CHARLOTTE, N.C. – This has all the makings of a high-stakes game of one-upmanship with no end in sight.
You know the deal, whatever you can do, another guy wants to do better. But in this case, those other guys are an assortment of infinitely talented twenty-somethings trading challenges and championships with regularity.
Prodigy see, prodigy do.
Jordan Spieth, 21, got on the board in the biggest way in 2015, winning the Masters by four strokes; he was followed in order by 26-year-old Rory McIlroy’s 121-hole marathon triumph at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play and 26-year-old Rickie Fowler's extra-inning victory at The Players.
It only stands to reason that it would be 24-year-old Patrick Reed’s turn to get back into the game, and he did so with authority on Thursday with an opening 66 at the Wells Fargo Championship that left him one stroke off the lead held by Robert Streb.
That he reinserted himself into the mix playing alongside McIlroy only serves to thicken a plot that will become more intriguing as we inch closer to the next major episode – June’s U.S. Open.
It a dramatic landscape shift from where the game was just five years ago, when Tiger Woods vs. the field was always an easy bet and few were able to mount any type of challenge to his dominance.
“It seems like from top to bottom now in fields that more and more guys are having the ability, if they're on that week ... to win the golf tournament," said Reed, who has a win of his own this year at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions. "It's great for the game of golf because it's not the same guy every week that, ‘Oh, well, he's going to win the event, so might as well hand him the trophy. Who is playing for second?’”
Instead, it’s becoming a favorite-by-committee world, where one man’s victory is another man’s bulletin-board material.
Even McIlroy, the world No. 1 by a healthy margin, is both inspired and intrigued by the play of his rivals, so much so that each Monday morning he checks his lead in the rankings.
“It was very inspiring to see what Jordan did at Augusta, seeing how Rickie won last week, Patrick already won this year,” said McIlroy, who was tied for 30th after a first-round 70 at Quail Hollow.
“There’s a lot of good young guys coming through and playing well and it’s nice. I mean when you see those guys winning you feel like you need to step it up a little, too. Nice healthy rivalry.”
Despite recent developments from Augusta, Ga., to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., it’s a rivalry that expands well beyond the current twenty-something circle.
Jason Day, fully healthy for perhaps the first time in his career, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka all have victories this year on Tour.
“There's a handful of guys to a couple dozen that have a chance of winning the golf tournament if they're on,” Reed said. “If all of them are on, it's going to be a battle.”
Perhaps, but to put it in NASCAR terms – which seems fitting with the Tour in the heart of racing country this week – it’s the four twenty-somethings that appear to be drafting off one another, as evidenced by Reed and McIlroy’s play on Day 1 at Quail Hollow.
The two were on the verge of making the Wells Fargo a two-man match until they both got run over by the layout’s infamous Green Mile.
McIlroy bounced his 8-iron tee shot off the rocks and into the lake for a double bogey-5 (dropping him from 4 under to five back) at the 17th hole, while Reed – who stormed into the lead with the help of four consecutive birdies beginning at the fifth hole – failed to convert his par putt after a sloppy blast from a greenside bunker (costing him a share of the lead).
Still, the two are poised to continue the trend and a cycle that’s equal parts self-fulfilling and entertaining.
“When you watch a guy like Rickie or Jordan have success and you’ve competed against them, you’ve beaten them and they’ve beaten you, but when they have success [on the Tour] you think, ‘I can do that, too,’” Reed said.
It’s a notion that is quickly becoming the norm on Tour, as the fearless foursome continues to trade accomplishments and raise the stakes one title at a time.