All eyes on litany of Open challengers
Jordan Spieth breathes the rarefied air of one who has, however fleetingly, touched Tiger Woods’ levels of transcendence. In 2015, the Texan prodigy was a combined 54-under par at the majors, one better than even Woods at maximum swagger managed in 2000, when he won the US Open by 15 shots and the Open by eight. Such standards have proved impossible to sustain.
Having watched each of the past seven major titles fall into the clutches of a first-time winner, he threw his hands up yesterday at the idea of identifying an heir to Woods. ‘‘I wouldn’t get your hopes up,’’ he said. ‘‘I doubt you’ll see a dominance like that ever again.’’
The trend lines add weight to his prognosis. Since Zach Johnson clasped the Claret Jug on a windlashed Monday at St Andrews two summers ago, every major champion - Jason Day, Danny Willett, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Jimmy Walker, Sergio Garcia and Brooks Koepka - has toasted his maiden triumph.
None are exactly makeweights, with the fortune to have been the last men standing. All are gleaming thoroughbreds whose glories were richly merited. It all adds up to an impression that golf is no longer a place where a single player can bestride his sport.
Trying to pick a winner at Royal Birkdale this week is as futile as counting grains of sand. The days when Woods could be counted upon to pulverise his opponents by force of aura alone have passed.
In his place is a legion of prospective successors, vying for prominence in the most even field in years. Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Thomas are established stars, but they are all still queuing up to join the major winners’ enclosure.
Spain’s Jon Rahm, aged just 22, has never so much achieved a top20 finish as a major and yet finds himself among the pre-tournament favourites.
Spieth argued that a palpable shift was taking place. ‘‘It could be anybody this week,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t know what’s better for golf, but from my opinion it’s pretty exciting to beat this many players who have such confidence. Guys are learning, getting stronger.
‘‘Over the next 15, 20 years you will see a group of 10 to 12 guys having a lot of different competitions with each other as they come down the stretch. It’s different from one person being the guy to beat.’’
The ever-ebullient Spieth was the future once. When, in 2015, he became the first man since Woods to win the Masters and US Open back-to-back, Adam Scott acclaimed him as the next Tiger. Fate, however, can be a cruel mistress. Ever since he deposited two balls in Rae’s Creek to toss away a four-stroke Masters lead at last year, he has toiled to regain his lustre.
The notion that he, Day and Rory McIlroy would form a fearsome triumvirate lost currency fast. Dustin Johnson, blessed off the tee with the power of a lumberjack, pressed home his own credentials as the game’s supreme force by winning three tournaments in a row, but he fell down the stairs of his rented home in Augusta and has not been the same since.
Golf is awash with the fearlessness of youth. Thomas Pieters, the standout performer of Europe’s illstarred Ryder Cup at Hazeltine with four points out of five, is a stripling at 24.
Tommy Fleetwood, the punkish local lad whose picture is pasted upon every lamppost in Southport, is 26. Brooks Koepka, positively superannuated at 27, is another poster-boy for the next wave, having used his thunderously long hitting to win last month’s US Open at Erin Hills by four shots.
Koepka served a tough apprenticeship, schlepping out to the farthest reaches of the European Challenge Tour and sleeping in the back of a car in Kazakhstan. Koepka, who could reduce most holes at Birkdale to drives and wedges thanks to biceps like Popeye’s, appears above any semblance of nerves. He predicted with some certainty here that there were plenty more where he came from.
‘‘No-one in contention at Erin Hills - Rickie, Justin, Hideki, had won a major, but I think everyone in this room knows they are going to win one,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s only a question of when, not if. Even at the college level, you see some who are going to win majors. You just know it.’’
This is one of golf’s greatest egalitarian stretches, which, come the end of the season, could match the record of nine consecutive first-time victories, starting with Graeme McDowell’s at the US Open in 2010 and ending with Webb Simpson’s at the Olympic Club two years later. So many of the fresh breed of champions grew up with aspirations of emulating Woods, to the point where none of them can accomplish his level of outright supremacy.
The era of Woods was one of benevolent tyranny, where thousands would follow him for his predawn Open practice rounds in anticipation of the crushing he would soon mete out.
Now, in his sorrowful absence, a major championship week derives its thrill from its sheer uncertainty, from the churning mix of players jostling to be next in line.