After lapping the field at the Wells Fargo Championship by breaking his own course record with an 11-birdie 61, Rory McIlroy was gracious enough to put down the clubs and climb into the broadcast tower at the 18th hole to chat for a bit on CBS television. In the interview, the World #1 stunned golf talkers Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo by saying he had to step up his game because of “all the young guns on Tour.” Something we for one found a little shocking, as he is only 26 years old–a veritable spring chicken to many of the golfers out there.
The golf generations do seem to be contracting. During the 20th century, there was an orderly procession to golf superstardom: Bobby Jones was thirteen years older than Ben Hogan, who was 15 years older than Arnold Palmer, who was ten years older than Jack Nicklaus, who was ten years older than Tom Watson…you get the picture.
When Tiger Woods burst onto the PGA Tour scene at 20 years old, he changed all that. He did not just dominate the game; he lorded over his contemporaries, crushing their spirits. Great players like Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, and Charles Howell III never reached the golfing heights predicted of them because Woods was “in their heads.” Woods destroyed a generation of challengers and made boatloads of money through partnerships with companies like Nike. Now the next generation seems to be arriving all at once.
McIlroy was the first star to emerge in the post-Woods era of inevitability, the leader of the players who grew up watching Woods and not being beaten down by him. It is no coincidence that the word bandied about for this crop of players on Tour is “fearless.” The unspoken implication is that they are not carrying the mental baggage of playing for second place in Tiger’s world.
McIlroy may have himself to blame for the preponderance of “young guns” in his midst. Unlike Woods, who cultivated an aura of intimidation, Rory seems like a hail-fellow-well-met among other players. He even plays up potential rivalries with the likes of Rickie Fowler who, though has many wins under his belt, has no majors and not nearly as many victories as McIlroy. Tiger Woods never broached the possibility of a rivalry and indeed never had one.
These Guys Are Good – and They’re Athletes
Woods has also impacted the next generation of golfers with his devotion to strength and fitness. These days the 19th hole is the PGA Tour fitness trailer and not the clubhouse bar. The new image of the professional golfer as an athlete is an appealing one for kids, and draws in talented younger players who might have dismissed golf as a real sport in the past.
The result is that while Woods could always count on being longest off the tee, big hitters are now coming on the Tour in droves. McIlroy led the field in driving at Quail Hollow this past week, but the longest carry distance (306.9 yards) came from unknown 22-year old Patrick Rodgers who was only playing because of a sponsor’s exemption and emerged as McIlroy’s only hint of a challenger on Sunday. Yes, the young guns are firing from behind every tree.
A Different Breed
Golf fans revel in the appearance of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player each year at the Masters. Even Nick Faldo lamented that he was never able to form a “Big Three” with the other top players of his generation like Greg Norman and Fred Couples. Certainly Tiger Woods has not palled around with Mickelson or Ernie Els or Garcia.
But while McIlroy has emulated Woods’ work ethic off the course, he also appears to favor that conviviality of a bygone golfing era. He has consistently demonstrated satisfaction with being one of the leaders of this generation of stars like Folwer, Jason Day, and Jordan Spieth, rather than just master of its universe. We will see how that plays out as more and more young guns join the fight.