First came the ‘Tiger Woods’ era. 281 consecutive weeks as the World Number One, 683 weeks overall, with 14 majors and 71 PGA Tour titles. The highest average birdies per round for a season. The most consecutive rounds at par or better (52). 141 consecutive cuts made. Utter dominance of the sport of golf.
Between 1997 with ‘that’ Masters win until the 2008 US Open playoff, excluding a few brief injuries, most major tournaments were classified mentally by fans as Tiger Woods vs. everyone else.
And yet, one fateful day – 1st November 2010 – it was no more. A body betrayed by injuries and scandal. What replaced the Tiger Woods era only a few short years later was a new generation. One that came to be known as the ‘Big 4’.
The Big 4 Era
Only properly coined as a phrase in 2016, looking back at it – the era of the Big 4 was simple. Instead of one player ruling the roost for years at a time, the level of top-tier golfers after Tiger’s fall was so equally matched, that each young superstar ended up taking turns in establishing themselves as the definitive World Number One. Then, after a while, each new star would replace the other – providing golfing fans with revolving icons to admire and adore for five years.
The first to kick-start the new trend was Rory McIlroy, announcing himself in earnest with four big wins in 2014, including The Open, to end the year on top of the world.
However, as you might expect from the Big 4 era, he couldn’t sustain the success. At the first sight of a blip, he was dethroned by Jordan Spieth, who took 2015 by storm – winning five times in the year, including the Masters and US Open.
However, as we mentioned, none of the challengers to the throne had Tiger’s level of focus. Spieth was soon replaced as World Number One by Jason Day – who racked up eight impressive wins between 2015 and 2016, including his first major title at the 2015 PGA Championship.
After a staggering 47 weeks at the top, you don’t need us to tell you that Jason Day was himself replaced by another emerging superstar in the form of Dustin Johnson. So often an also-ran because of his historic record of bottling major finishes, DJ finally grabbed his first big silverware at the US Open at Oakmont last year, one of six wins for 2016.
As you know, DJ is still World Number One, but like so many of his fellow ‘Big 4’ challengers, has failed to show consistent dominance in 2017. In fact, the biggest shock to come out of the ‘Big 4’ era is how often the majors change hands.
Starting with Jason Day at the PGA Championship on 2015, there was a streak of seven first-time major winners in a row; through Danny Willet at the 2016 Masters, Dustin Johnson with the 2016 US Open, Henrik Stenson for the 2016 Open, Jimmy Walker at the 2016 USPGA, Sergio in this year’s Masters and then of course, Brooks Koepka at the US Open – the streak only being broken by Jordan Spieth’s triumph at the Open.
That’s not even the longest streak in recent memory either! Between the 2010 US Open and the 2012 Open, there was a nine-streak of new major winners (I won’t list them all this time) – and the tenth was only denied when Adam Scott disintegrated during the final round, allowing Ernie Els to win the 2012 Claret Jug. Want a shocking statistic? Between 1934 (the very first major – the Masters) and 2010, the longest streak had been six. Since then, we have already seen a seven and nine-streak, all springing from the end of Tigers’ period of dominance.
Perhaps the clearest theme to emerge from the chaotic trophy dominance of the last seven years is the fact that world ranking seem to have very little effect on who will lift the Masters silverware.
For instance, if someone asked you today to pick a potential winner for the 2018 Masters – who would you pick?
The easy choice would be to follow the World Golf Rankings and pick Dustin Johnson – as we mentioned, the World Number One for the past 40 weeks, but hasn’t won a major since 2016’s US Open.
Alternatively, you could choose to follow the bookmakers and keep the faith in Jordan Spieth – the current 7/1 favourite – who won the Masters in 2015 and the Open this year.
We could go on. On form you’d almost certainly pick Justin Thomas, whose end to 2017 almost beggars belief. One of Spieth’s closest friends – Thomas picked up his first major at the US PGA Championship in August, netted another five tournament wins, won the PGA Tour season-ending FedEx Cup, was named the PGA Tour Player of the Year and is now up to third in the world.
A strong selection, you might say. Yet how could you ignore Rory McIlroy – who should be fully back to fitness after time out to recuperate from injury and desperate to claim his Grand Slam? Or former World Number One Jason Day? Or World Number Four Hideki Matsuyama?
The list goes on. John Rahm, Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler, reigning US Open champion Brooks Koepka, reigning Masters champion Sergio Garcia, Tyrell Hatton, Paul Casey, Phil Mickelson and even – according to reports – potentially Tiger Woods himself.
Image credit: Danny Lawson/PA
The only clarity, as we can see, it that it is very unclear across such a broad field of talent. The singular domination of the Tiger Woods era became the ‘Big 4’ era, now becomes…the Big 10, 20? We are clearly reaching a point where there will no longer be any clear dominance. And what then?
The Equality Era
If there is no longer a Top 4 or ‘biggest player’ era, and instead the Era of Equality, the question becomes – will it actually make a difference to the game of golf overall?
Clearly there are other factors involved, including the extra effort needed to win a major these days, with so much talent spread so widely and the improvements of golf equipment, as well as the ease of access for far more people to be able to play golf regularly – meaning far more up and coming players.
Whether one player’s dominance of the major scene affects the game overall continues to divide even golf professionals, however.
Rickie Fowler – certainly a player who would love to be able to worry about being a first-time major winner – doesn’t see it as a problem. “I think it’s a great thing,” he said after the US Open this year. “I’m not saying the older guys are out, by any means, but I think we’re making our presence a little bit more known.”
With no-one to chase though, is there a risk of putting off casual golf viewers? As Brand Snedeker put it recently, “You need to have one guy push everybody to get better, which Tiger did, and Jack did before that. I don’t know who this next generation guy is going to be, but for the casual fan they want to know who is going to win every week.”
The Numbers Don’t Lie
To be fair, it seems unrealistic to expect golf to consistently produce a small handful of wold-dominating players – particularly when so many players these days see the sport as more of a job than an all-consuming need to win. Such professionalism means there will often be competing talents of a similar level.
Instead, we need to examine if the lack of a single face (or four) at the top of the sport has affected the number playing it regularly. Thankfully, the answer appears to be no.
The statistics released earlier this year make for hopeful reading for golf fans. In 2016, English golf clubs saw their biggest rise in membership this century – rocketing from the low of 442,500 in 2013 to 520,600 as of last October.
What’s more, golfers who are members of a club rose from 37% in 2011 to 46% last year.
To top it all off, those 16 and over playing golf once a month or more? Up from 1.09 million to 1.31 million in the space of 2016!
We’re not saying it’s down to the end of the ‘Big 4’ era, but seeing the very best talents in the world creating a level playing field certainly feels like encouragement to us amateur golfers at the weekend.