The 2015 season was my 22nd covering the PGA Tour, and to be honest, it takes a little more to get my heart racing than it used to. I know this year was something special because there were two moments when I could barely breathe. The first came on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, as the riveting two-man drama between Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson played out. I walked up the fairway with Spieth and was standing maybe seven yards away when he hit that epic 3-wood, the flight of which has been forever burned into my mind’s eye. A little while later, as Dustin Johnson stood over his four-foot putt to force a playoff, I became aware that I was taking short, choppy breaths, like a mom-to-be in the delivery room. I could only laugh at how invested this impartial observer had become in the outcome. Scarcely a month later I was standing next to the Road Hole green while Spieth—chasing the third leg of the calendar-year Grand Slam—lined up one of the more important par putts in history. I could feel my pulse pounding in my forehead, and when I went to write something in my notebook, the tip of the pen snapped. I haven’t experienced that kind of tension since the madcap final hole of the 2014 PGA Championship, when I was running in the near-darkness at Valhalla, my legs tingly from all the adrenaline.
That PGA was won by Rory McIlroy, of course. Rickie Fowler was in it until the bitter end, just as Jason Day factored in both Opens this year before his spectacular breakthrough at Whistling Straits, when he stared down Spieth. It takes a group of young players this exciting and appealing to make me respond on such a visceral level, and I’m guessing I’m not alone. (Johnson and Bubba Watson are a bit older but no less compelling.) Ever since Tiger Woods met the fire hydrant on a fateful Thanksgiving night in 2009, there has been fretting about golf’s survival in the marketplace when he exits stage right. Now that we know how thrilling this new era is going to be, 2015 has earned a place in the pantheon of epochal seasons, alongside 1962 (Nicklaus usurping Palmer), 1977 (the beginning of the Watson era), 1985 (Langer and Lyle winning majors to touch off a decade of European dominance) and 1997 (Woods’s arrival, natch). That Tiger is still around is merely a bonus. He may no longer be relevant competitively, but he is more compelling than ever in human terms. His struggle to find himself has turned into a noble quest. I never thought I would feel pity for this most imperious of athletes, yet I walked the last couple of holes with Woods at St. Andrews, and watching him miss the cut on his favorite course left me strangely melancholy. Tiger and I turned pro the same year—I graduated from UCLA in the spring of 1996, a few months before he left Stanford and had his “hello, world” moment. Living through the twilight of his career is like being confronted with your own mortality.
Meanwhile, the kids who’ve taken over the game offer the promise of an endless future. This neo-Big Three of Spieth, McIlroy and Day is a challenge for fans because they’re all so darn likable. In any rivalry the protagonists are usually polarizing. In this case, you might root a little harder for one of these guys, but I have never heard anyone root against any of them. Saturday night at Whistling Straits I watched Day pound balls on the range until near dark. As he was walking off, our eyes locked for a second and I offered perfunctory good luck wishes for the next day. He said with a grin, “There’s a lot to look forward to, mate.” Indeed there is.