This golf season could be one for the ages.
A caveat: Sports seasons can promise all sorts of good things for fans and then not deliver, and also can start out slowly but end with something wonderfully memorable. So early indications aren’t always the best. Still, when a season starts with as much promise as the 2016-17 PGA Tour has done, fans’ appetites are justly whetted.
If, at the start of the season (meaning its official start last fall) you said asked avid golf fans which younger players were most likely to make a move to the absolute top tier of the sport, they would certainly have begun with Hideki Matsuyama of Japan and probably next would have mentioned University of Alabama graduate Justin Thomas, both of whom were under 25 when the season began. (Matsuyama turned 25 last weekend.) As fans love seeing new stars arise to battle established stars for supremacy, the best thing that could have been hoped for were multiple wins by each.
Lo and behold, Matsuyama complied, winning twice in Japan in the fall, plus winning an official World Golf event (part of the PGA Tour) in China and then the Phoenix Open in early February. Thomas complied, too, earning three wins before the end of January (!).
What fans love when they see the whippersnappers assert themselves is for the kings of the sport to reply in kind. Again exempting those 40 and above, those kings clearly are Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day — with Sergio Garcia not a king, but the most famous, and one of the two or three most accomplished, of the non-kings. Aside from those, the player who is the most hyped, the most buzz-worthy despite a relative lack of actual victories (just three entering this season, although one of those was the important Players Championship) was young Rickie Fowler, resplendent in his outlandishly bright colors.
So what happened after the challenges by Matsuyama and Thomas? Garcia won wire-to-wire in a super-strong field in Dubai. Then Spieth won in dominating fashion at Pebble Beach, as if to say: “Wait, this is still my era, not anybody else’s.” Johnson then woke up, winning with almost equal dominance at famed Riviera (in Pacific Palisades) and, in the process, earning enough ratings points to become the officially rated World Number One.
With McIlroy and Day both fighting a few physical ailments, that left only Fowler, of the top echelon, fully fit and able to try to assert himself. Result? At PGA National, with its Jack Nicklaus-designed “Bear Trap,” Fowler romped to a four-stroke win — his fourth on the tour, to go with a list of high finishes in majors and with some Ryder Cup heroics.
Who’s next? McIlroy? Day? Maybe Adam Scott, who just a few years ago seemed ready to be the guy until the firepower of McIlroy, Day, Spieth and Johnson overtook him. Or maybe even Phil Mickelson, even at 46 still playing some good golf.
What it’s all adding up to is a perfect set-up for the Masters early April, with seven or eight of the world’s best all having laid early-season markers that they all are ready to rumble.
Game on. These guys are good.