Jason Day’s first major victory at the PGA Championship was both historic and redemptive, but most importantly it changed the narrative that has dominated golf since the decline of Tiger Woods.
Day became the first golfer in history to record a score of -20 in a grand slam event, accomplishing the feat on a beefed up Whistling Straits course playing just under 7800 yards. Day navigated over 1000 bunkers with his booming drives and crisp iron strikes and exhibited a short game as sharp as Wisconsin cheddar all week long. The end result was four consecutive rounds in the 60s (68-67-66-67=268). No other player in the field, including Jordan Spieth, the newly crowned World No. 1, was able to stay under 70 for the entire week. In fact, Day is only the 13th player in the history of the sport to shoot in the 60s in all four days of a major tournament.
Prior to his victory, Day had finished in the top 10 at nine different major tournaments, including six top 5s since 2011, without ever having won a title. He was the runner up at the US Open in both 2011 and 2013, and fought through vertigo to a T9 finish this year at Chambers Bay, even collapsing on the fairway at one point. Then, a little over a month ago, Day left a putt inches short on the final hole at St. Andrews that would have put him into a playoff with Zach Johnson and Marc Leishman for the Claret Jug. The Aussie looked heartbroken after the miss and many wondered if the 27-year-old would be able to psychologically recover from such a devastating finale.
This go around, Day left nothing to chance. He went out and won the event early, staving off the field with seven total birdies on Sunday.
For years now, there has been continuous speculation on the PGA Tour as to who will be the next Tiger Woods. We have become so accustomed to watching Tiger decimate his competition that since then, every time a young player has won a tournament or even showed some promise, we have immediately wondered if that new player will carry the torch for the next generation.
It is becoming clearer with each passing year that we will likely never see another career as dominant as Tiger’s. When Woods was in his prime, television ratings may have been at an all-time high, but tournaments were not very exciting. In fact, most of the time, they were a foregone conclusion after the opening round, as Tiger invariably would jump out to an early lead and then fend off anyone who dared to make a birdie for the rest of the weekend.
The PGA Tour never got its next-generation mega superstar like it had in Tiger, but it has something far more valuable in Rory McIlroy, Spieth and Day, the three-top ranked players in the world. They are clearly the three most consistent players in the world and on any given week all three of them seem like they are capable of anything.
In fact, it is hard not to watch this three-way rivalry unfold without making immediate comparisons to the Big Three (Palmer, Nicklaus and Player) who dominated the sport for decades.
Like the Big Three, this new holy triumvirate is nothing but class individuals. They are all upstanding global superstars who have remained well grounded and adjusted despite adding major titles to their resumes and millions of dollars to their bank accounts.
Also, these kids are very competitive. They all want to be the World No. 1 and will stop at nothing in their training and practice regimens to attain it.
Despite their determination, all three youngsters exhibit phenomenal sportsmanship towards one another and the game itself. They take the time to consort with fans, are sincere in their interviews with the media and seem genuinely happy for one another’s accomplishments.
One only has to look at how Spieth applauded Day down the stretch at the PGA Championship or at how McIlroy congratulated the young Texan for surpassing him as the premier player in the world for good recent examples of the strong character that these guys possess.
Spieth, who only recently turned 22, had a total score of 54-under-par in all four majors this season, besting Tiger’s previous record of -53 in 2000. The current World No. 1 won the first two majors of the season, finished in solo second at the PGA Championship and in a tie for 4th at the Open. In 21 events this season, he has 10 Top 10 finishes and is currently on pace to obliterate Vijay Singh’s 2004 PGA Tour record for earnings in a single-season ($10.9 million).
McIlroy, on the other hand, has had his season shortened by a ruptured ligament in his ankle, but finished in 17th place at the PGA Championship after many wondered whether he would even be physically able to walk the course. The Northern Irishman got off to a slow start to begin the season, but quickly got back to form before getting sidelined. In ten events this season, he has recorded two victories and six Top 10s.
Don’t expect McIlroy to just roll over now that his World No. 1 spot has been usurped. He spent 93 weeks at the top and will certainly be more motivated than ever to get it back.
I am certain that Day will have something to say about that.
Although the Big Three may have dominated for decades, the actual rivalries between Palmer, Nicklaus and Player were short lived as a result of their age discrepancies. Day, Spieth, and McIlroy, on the other hand, are all extremely young and have not even reached their primes yet. They are not going anywhere and this rivalry is just going to get better and better. It really does not matter which one of these three players ultimately ends up being the best when all the smoke clears. As long as this rivalry continues, we will all be winners.