Tiger Woods Is Fading? No Worries! The Young Guns Are Here

February 4, 2015

It is incorrect to say that golf’s Next Big Thing is here.

You should say that golf’s Next Big Things are here.

What’s happening in golf is similar to what happened in the NBA. Doomsayers predicted a down-period for the league in the wake of Michael Jordan’s retirement. His Airness had singlehandedly carried the game and, in fact, had become the game. Then, Jordan stepped away from the spotlight. Did the public lose interest in the Jordan-less NBA? No, because new stars sprouted.

Tiger Woods filled the same role for golf. He didn’t just lift golf, he was golf and pretty much still is golf. Tiger has been a one-man total eclipse of all golf for nearly two decades.

That is about to change. (As Woods’s horrific chipping display last week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open seemed to indicate, he’s certainly winding down and apparently at the end of his dominating period.) It takes a village to replace Tiger. And the village is filling up remarkably fast.

For sheriff, Rory McIlroy, 26, is the official heir apparent. He has four majors, including the last two, and needs just the Masters to complete the career Grand Slam. He’s off and running after his Dubai win on Sunday.

After Rory comes the young Americans, starting with boy wonder Jordan Spieth, 21, who challenged Bubba Watson at last year’s Masters. Then there’s Rickie Fowler, 26, a marketing juggernaut who finished in the top five in all four majors after working with instructor Butch Harmon to get his game to the next level. Rickie still only has the one Tour victory, but he’s primed to bust out with a bunch.

There is also Patrick Reed, 24, a brash Ryder Cupper who has not made a career of buddying up to teammates or other pros but is starting to pile up wins, his latest coming last month at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

As we were reminded in Phoenix, there’s no shortage of future stars. Justin Thomas, a 21-year-old rookie out of Alabama, briefly worked his way into contention. He finished 17th but it appears to be just a matter of time before he lifts a trophy.

Also blossoming is Hideki Matsuyama. Some observers rate Matsuyama, the winner of last year’s Memorial, as golf’s best iron player, and his short game isn’t bad either. Forget the once-trendy Ryo Ishikawa. Matsuyama will most likely be Japan’s first major champion. He is only 21 and looks like a formidable challenger to McIlroy.

Matsuyama had to settle for second place in Phoenix. The trophy went to Brooks Koepka, another one of the Next Big Things. Maybe you noticed Koepka make a run at the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. Perhaps you heard about him winning the Turkish Airlines Open on the European Tour with a closing round of 63. If not, your first look at him may have come when he poured in a 51-foot eagle putt from off the green at the 15th hole to take the lead—for good, it turned out—on Sunday at TPC Scottsdale.

Koepka, 24, has power to burn. Off the tee, he can keep up with McIlroy. He had a good but not great career at Florida State. When he didn’t get through Q-school, he tried the Challenge tour in Europe, got his first pro win, then bounced back at Pinehurst and with the win in Turkey.

He seems fearless and totally chill at the same time. He seems like exactly the kind of silent assassin you wouldn’t want to face in a Ryder Cup.

Sure, you’ve heard it before. Big things are predicted for every new face who wins but seldom do the floodgates ever open.

These guys are different. Spieth has that special something. Fowler is chasing it. Hard. Reed has a lot of young Raymond Floyd in him.

Koepka? Well, his last name was mispronounced on the 1st tee on Sunday; it came out sounding like “Cupcake.” He’s anything but. He talked about the detours he’s had and about how his failures were blessings because they made him work harder.

Here is the most revealing part: Koepka told a roomful of writers after his win, “I want to be the best player in the world.” He wasn’t bragging. He said it matter-of-factly. He added that he knows he’s not near that level yet, but that he isn’t afraid to say what his goal is.

Now, when was the last time you heard a U.S. golfer say he had intentions of being the world’s best? Not in Tiger’s world. Just as Woods inspired a generation to take up golf, his apparent decline seems to have inspired another generation to shoot for his throne. These are the most motivated young players we’ve seen in 20 years.

Which of these Next Big Things will be the Biggest Thing?

We can’t wait to find out.

This article appeared in the most recent issue of SI Golf+ Digital, our weekly e-magazine. Click here to read this week’s issue and sign up for a free subscription.