Golf has an MMA problem. That is, its stars, like those of mixed martial arts, keep hitting the mat with a thud just as we’re starting to buy into their greatness and set all those glossy magazine covers on the racks. Sub in—in no particular order—Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy for Ronda Rousey, Conor McGregor and Holly Holm and you get the idea.
Although there have been no arm bars or left hooks to blame, golf’s Big Three have come crashing to the canvas with alarming suddenness and regularity. Day’s back-nine 41 in the first round of the Masters came right after he’d gone out in 31 to hype the tantalizing tilt of Day vs. Spieth II.
McIlroy played such solid golf over the first two rounds at Augusta that playing partner Bill Haas openly predicted he’d win.
And finally, most gruesome of all: The 12th hole made chopped ham of Spieth, or vice-versa, in front of God, country and Bill Macatee.
Stop the fight!
“We still have the confidence that we’re a closing team and can close,” Spieth said after not closing. He looked as gobsmacked as Rousey after she took a spinning kick to the face, but then again you might have, too.
Is nothing sacred? If we can’t count on the Big Three, then what have we got left? And to add insult to Masters injuries, Day, having played his way into a share of the lead at the RBC Heritage, shot a third-round 79 to drop like a sack of rice. Sigh.
Last week Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte reported that Tiger Woods has been delving into “a series of four- and five-hour practice sessions at Medalist Golf Club.” That’s good, because if you’re like many fans right now—yearning for a No. 1 to play like it, giving the game definition—you’re having some Tiger pangs. The Masters and RBC were the latest reminders of what a once-in-a-lifetime talent he was, and what’s missing.
In Woods’s place are a handful of great players—more than three of them, in all likelihood—who are alternately infallible and all too human.
Masters champion Danny Willett, 28, looked terrific with his bogey-free final-round 67 at Augusta. Alas, his fragile back is an ongoing concern.
Bryson DeChambeau, who turned pro after Augusta, put a Puma on his cap, and tied for fourth at the RBC Heritage. He is quirky-good but at 22 still raw.
Branden Grace, 27, was 163rd in strokes gained putting until parlaying a one-week reprieve on the greens into his first Tour win at Harbour Town.
And then we have those three guys, in whom we once had total belief, and who, not so long ago, seemed to have total belief in themselves.
Said McIlroy of the lifeless third-round 77 he shot when paired with Spieth (73) at Augusta: “I felt very tentative, played very defensively, felt very similar to how I played the last round at Doral. You’re just trying not to make mistakes instead of attacking and trying to make birdies. Trying not to make mistakes is not my game, that’s not what I do.”
Day sounded spent at Harbour Town: “I’ve only been home ten days since December 28th. I haven’t been playing much golf, but I’ve been on the road preparing for each and every tournament….So it’s been a long trip up until now, so I’m looking forward to getting some time off.”
Said Spieth at Augusta: “I’m very confident in the way that we play the game of golf. I think that when we’re on, I believe that we’re the best in the world.”
This is the sound of three men coming to grips with their frailty. They’ve got issues—defensiveness, fatigue, shell shock—but we can distill their comments into “when we’re on.” Spieth was referencing his team—caddie Michael Greller, etc.—but may as well have been talking about the Big Three. And he could have added that when they’re on they can look as good as vintage Tiger Woods.
Think of the firepower McIlroy demonstrated at the 2014 British Open at Hoylake, hitting breathtaking iron shots of 252 and 237 yards on the way to making eagles at the par-5 16th and 18th holes, respectively, to separate from the field.
Think of Spieth’s 18-under score to win the 2015 Masters as he became the only player to go that deep at Augusta other than Woods in 1997.
And think of Day putting like a Jedi master amid his “stripe show”—Spieth’s words—at last summer’s PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
No doubt Spieth and McIlroy will get back up off the mat, and good for Day for enlisting Woods as his de facto corner man during their long skull sessions on the phone. But the travails of these would-be Woodses lead us back to a sobering reality, the inescapable conclusion a new twist on an old quote:
The older we get, the better he used to be.