By David Zakhodin
In the context of tennis and golf, parity is a very dangerous term to use. With such big fields of competitors battling to be the last one standing in demanding individual sports, victory is hard to come by on a consistent basis for even the world’s best. In tennis, it can be argued that parity has not existed since early 2004. For the last thirteen years, five men have largely dominated Grand Slam tennis in a way that has prevented many talented and successful players from breaking through. In particular, three of them have cemented themselves in the greatest of all time conversation while playing each other in overlapping eras.
In golf, however, parity has been the name of the game since the end of Tiger’s reign. At the start of last year’s Major season, three golfers were designated as the sport’s alphas. Featuring Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, and Jason Day, the Triumvirate has been a dud relative to the expectations set for it. However, with Dustin Johnson having emphatically won the U.S. Open and ascended to number one in the world, it would be very fair to add him to the Triumvirate and create golf’s own “Big Four”.
Since Dustin’s U.S. Open triumph, though, the golf world has been clinging to the narrative of feel-good first-time Major winners. While Dustin himself was one of those first-time winners, his win felt slightly more inevitable because of how much momentum he had built over the previous months. On the other hand, golfers like Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia were considered among the best to have never won over long and successful periods. Having entered so many Majors and not walked away victorious, doubt must have crept into the minds of both golfers as well as fans as to whether or not they would ever get it done. But with Henrik lifting the Claret Jug after his majestic battle with Phil at Royal Troon and Sergio putting on the green jacket after a duel with Justin Rose, career-defining success stories were born. And to make sure we award credit where credit is due, we cannot forget how journeyman Jimmy Walker held off Jason Day to win the PGA Championship and cement his spot in history.
Therefore, one can conclude that golf has largely been bailed out by the narratives shaped around the struggle that is the battle for a first-time Major title. Nonetheless, it would be naïve to think that the epicenter of the sport did not feature the aforementioned “Big Four.” With expectations always high for Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, and Dustin Johnson, we cannot help but be frustrated when they are not in contention on golf’s biggest stages. Before taking a look at how they stack up at this week’s U.S. Open, let’s examine their progress since being anointed as the sport’s alphas.
As taboo as the subject may be, one cannot help but think that Jordan Spieth simply has not been the same since the chunk on twelve at The Masters in 2016. While he has six Top 10’s this year, including a victory at the Pebble Beach Pro Am, the aura of invincibility that followed him at Augusta and Chambers Bay seems to have temporarily dissolved. On the 2017 PGA Tour, however, Jordan still ranks fourth in greens in regulation and has not digressed in the signature short game that elevated him to top dog status. Therefore, we must wonder if Jordan’s inability to regain dominance is a byproduct of his mental state as opposed to anything technical in his golf game. At Erin Hills, Jordan will find an extremely treacherous and long course that does not particularly suit his 86th ranked driving distance. Nonetheless, the sheer fact that we have seen this man win on a windy U.S. Open course reveals that we cannot count Jordan this weekend. If he can avoid getting in his own head and not get too caught up in his immense desire to win, the Texan may be lifting the U.S. Open Trophy once more.
With regard to Rory McIlroy, there does not seem to be much of an explanation for why he has not exhibited the form that won him The Open Championship and PGA Championship back to back in 2014. More recently, the form that carried him to victory at the Fed Ex Cup Playoff and to a very good showing at the Ryder Cup in late 2016 is absent. It is fair to acknowledge that Rory has battled a variety of injuries in the past couple years, but is that a real excuse for some of his inconsistent finishes? For example, this very year he began his campaign by finishing tied for 4th and tied for 7th at the WGC Mexico and Arnold Palmer Invitational, respectively. Two weeks later, he then arrives at the WGC Dell Matchplay and flames out early. Then, a pretty solid finish (tied for 7th) at Augusta is followed up by an underwhelming tied for 35th showing at The Players, arguably the biggest event outside the four Majors. Hence, this shows it is impossible to predict what Rory will do at Erin Hills. He has already publicly declared the course to be a difficult test, something that many golfers have said about both this course and U.S. Open courses in general. No matter, if Rory truly wants to reclaim the form that has taken him to four Majors, he must adapt to the course better than his fellow competitors and use past experience to come out on top as opposed to sighting built-in excuses.
