by David Zakhodin
When the ball is struck off the first tee on the morning of Thursday, April 7th, three men will enter Augusta National Golf Club with the spotlight of the golf world shining upon them. Since 2008, we golf fans have wrestled with who should become the face of the sport following the demise of Tiger Woods. The last half decade has produced a slate of inconsistent champions and one-time wonders who have failed to permanently rise to the pinnacle of the sport. And even though it may be tempting to claim that golf is sunk deep in a state of parity, it is clear that after the outcome of the 2015 season, golf fans ought to no longer search for a singular face to lead our sport. Instead, we must embrace the birth of a Triumvirate captained by Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, and Rory McIlroy.
Just as the Roman Triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony, and Marcus Lepidus was defined by leaders who were highly qualified, Golf’s New Triumvirate is highlighted by past success and future potential. Of the three, Rory McIlroy emerged as the first contender for the face of golf. Whether it was triumphing at the 2011 U.S. Open only weeks after a historic collapse at The Masters or looking unperturbed on the back nine of his victorious campaign at the PGA Championship in Valhalla, Rory established himself as a result of his swagger and ability to perform under pressure. While much of the media rushed to crown Rory after his dominant 2014, a young prodigy in Jordan Spieth leapfrogged Rory in both the rankings and in popularity by accomplishing a feat that had only been previously achieved by five golfers: winning The Masters and The U.S. Open on arguably one of the most treacherous courses ever. As for the skeptics, Jordan silenced them with top four finishes at the season’s last two Majors and a victory at the Tour Championship. And just as we were about to coronate Jordan, things finally clicked for Jason Day who avenged his previous runner-up finishes at Majors by winning the PGA Championship. Since, Jason has stolen the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking from Jordan thanks to his early 2016 victories at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the WGC Dell Match Play. No matter what vantage point we see through, it’s evident that each of these three golfers has had his time to shine. However, after they tee off on Thursday, each strike of the ball will go a long way in dictating their pathway in cementing their stronghold on the sport.
While it is impossible to ascertain whether one of these three will be putting on the green jacket in the Butler Cabin on Sunday night, what we do know is that the 2016 Masters represents the first high stakes event where Jason, Jordan, and Rory will compete on a level playing field. More specifically, these four days will serve as a litmus test for determining whether or not one of the three can separate and establish his dominance over the other two just as Octavian asserted himself as the leader of Rome. Now, the reason this upcoming Masters yields a level playing field is because these golfers have reached a level of prestige where no more excuses can be made on their behalf. Jason can no longer pull the inexperience card and say that he has struggled finishing the job on the big stage because he is the world #1. Jordan has no excuse for being worn down after having played too much golf because we know he possesses the clutch gene that helps him shoot low scores even on his mediocre days. And Rory doesn’t get to talk anymore about his freak leg injury because he’s had a full offseason to regain the form that won him four Major titles. With demons from the past out of the equation, it is now imperative to examine both the tangible and intangible factors that will contribute or prevent these three from putting on the green jacket.
Beginning with their play on the golf course, evidence suggests that Jason is by far the hottest golfer of the three. When reports had him dead in the water after a suspected back injury, Jason steamed through the WGC Dell Match Play by most notably notching a big 1 Up victory over Rory in the semifinals. Even though the conditions at Austin Country Club hardly resemble those at Augusta National, the high level of play demonstrated by Jason and Rory shows that they are both primed to make a big push for their first respective Masters title. On the other hand, Jordan enters The Masters perceived as an utter enigma. Last year we knew what we were getting from him week in and week out on the course; this year we hardly have anything to build off aside from the victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii where he shot 30-under. While some may say that Jordan is going into the Masters fatigued and lacking confidence, I say beware of the defending champion. If Jordan can find that zone where he hits the 75% greens in regulation that he hit during last year’s Masters and pairs it with his usual brilliance on the putting green, he will surely be placing the green jacket on his own shoulders as opposed to the shoulders of another rival.
Perhaps more integral to the progression of a four-day event such as The Masters is the body language and mental fortitude that a golfer exhibits in his quest to making the winning putt on the 72nd hole. For Jason and Rory, everything boils down to maintaining poise should they set themselves up for victory on the back nine of the final round. It was five years ago that Rory collapsed with his infamous final round of 80 while Jason failed to put his foot on the pedal and let Charl Schwartzel slip into the green jacket. However, with Jason having accumulated so many wins over the last six months and Rory showing off his regained form with the WGC Dell Match Play performance, both should have no problem embracing the pressure of stepping up on a stage where they have previously faltered. And even though past results at Augusta paint Jason and Rory as the underdogs and Jordan as the favorite, the mainstream golf media claims otherwise. Maybe Jordan no longer has anything to prove to himself, but he has to show his doubters that he is capable of regaining the same level that elevated him to the pinnacle of the sport last season. Today, the conversation revolves around Jordan’s recent woes, but I renounce the idea that somehow Jordan’s alleged inconsistency is going to prevent him from performing at the level required to regain the green jacket. In fact, it’s amazing how recency bias surrounding Jason’s hot hand has absolutely shelved the success that Jordan had last year. If not for a two-putt on the 71st hole at St. Andrews, we may very well be talking about a winner of both the calendar Slam and the FedEx Cup Playoffs as well as the world number #1. Therefore, it’s crucial not to underestimate the resilience and strength of the man who seized the reins of the golf world last year and may very well become the Octavian of this Triumvirate.
As much attention as we give to the three favorites, we cannot ignore the chip on the shoulders of the rest of the field. If there is anything we have learned from The Masters in the past half decade, it is that Augusta National often presents winning opportunities for golfers who are rarely in the limelight. While the Zach Johnsons, Charl Schwartzels, Bubba Watsons, and Adam Scotts of the world may get some favorable betting odds from Vegas because of their past success, the 2016 Masters is still not about those golfers. They may be Major champions, but they have not risen to the level of Jason, Jordan, and Rory because of their inability to maintain a consistent presence in the winner’s circle. The bottom line is that Jason, Jordan, and Rory will fuel the bulk of the conversation before, during, and after this week’s event. We golf fans won’t have to waste our time listening to mainstream golf media spending eons of time covering the state of Tiger Woods’ back during his mysterious rehab schedule. Instead, all eyes will be on three golfers who will push one another to their respective limits in pursuit of greatness. Despite the fact that today’s Triumvirate lacks the longevity of the first Golf Triumvirate composed of Harry Vardon, John Henry Taylor, and James Braid that won sixteen Open Championships between 1894 and 1914, it is unequivocally the face of golf. And if Jason, Jordan, and Rory push one another the way Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player pushed each other throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, then we will surely be immersed in a new age of golf for which the tone was set by the outcome of the 2016 Masters.