SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Don’t believe the headlines. Don’t give in to clichéd opinion. Don’t buy all the hype about this week’s PGA Tour event representing some sort of “changing of the guard” or “young gun uprising” or “end of an era” or “the future of golf.”
What happened at the Waste Management Phoenix Open – where a 24-year-old prevailed over a 22-year-old, with a 21-year-old and a 20-year-old in hot pursuit after two other 21-year-olds had stolen the spotlight during first two days, which also featured a 44-year-old superstar and 39-year-old mega-superstar looking stiff and tired and fragile in a few different ways – isn’t the future.
On a weekend when 25-year-old Rory McIlroy reaffirmed that he’s far and away the world’s best golfer with a seemingly easy win in Dubai, and 17-year-old Lydia Ko reached No. 1 in the women’s rankings, Brooks Koepka’s victory doesn’t symbolize a new world in the game and it isn’t emblematic of any seismic shift.
No, this is the present. This is golf. Deal with it – or get left behind like so many seasoned PGA Tour veterans have lately.
“Just playing against each other for years and years, since about 14,” explained Koepka about their collective knack for appearing so comfortable. “We have played against these guys for years and years, and it's fun. We enjoy it and they are all really good players.”
If the last three weeks had been the PGA Tour's soft launch to this calendar year, this tournament was to be its grand opening, a celebrated ribbon-cutting that represented hope-springs-eternal optimism at the game's biggest keg party.
Tiger Woods was returning to TPC Scottsdale for the first time in 14 years; favorite son and three-time champion Phil Mickelson was here, too. Before the weekend, though, each had been relegated to slamming his trunk after a missed cut.
And yet, the optimism didn't subside. It just shifted.
The old stalwarts were replaced by young upstarts all over the leaderboard. For two rounds, rookies Justin Thomas and Daniel Berger lingered atop the leaderboard. They gave way to more experienced youngsters. Jordan Spieth notched a share of seventh place. Hideki Matsuyama was in it until the final hole. Even an Arizona State amateur named Jon Rahm impressively navigated himself to a T-5 result.
Then there was Koepka, who used brute strength to overpower TPC Scottsdale, including a 331-yard drive that split the fairway on the final hole.
So much for nerves. So much for inexperience. So much for toiling amongst the rank-and-file, learning the ropes before contending and, finally, winning.
There’s no statistic to measure this, but this generation’s young stars are more fearless than ever before. Koepka appeared as comfortable in the final group as fellow 24-year-old Patrick Reed was inspired during his fourth career win just three weeks ago.
The amount of young players with serious game is so significant that even one of the game’s so-called “up-and-comers” already sees himself in a different light.
“I don't know if [I’m] considered to be a vet yet or if I'm still young,” Rickie Fowler, 26, philosophized earlier in the week. “I guess I'm kind of in the middle. Yeah, last year and this year I have had a couple groups where I have been the oldest player. Maybe that's veteran territory. I don't know.”
It’s not just that this next generation of players is talented. It’s that they’ve changed their goals. They’re reaching higher. It’s not enough for them to treat the first few years of PGA Tour life as graduate school. They want to skip right to the real world and take over the corner office.
It wasn’t so long ago that players in Koepka’s situation – he was technically a rookie last season, while playing most of his golf on the European Tour – would speak of keeping their cards as a major goal. Now those objectives have been elevated.
“Winning on the PGA Tour was the one thing that I wanted to accomplish,” he said afterward. “I wanted to come out this year, get a win, make Presidents Cup and further down the road make the Ryder Cup. … That's the goal. I don't see why I can't. I feel like my game is ready for that. I was ready to compete for majors and win them.”
It’s one thing to aim high. It’s another to reach those goals.
Koepka certainly appears to be on the right track so far, with his first PGA Tour title now matching his one from the European circuit just three months ago. He’s not alone, either.
This isn’t the future of golf. It’s already the present. Get used to it.