The Open Championship begins on Thursday July 18, at Royal Portrush Golf Club, County Antrim. It is just the second time that the British Open has been played outside of Great Britain – the first having been in 1951. That’s one reason to watch this weekend, or even go to the event in person. Royal Portrush is of course, just a 3-hour drive from UCD. Another reason to watch is that elite world golf has never been more exciting.
In the decades that preceded the coming of Tiger Woods, the pool of major golf champions was far more concentrated than it has been in the 21st century. For example: Nicklaus (18), Player (9), Watson (8), Palmer (7), Trevino (6), Faldo (6), etc. As Tiger (15) began to take over, winning 14 majors between 1997 and 2008, no other player could perform consistently enough, or preserve their form for long enough, to win more than just 3: Mickelson, Els and Harrington (though Mickelson and Els would win some more once Tiger became absent). As such, this period represents an 11-year Tiger Woods domination. Similarly, in the period between Tiger’s dramatic exit (November ’09) and his 15th major championship (April ’19), the highest multiple major winners were McIlroy and Koepka, with just 4 and 3 major wins respectively. Of the 36 majors held during this period, 24 (66%) were won by first-time major champions. That McIlroy was the most dominant major winner of any golfer across those 10 years, meant that a lacuna had formed, in which much weaker players had opportunities to pick up major championships that they might not otherwise have had. This 66% included the likes of Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson, Jimmy Walker and Danny Willet, who are all significantly poorer golfers than the historical idea of major champions. However, the absence of a dominant major superstar over those 10 years cannot entirely account for that 66%. Some portion of the 66% may also have come about, because golfers have generally improved across the board, cancelling one another out from becoming major champion monopolists.
In the last year, 3 factors have emerged that should make us excited about elite golf. The first: Woods has miraculously returned to major championship glory in perhaps the greatest career comeback in sporting history, clinching the Masters last April. For non-golf fans, it will be hard to understand how unlikely this was. To put it in perspective, Rory McIlroy was streaming tears of joy in the clubhouse. Woods overcame 11 years of personal scandal and severe back injuries, the latter of which were so grave that 2 years ago he couldn’t even walk. This comeback means even more though, because of who Tiger is to the sport.
Woods is often said to have changed the game of golf. In their award winning 2018 biography, Benedict and Keteyian wrote that following Tiger’s 1997 Masters victory at age 21, the front sports-pages of newspapers in the US dropped the NFL and NBA, putting PGA front and center regularly for the first time. Overnight, golf was no longer old, un-athletic, boring and white. It was young, athletic, cool and black. As featured in the Rolex ads that flash during the majors on Sky Sports, when Tiger pitched in for eagle in one of his first PGA starts, he was wearing an over-sized dark green shirt and gold chains, looking much more like a basketball player. Indeed, he pretty much was. He recently detailed an exchange he had with former World Number 1 Justin Thomas (then 24, now 26). Thomas asked about Woods’ daily routine when he was 24. The answer? ‘Well I’d wake up, run 4 miles, lift weights, hit balls for 2-3 hours, go play, then work on my short game, then run another 4 miles, and then play basketball or tennis.’ This kind of athleticism has continued to influence the modern, young tour professional. McIlroy, Koepka, Spieth, Thomas and now practically all the youngest PGA pros have sprung from the Woods model – mixing bodybuilding and athletics with golf, while simultaneously marketing golf as a cooler sport.
Which brings us to the second reason to get excited about elite golf. The PGA tour’s newest pros. Are these guys as good as Woods was 15 years ago? The answer, many think, is yes. We’re entering a period of elite golf where Tiger – the man who inspired golf to be cool, is about to go to war with all those he inspired. Those inspired, however, might now prevent him from statistically becoming the greatest ever. Take Victor Hovland (avg. 299 yards) and Matthew Wolff (avg. 313 yards), both formerly from Oklahoma State University. Both are driving it longer than Woods did when he was their age (avg. 290 in 2000). Hovland and Wolff are future Ryder Cup behemoths. Hovland (Norway) won the US Amateur at Pebble Beach last year and Wolff (US) won his 4th PGA start as an amateur or pro last week (3M Open). Tiger by comparison, didn’t win until his 15th. Neither were born when Tiger first won the Masters and yet, Hovland could play alongside him this weekend.
The third reason for excitement: Brooks Koepka. At 29, like most mid-age golfers, he also grew up watching Tiger Woods. He talks fondly of how he spent hours after Tiger’s 1997 Masters win at the range when he was 8. With 4 majors since 2017, and recent major form of 2nd-1st -2nd-1st, Koepka is the best player in the world by far. ‘No Laying Up’, the popular golf podcast, tweeted during Koepka’s romp of Bethpage Black in May, that he is like an EA sports user-created, 99-rated player. Huge from the gym (the most muscular player on tour), dressed in crazy clothing (he sparked fashion controversy for wearing Nike caps with the N-I-K-E positioned vertically and sideways), and only playing the majors, while skipping everything else, as if he’s simply playing PlayStation. Koepka, like Tiger, is anti-traditional golf fashion. He looks more NFL than PGA, listens to Meek Mill and Yo Gotti and dons himself off the course in Nike Skateboarding gear. Interestingly, he has almost indicated that he doesn’t even particularly enjoy golf (never plays recreationally) and seems to lament that he didn’t become a baseball player. He also met his girlfriend because she DM’d him on Instagram. So, he’s no doubt a new icon for the sport, appealing to young, trendier golfers. But will he reach Woods’ heights? Or will he follow Spieth and McIlroy, i.e. win 3 or 4 in quick succession, get everyone excited and then plateau. I think if we were to back anyone to follow Woods, Koepka has to be our guy. And certainly, he says he’s aiming for double digits. This weekend at Portrush will help give us an answer. His secret weapon in Northern Ireland? The club is the home course of his caddie, Ricky Elliott, who should know all the secrets. If Koepka lifts the Claret Jug on Sunday 22nd, he would, as are the stakes for McIlroy, join Mickelson as the closest current golfer to Woods on major victories.
The last 20 years of golf history have built up to the finale that will be the next few years of majors. There is a real likelihood that the 3 excitement factors this article has outlined will come together at the Open, making it the finale of a real-life TV series now in its 20th season. Will Woods become the greatest golfer ever, or will the ripple effect of his inspiration get in the way? – Tiger’s coolness brand having contributed to making golfers better at the sport than ever imaginable. Principally, the Open will be a more exciting competition than back when 66% of major winners were first-timers. There is now more of a balance between the heavyweights (Woods, Koepka and McIlroy are all the bookies favourites) and the chance that an underdog might snatch one. Only 4 of the last 9 majors have been won by first timers (44%), and the first-timers that did win were better career golfers than most of the major snatchers from previous years. Given that the USPGA was moved to May this year, instead of its usual August, the British Open, typically seen as the 2nd most prestigious major, takes on even more significance, becoming the final major of the year. That this will happen in Ireland makes it a once off that is not to be missed.
In the past, I predicted Xander Schauffele or Matthew Fitzpatrick would win the Masters. Schauffele ended up coming 2nd. For good measure, I’ll have another stab at this one. Although I think he’s generally a little headless (for example: urinating just off Dustin Johnson’s line in the rough at Bethpage or lashing it in the water having disagreed with his caddie on 13 at the masters), I’m going to back Jon Rahm to take his first major title @ 14/1 with Paddy Power, having won twice on Irish links in the last 3 years. Alternatively, I’m going to get behind Schauffele again @ 20/1. He’s been sickeningly close every time this year, having also finished 2nd to Molinari on the tougher links at Carnoustie for the Open last year.