We have to resist the hype and hyperbole, because we’ve given in so many times before and been burned: but 2015 really does feel like the year golf moved beyond Tiger Woods.
After Jason Day’s PGA Championship win, the Official World Golf Ranking has a new No. 1, and the most potential-laden Top 3 it’s had in years: Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Jason Day, and if that’s what the top of the leaderboards look like for the next decade, golf couldn’t ask for anything more.
After a season for the ages, at 22 Spieth is the second-youngest ever to top the rankings. His performance in majors was nothing short of historic: his combined 54 under par over the four events is a record. To put it another way, a kid who only became legally allowed to drink last year teed off against 561 opponents across the majors—all of them the best in the world at what they do—and was beaten by just four of them. That is dominance of a kind we haven’t seen in a while, but Jason Day’s breakthrough was insurmountable even by Spieth. And Spieth knew it, and couldn’t do much but be awed:
“This is as easy a loss as I’ve ever had because I felt I couldn’t do much about it,” Spieth said. “Jason was just that good.”
Day is young himself, just 27, but he was as due as anyone’s ever been. In 19 major starts in his career, Day had tallied three runner-up finishes, six Top-5s, and nine Top-10s. “The biggest thing that prepares you for something like this,” Day said, “is the sheer experience of failure.”)
But golf has had plenty of tough-luck losers over the years: in Day, it has someone with a backstory that makes you want to root for him. Day was born to a mixed-race, working-class family on Australia’s east coast, and after his father died when he was 12, his mother sent him away to school to keep him from going down what seemed like it was going to be a very bad path.
“I’ve changed so much from where I was and what I saw as a kid to where I am now,” said Day. “I mean, it’s just an amazing feeling, an amazing story to really be able to tell people, to give them insight on what I felt and the emotions that I’ve gone through growing up as a kid in Australia and losing my dad very young. I have no idea where I would be, what I would be doing, probably wouldn’t be doing much of anything. And I wouldn’t be challenging myself and trying to better myself if I didn’t have the people that I have in my life today.
“That’s why a lot of emotion came out on 18. That’s why a lot of emotion came out for me. Just knowing that my mum took a second mortgage out on the house, borrowed money from my aunt and uncle, just to get me away from where I was to go to school, seven hours drive.
“I remember growing up, we were poor. I remember watching her cut the lawn with a knife because we couldn’t afford to fix the lawn mower. I remember not having a hot water tank, so we had to use a kettle for hot showers. So, you know, we would put the kettle on and go have a shower, and then my mum would come bring three or four kettles in, just to heat them up. And it would take five, 10 minutes for every kettle to heat up.
“So just to be able to sit in front of you guys today and think about those stories, it gets me emotional knowing that I’m the PGA champion now and it feels good.”
If 2015’s leaderboards belonged to Spieth and Day, it’s a little too easy to forget Rory McIlroy. Last year’s No. 1 had a difficult season by his standards, despite finishing fourth at the Masters and ninth at the U.S. Open. A soccer injury kept him out of the British Open, and he clearly wasn’t in full form at Whistling Straits, his first tournament back after six weeks of recovery. That was enough for Spieth to surpass him in the world rankings, and McIlroy handled it well.
McIlroy is just 26 years old himself, and has the longest track record of the world’s top three. He should be there to play foil, or villain, or motivation to Spieth and Day, and vice versa, for many years to come.
Tiger Woods is done. Phil Mickelson has slid into the role of still-relevant veteran. Sergio Garcia’s peak was never what we hoped it could be. Nearly two decades on from the beginning of golf’s last renaissance, it’s desperate for a new pack of poster boys. There’s no predicting the future, but there’s no reason to think Spieth and McIlroy and Day (and sure, why not, throw in Rickie Fowler) aren’t going to be here for a long time. True rivalries will come with experience, but the best part will be seeing those rivalries grow. And until then, they’ve already made golf more fun than it’s been in years.