For Jason Day, the pressure is off to a certain extent. Aside from the Pebble Beach Pro Am and the Byron Nelson in North Carolina, he does not have a single Top 10 finish in ten other events this year. For someone who ended 2016 atop the Official World Golf Ranking, 2017 has not treated Jason Day very well. According to TFCC sources, Jason’s caddie Colin Swatton claims that Jason is on the verge of returning to the form that earned him that number one ranking. While we take this comment with a grain of salt considering Jason’s recent results, it is nice to see the tandem confident in its ability to win a tournament where Jason has toyed with victory and played stellar golf (four Top 10’s in the last five years). But after a subpar start to the year, Jason must prove that he is prepared to rise to the occasion and finish the job on a very familiar stage where he has confidence but at a brand new venue which is impossible to predict.
Last, but not least, we arrive at the world’s current top golfer in Dustin Johnson. Prior to his freak tumble down the stairs at the start of The Masters, Dustin was on the sort of role that seemingly made fans shelve the parity argument surrounding golf. Not only was he the guy to watch at the four events he entered in February and March, but he was excelling in all phases of the game. We all know his reputation for having one of, if not, the biggest drives in the game, but it was his first-place number of greens in regulation and nearly top ten ranking birdie average that propelled him to dominance earlier in the season. Nothing was going to stop him outside of a freak accident, and unfortunately, that is precisely what occurred. It is unclear how much that incident affected Dustin, but his missed opportunity at Augusta coupled with a mind-boggling missed cut at last week’s Memorial Tournament is sign for concern. Dustin attempted to spin the poor first two rounds into an opportunity to get to Erin Hills earlier to study the U.S. Open course, but his outlook for these four days is very questionable. And on top of all that, the “pressure” that comes with defending a Major title will surely place unnecessary weight on the shoulders of a golfer looking for nothing more than to regain his confidence prior to the start of the weekend.
Having dissected the “Big Four” and their lack of consistency in the last twelve months, I cannot help but think that this U.S. Open is once again another opportunity for a first-time Major winner to steal the show. As much promise and experience as the four aforementioned champions may have at this stage, they have not shown enough to be considered shoe-ins or overwhelming favorites, especially on a brand new course with tons of variables. This predicament is a poor one because golf needs its stars to shine on a more consistent basis to break the trend of parity. Unpredictability is good to a certain extent, but when a way-too-young Si Woo Kim is winning The Players or a washed up and still overweight Jason Dufner is winning The Memorial without having to contend on Sunday against any of the “Big Four”, golf suffers.
At the 117th U.S. Open at Erin Hills, we fans want the sort of drama we have become accustomed to seeing at U.S. Opens past. However, the tone has to be set by these four golfers and their potential to either make a move up the leaderboard on Sunday or consolidate a 54-hole lead en route to victory. Not only would this create the most compelling storyline for a Major championship making its inaugural appearance at such a polarizing course, but it would put a hold on the feel-good first-time winner streak that has littered Major tournaments with too much parity and not enough consistency from the game’s best. If it is not meant to be, then maybe this is finally Rickie Fowler’s time to shine when the lights are brightest. His potential has often been compared to that of other “Big Four” members, and he has a ton of confidence following a victory earlier in the season at The Honda Classic and a tied for second finish at last week’s Memorial. It is without a doubt that Erin Hills and its treachery will wreak havoc on the field, and by Sunday, finishes from the first half of 2017 will be long forgotten. Instead, all “Big Four” focus will be on strategy, execution, and the intangible factor of badly wanting to end golf’s parity trend in order to restore dominance. The real question: which, if any, of the four alphas will be left standing?
For more on our U.S. Open coverage at Erin Hills, please check out our podcast previewing the championship and featuring several dark horse picks outside of the Big Four:
2017 performance statistics were provided courtesy of pgatour.com