest, it won’t happen. But the casual golf fan does not distinguish between who is running the show each time they turn on a major. Sadly, no number of ‘While We’re Young’ or ‘Thank a Pro’ ads will help that. Any failure is a reflection on golf in general, fair or not. Maybe, for the sake of the game, more sharing of the responsibilities could help everybody reach their goals.
Let’s Not Wait – In four years, the major championship schedule will get condensed or shifted again because of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. If golf survives Rio next week, it would become a quadrennial issue. The PGA Championship, it seems, might benefit from a shift in the calendar. Why wait until April for our next major?
Host the PGA Championship in Florida the week after the Super Bowl. Give golf a major season that lasts six months, not four. You can’t dodge the weather no matter when and where you host it, and a winter date eliminates a lot of host venues, but there are a number of possible benefits to the shift, including being the train’s engine, not the caboose for the PGA of America.
Get Excited – It is always easy, in hindsight, to pick nits about what took place, but the reality is that 2016 was awesome for golf. There were incredible duels, matched often by surrounding drama. For the first time since Tiger’s knee in 2008 at Torrey Pines, golf is back to being must-watch on major weekends. Even with four first-time winners (a virtual rarity in the sport), it didn’t matter. Golf is simply awesome right now.