Young stars take PGA Tour to new heights in 2015


The cynic would see through this as a marketing ploy. You know the drill, stay on topic, hammer home the talking points and lean into the positive.

“Golf is in a really good spot,” Rory McIlroy said at East Lake last week when asked his lasting impression of the 2014-15 season.

Jason Day followed with, “I think golf is in a good spot.”

And Jordan Spieth deviated from the format ever so slightly, “[Golf] is in as great a state as it's been in a while.”

But if the PGA Tour cast and crew appeared to be pulling their thoughts straight off of Madison Avenue-produced cue cards – think “These Guys are Good” 2.0 – there was something honestly organic about all of the gushing.

Even when Tour commissioner Tim Finchem talked of being “bullish” about the game’s future it sounded less like an attempt to make lemonade out of lemons than it did a straightforward forecast.

“I can categorically say that we have never been more excited about the future because of the youth movement and the quality of youth right now,” Finchen said.

However one dissects success off the golf course, it’s the collision of young, capable and charismatic talent on the pitch that made the 2014-15 season – a year, for what it’s worth, during which perennial standard bearers Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson combined to post just four top-10 finishes and no victories – something special.

The numbers are astounding starting with Spieth, whose victory on Sunday at the Tour Championship lifted him to the FedEx Cup title and a single-season earnings record of $12 million, eclipsing the old mark by $1 million. With his FedEx Cup bonus, the 22-year-old grossed a cool $22 million with his five-win season, but it was his performance in the majors that was truly historic.

Spieth’s 18 under total in April at Augusta National tied the 72-hole Masters scoring record and he never let anyone closer than three shots all week on his way to the green jacket.

While his victory at June’s U.S. Open wasn’t nearly as dominant, and Dustin Johnson’s play on the 72nd hole certainly factored into the final outcome, it was no less impressive and it did set the stage for his dramatic chase of the single-season Grand Slam after becoming just the sixth player to win the first two legs.

“We took our game on course and off course to a level that I didn't think would be possible at different times in my life,” said Spieth, who finished a stroke out of the playoff at St. Andrews and a distant runner-up to Day at the PGA.

“I believed that we could get to this position where we're at right now. But there's plenty of times where you feel so poorly with the putter or you're not hitting any fairways with the driver, or you sit back and think how in the world does somebody do this?”

Spieth became the youngest player with five Tour victories in a single season since 1929, and along with Day’s five wins it was the first time in the modern era multiple players 27 or younger won at least five times.

McIlroy, sidelined for much of the late summer with an ankle injury, added two titles (Wells Fargo Championship and WGC-Match Play), Rickie Fowler secured a signature victory in May at The Players in a dramatic playoff, and fellow twenty-something Brooks Koepka also got on the board (Waste Management Phoenix Open), bringing the season total to 24 wins by players in their 20s.

But the most compelling statistic for those who contend the 2014-15 season was so much more than the sum of its parts was the revolving door atop the World Golf Ranking that has featured a different No. 1 for six consecutive weeks.

On Monday, it was Spieth’s turn, again, but the musical chairs atop the World Ranking doesn’t appear ready to end any time soon.

“That's kind of the neat thing. Usually when someone had it, they held it for a long time, more so back when Tiger had it,” Day said. “But right now, there's just so much chop and change between the three of us it's not losing, it's like, wow, you're the No. 1 player in the world. It just goes to show the level of competitiveness at the top of the world rankings for that No. 1 spot right now.”

During Woods’ era of dominance there was a theory that golf was at its best when Phil Mickelson, Tiger’s primary rival, was at his best. It’s an encouraging prognostication for the game that the modern version of the most compelling rivalries has so much more depth.

Combined, the current “Big Four” of Spieth, Day, McIlroy and Fowler won 14 of 47 events this season on Tour and had 40 top-10 finishes, which means one of the Fab Four was in contention more times than not in 2014-15.

That’s not to say it was all rainbows and unicorns at the game’s highest level.

In July, Scott Stallings became the third player suspended under the Tour’s anti-doping program for taking DHEA, a precursor to testosterone production that is sold over-the-counter at health food stores and, according to numerous medical experts, provides little if any performance benefit when taken orally.

Dustin Johnson also returned from a surreal six-month hiatus “to seek professional help for personal challenges,” and won his fifth event back (WGC-Cadillac Championship) to extend his winning streak to eight seasons.

While Woods again made headlines for largely the wrong reasons, putting his game on the shelf after a nightmare trip to the West Coast that included a second-round 82 in Phoenix and failing to reach the winner’s circle for the second consecutive year.

And things only got worse for Woods after an encouraging late-season run to make the playoffs (where he finished tied for 10th at the Wyndham Championship) with news he’d undergone his second back surgery earlier this month and would likely not return to the Tour until early next year.

Nor was it the best year to watch live golf, at least at the major championships with the addition of Chambers Bay (which included holes that couldn’t accommodate any spectators because of the severe terrain) to the Grand Slam rotation and the PGA Championship’s return to Whistling Straits.

But logistic and litigious concerns aside, the “bullishness” Finchem spoke of in his State of the Tour address last week was much more than a marketing shell game.

“It has been a year of some of the younger guys really breaking through. Whether it's Jordan, Jason, Rickie at The Players,” McIlroy recapped. “It's been a great season and if this is the sign of things to come, then obviously golf is in a really good spot.”

It may not have the punch of “These Guys are Good,” but as slogans go, “Golf is in a really good spot” is as accurate an assessment as any when it comes to the PGA Tour.