SCIS­SORS PA­PER ROCK

WHAT BET­TER STAGE THAN THE MASTERS FOR GOLF’S LAT­EST BIG THREE – JOR­DAN SPI­ETH, RORY McIL­ROY AND JA­SON DAY – TO STRUT THEIR STUFF AND PROVE WHO’S NUM­BER-ONE IN THE WORLD AF­TER ALL …

Inside Sport - - CONTENTS - BY JEFF CEN­TEN­ERA

Some won­dered who would ever dom­i­nate golf aŒer the Tiger Era. Now, three young gi­ants are stak­ing their claims.

AT THE START of this year, a golfer named Scott Lan­g­ley went to mar­ket. The left-han­der from Illinois be­came the first in his sport to sign on with Fan­tex, a com­pany that sells shares in pro­fes­sional ath­letes. Lan­g­ley quite lit­er­ally had be­come a stock – his fu­ture prize­money and spon­sor­ship earn­ings were made equiv­a­lent to cor­po­rate rev­enues, and his per­for­mance on the course would move his share price up or down. Through the first cou­ple of months on the PGA Tour, in­vestors weren’t given much rea­son to cel­e­brate; Lan­g­ley, en­ter­ing his fourth full sea­son as a pro, hadn’t made a cut.

Lan­g­ley’s equity ar­range­ment was a catchy nov­elty, but with apolo­gies to the 26-year-old, it’s kind of mis­placed. When it comes to spec­u­la­tion about golf­ing fu­tures, there’s one true bull mar­ket: the three-way con­test be­tween Jor­dan Spi­eth, Rory McIl­roy and Ja­son Day to be the best player of this era.

Tiger Woods’ epochal run atop the sport from the mid-1990s to the be­gin­ning of this decade had per­haps con­di­tioned golfwatch­ers to ex­pect the emer­gence of an­other monarch. In­stead, the out­lines of the post-Tiger era have as­sumed an­other fa­mil­iar shape in the his­tory of golf. As of­ten as the game’s best player has been eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able, there have been pe­ri­ods when the ti­tle bounces back and forth among in­tense ri­vals. And it’s re­mark­able how of­ten th­ese eras have been thor­oughly de­fined by a group of play­ers small enough to fill out a Thurs­day tee time on tour.

In­deed, golf has seen many Big Threes. Back when golfers played in coats and ties, there was Harry Var­don, JH Tay­lor and James Braid. They were known, in a

won­der­fully 19th cen­tury turn of phrase, as the Great Tri­umvi­rate, mainly be­cause they won the Open Cham­pi­onship 16 out of 21 times up to the First World War. Amer­i­can golf came to the fore be­tween the wars, driven by three men born within six months of each other in 1912: By­ron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Ho­gan. Nelson and Ho­gan had fa­mously com­peted against each other since their teens, com­ing out of the same caddy yard in Fort Worth, Texas.

Per­haps the best-known Big Three formed af­ter Arnold Palmer en­er­gised the golf world in the early 1960s with his lead­ing-man aura. He soon had co-stars: Jack Nick­laus be­gan to com­pile pro­fes­sional golf’s great­est record, and be­came the hub of a num­ber of other, later ri­val­ries, while the in­de­fati­ga­ble Gary Player added an in­ter­na­tional el­e­ment to the Big Three ilk.

Many would ar­gue, quite con­vinc­ingly, that the state of golf is never bet­ter than when such tri­par­tite ri­valry is present. The sport had ob­sessed for the last few years about its di­rec­tion af­ter Woods’ star power had dimmed, with mostly pes­simistic out­looks. But as Spi­eth, McIl­roy and Day have each be­come ma­jor cham­pi­ons and world no.1s be­fore the age of 27, the nar­ra­tive has changed. “Golf is in a very healthy stage now,” Day said af­ter his PGA win. “Three to five years ago, it was kind of strug­gling a lit­tle bit with the iden­tity of who was re­ally go­ing to be that no.1 player in the world. Rory came out and was re­ally dom­i­nat­ing. But there was no one re­ally kind of

chal­leng­ing him for that role. For young guys like my­self and Jor­dan, a lot of those guys are start­ing to play bet­ter golf and start­ing to chal­lenge. So that’s what I’m look­ing for­ward to in the fu­ture, the sheer com­pe­ti­tion of be­ing able to fight against th­ese guys each week ... It’s go­ing to be a lot of fun over the next five to ten years.”

We’ve seen other po­ten­tial Big Threes come along and tan­ta­lise. This one has a gen­uine look to it. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween the three is good-na­tured, and they’re still at the early stage of

their ca­reers where their ac­com­plish­ments drive each other up­ward. This month’s Masters in­au­gu­rates an­other ma­jor cham­pi­onship cy­cle; it’s also now a check­point to gauge where Jor­dan Spi­eth, Rory McIl­roy and Ja­son Day stand in re­la­tion to one an­other. And in this con­test, each golfer pos­sesses cer­tain qual­i­ties that might give him the up­per hand, if only un­til the next ma­jor shakes out.

Scis­sors

At a glance, Jor­dan Spi­eth looks ev­ery bit a cham­pion golfer ... Looked like one the day back in 2010 when he first came to the no­tice of the wider golf world. At 16, he made the cut in his home­town PGA Tour event in Texas, the By­ron Nelson Cham­pi­onship. More than the feat it­self was the way he did it – the kid was just so poised, like he ex­pected to make the week­end as any pro would. Spi­eth marked him­self out as a young player to watch and since join­ing the tour in late 2012 has lived up to the im­age, top­pling age-re­lated records at a re­mark­able rate. Last year he had one of the best sea­sons of any golfer at any age, win­ning two ma­jors and putting the Grand Slam into the realm of the pos­si­ble.

There’s a cu­ri­ous di­chotomy to Spi­eth, how­ever. He may look the part of great

Cut­ting edge: Jor­dan Spi­eth takes apart golf cour­ses with the pre­ci­sion of a sur­geon.

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