I’ve never been much of an optimist. Offer me a glass half-full and I’ll pour it out. Show me a silver lining and I’ll maintain that gold is a better buy.
It’s more than that, though. I don’t get too hyper about hyperbole. I have aggravations with exaggerations.
Keep all of that in mind as I make the following proclamation about the impending future of golf: It’s brighter than ever.
This isn’t in regard to the state of the game at its grassroots level or a rebirth in the number of courses being built – though each could be positively impacted by this idea.
Instead, it’s about what is currently taking place at the game’s most elite stage, and what will be taking place for an awfully long time to come.
Ever since players have been competing for cash, there have been young studs on the horizon, threatening the status of seasoned veterans. Never before, though, has the crop of prospects been as respected as they are right now.
There’s no better explanation than to simply ponder a response to this question: Who is the most talented young player in the world? The easy answer is Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old wunderkind who won the U.S. Open in dominating fashion earlier this summer.
Observers may have proffered a double-take in recent weeks, though. Rickie Fowler, also 22, broke through for his first career professional win in Korea. Tom Lewis followed by claiming the Portugal Masters title in just his third pro start on Sunday.
It speaks volumes about the skill level of these kids that the answer can change seemingly on a week-to-week basis. And it says even more that they’re not just contending, but learning to win on the professional ranks at such a young age.
In previous generations, this triumvirate would have provided all the fuel necessary to flame the rivalry of newcomers versus the establishment, but these days they have plenty of company from their up-and-coming peers.
There’s Jason Day, 23, who finished as runner-up at two of this year’s major championships. Ryo Ishikawa, 20, whose professional victory total has already reached double-digits. Matteo Manassero, 18, who already owns two European Tour titles. Bud Cauley, 21, who is on the verge of becoming the sixth player in the past three decades to earn his PGA Tour card without Q-School or a developmental tour.
At the risk of simply listing more unique talents, there’s Patrick Cantlay, a UCLA sophomore who has already made his mark on the professional circuit. Peter Uihlein, who took last year’s U.S. Amateur crown. Harris English and Russell Henley, a pair of recent University of Georgia grads who claimed Nationwide Tour wins before ever turning pro.
That foursome competed on the U.S. Walker Cup team last month. It should only serve as further proof of the global budding talent level that they lost to the team from Great Britain and Ireland.
There is a dizzying array of ridiculously gifted and hard-working youngsters. They’ll not only have to share riches and fame with each other, though, but a bevy of already proven players who are only a few years their senior. Four of the world’s top-10 ranked golfers are 30 or younger, as are each of the next three just outside that delineation. They include rising stars such as Webb Simpson and major winners like Martin Kaymer. In fact, three of the current holders of major titles – and five of the last seven – are 20somethings.
The future of golf is in such a good place at the elite level that it would be easy to proclaim this the beginning of a transformation from the so-called Tiger Era to one of greater parity and more superstars.
In keeping with my newfound optimistic viewpoint, though, allow me to offer what can only be considered the brightest of bright ideas: Tiger Woods returns to past form early next season, but instead of singularly dominating tournaments as he did for so many years, his younger peers – the players who aren’t intimidated by his persona and aren’t afraid to win – continue to step up, one by one challenging him for titles that become larger than simply the trophy for which they are competing.
Add in continued consistent play by stars like Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, and perhaps renewed invigoration for Phil Mickelson, and the next five to 10 years could be a golden age for the game, the likes we haven’t seen in decades.
When Jack Nicklaus first burst onto the scene as a baby-faced 22-year-old at the 1962 U.S. Open, his immediate rivals were Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. While those competitions persisted for years, by the time Nicklaus’ career was winding down, he had cultivated new, younger opponents – most notably Tom Watson.
Woods may never return as the player he once was. If he does, he may finally find a worthy foil in a player like McIlroy, or the opposition could come in the form of a few dozen young, talented players – each of whom has been making his mark during Tiger’s absence from the winner’s circle.
Should the latter take place, it would ultimately provide an entertaining landscape, the likes of which hasn’t been captured in a very long time. It would be a momentous change, sure, but change isn’t always a bad thing.
Hey, even a glass half-empty guy can be optimistic about the future.