Golf’s new generation of stars gets deeper and deeper
Every era of the PGA has been defined by a player or two or three that stood above the rest. Palmer, then Nicklaus, then to a degree Norman, then Tiger Woods. Since Tiger’s run tapered off, we’ve been waiting for what’s next. Now, it seems clear that we’ve arrived at what’s next.
“What’s next,” in this case, is a Tour with no clear figure standing head and shoulders above everybody else. It’s a new PGA, so rich with young talent that it’s hard to believe anybody could stand alone week in and week out. As we enter the final round of the 2017 US Open, we’ve found that the professional game’s future is the Deep Tour, where any of a growing crowd of potential greats can win.
The US Open will almost certainly be the seventh major in a row to go to a first-time champion. Nobody in contention has a major to their credit yet, with the nearest champions eight shots off the pace on a course where the winner is likely to be under par for Sunday. That’s a streak that goes back to 2015, and it just shows how many low scores there are to go around in golf these days.
It seems that every time you hear about a new up and comer, they have a friend who is also out there and who might be even better. Jordan Spieth came charging out in 2015 and won a pair of majors. Now his friend Justin Thomas sits a shot off the lead after carding the lowest round to par in US Open history.
The young player from Kentucky had every shot he needed yesterday. He drove a green with a 3 wood, and nearly put it in the hole. On 18 he flirted with an albatross again. His putts fell, including one from the fringe where he faced away from the hole to hit the putt into the break. Should Thomas end up winning the tournament, that putt on Saturday will be the lasting image of the first US Open to be held at Erin Hills.
Thomas will be in the final pairing with leader Brian Harman, vying to be the first left-handed champion. At 30, Harman isn’t quite in the growing pack of young players taking the PGA over, but the Georgian turned in a -5 67 on Saturday to get to -12 for the tournament and enter Sunday with the lead.
Dustin Johnson was once considered a unique golf specimen with his combination of size and strength providing him raw ability few in golf had ever seen before. Now Brooks Koepka, one behind Harman, is providing another example of such a golfer.
Si Woo Kim is the youngest person to win the Players Championship. He can’t be the youngest US Open winner, but a victory at Erin Hills would make the golf world stand up and take notice.
Compared to a lot of the up and comers, Rickie Fowler almost seems like a Tour mainstay, having been around for a while now. He’s still in very good position and could be one good round from winning his first major. His Olympic ring tattoo shows how his experience in Rio last year might have helped him turn a career corner.
Fowler was all over the broadcasts from Rio. He didn’t medal at the golf event, but every time there was a crowd shot from another event of US athletes cheering on their countrymen, Fowler seemed to be among them. Perhaps being around so many competitors fueled him to do something more.
Patrick Reed knows international competition as well, being one of the stars of last year’s Ryder Cup. Reed’s demonstrative nature fit in perfectly with a raucous gallery, and his performances on Saturday and Sunday under tremendous pressure were critical in the US win. For Reed, they also helped provide confidence in high pressure situations.
Reed came from -1 and six shots back to -8 and four shots off the pace in the course of a day, turning in one of the lowest scorecards from a wild Saturday. He saw a putt on 18 lip out that could have sent him to -9, and reacted like he wanted to give applause to the course for fooling him.
Rain on Friday night softened up Erin Hills once again, taking a lot of the danger out of a course that relies on firm greens and fast conditions to provide the bulk of its challenge. The elevated greens at the Wisconsin course are full of false fronts, but with the softer grass pros are able to hold the ball on the putting surface, as well as keeping it there on errant putts.
Knowing this has made the players more aggressive as the week has gone on. Justin Thomas used his length to go for greens early knowing that more forgiving surfaces will keep the ball from shooting off into the deep fescue. Players all over the field have been taking more aggressive putts as well, not afraid an overrun will head down a slope and off the green.
With friction and other laws of physics working against Erin Hills this weekend, it sets up a Sunday where anyone close to the lead could win and the scores could be impressively low. So long as players stay out of the fescue, Erin Hills can be beaten in this condition.
On Saturday, this caused a wild moving day where the leaderboard got crowded for a moment before restoring order. People went low all day long. When Reed finished, he was in a tie for first at -8. At points Saturday, more than 10% of the remaining golfers were tied for the lead. However, when the last groups teed off, they quickly put up some scores to bring things back to a recognizable order.
With a pretty good battle for the low amateur status between Cameron Champ and Scottie Scheffler, there’s a sign that the PGA’s crop of young greats is only growing. Champ, a member of Texas A&M’s golf team, has been one of the longest hitters at this US Open, and at -4 he has handled himself more than admirably.
Scottie Scheffler attends Texas, so there is some rivalry to this low amateur battle, and he’s currently at -2. Neither of these guys are playing particularly above their heads this week, so it’s only a matter of time before they too turn pro.
Golf may be looking for a new face of the sport, but it’s not for a lack of stars. If anything, the problem is picking one or two from the abundance of talent on their hands right now, and this field coming into Sunday underlines that.