DOES THE CURRENT YOUTH MOVEMENT PORTEND A BRIGHT FUTURE FOR THE PGA TOUR?
Despite some flashes of his former brilliance at the Quicken Loans National, it’s safe to declare the Tiger Woods era of professional golf “officially” over. In its place is an expansive youth movement that features several budding young stars. Long gone is the Tiger intimidation factor. Most golf pundits think the youth trend is a very good thing for the golf. Is it really?
The youth movement is unmistakable. Four of the top five golfers in the official World Golf Ranking are under 28: Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, and Ricky Fowler. Dustin Johnson, who is seventh on the list, is just 32. The 2014-2015 tour has featured several first-time winners barely old enough to vote.
Young amateurs are even contending in majors. Six made the cut at the U.S. Open, the most since 1966, and five made it at the British—the most since 1981. One amateur, 22-year old Paul Dunne, shared the lead after 54-holes. In the end, an amateur finished T-6 (Jordan Niebrugge) and two tied for 12th (Ollie Schniederjans and Ashley Chester). Georgia Tech’s Schniederjans became the third amateur since 1960 to make the cut in both the U.S. and British Opens in the same year. In his first two tournaments after turning pro—the RBC Canadian and Quicken Loans National championships—he finished 22nd and 15th, respectively. It seems young budding stars are everywhere.
This youth movement is a relatively new phenomenon. It used to be it took time for young talented players to learn the PGA Tour ropes: how to dress, conduct themselves, learn the intricacies of travel, become familiar with new course layouts and conditions, and, most importantly, overcome the fear factor of competing against the top players. Playing golf for a living was an entirely new experience and it took a while to get comfortable with its inherent pressures. Not anymore, or so it seems.
The typical young player that joins the PGA Tour these days is a seasoned veteran of tough competition. From junior golf through college programs they play against the best players, many of whom go on to become winners on the Tour. Competing successfully against such players reduces the fear factor. “I beat so-and-so in college tournaments; there’s no reason I can’t beat him in the pros,” is a common sentiment. This attitude, along with the current absence of a dominant player like Woods, and to a lesser extent Phil Mickelson, raises confidence that any young pro can win if they play well. In the Tiger era, many players felt they were playing for second.
The preparation and experience one gains in junior and college golf is far different than in my day when I was a budding golfer with thoughts about a possible professional career. When I played at San Diego State (SDSU) in the early 1960s, we didn’t have swing, fitness and mental coaches like players do these days. Our golf “coach’s” role was essentially to arrange trips and turn in a lineup for matches. We even had to drive ourselves to matches and tournaments.
We played few intercollegiate tournaments, the dominant form of college competition these days. Such events pit the top players in the nation against each other. Most of our competition was head-to-head matches against other college teams. Sometimes I faced a top player, who would go on to the tour, but most times opponents didn’t have professional aspirations. At SDSU in the early 1960’s, we played in only four intercollegiate tournaments, including the NCAA finale.
And, we weren’t lavished with state-of-the-art golf equipment, which has become the norm. Our perk? We were given one golf ball before each competitive round.
Admittedly golf programs larger than ours at San Diego State weren’t so Spartan, but you get my point. College golf in those days wasn’t a high-powered enterprise; you didn’t major in professional golf. Most college players that went on to play on the PGA Tour struggled against the competition, at least at first. Many great players I remember never succeeded on the tour.
With all the resources, coaching, training, technical improvements in equipment, and top competition, young players who come up through the college ranks are tour ready. This largely explains why so many young players win early in their professional careers—and why there are so many first-time winners. I expect this trend to continue.
Is the youth movement good for golf? Although most golf pundits declare that with so many good young players, and the budding McIlroy-Spieth rivalry, the Tour is in a good place. I’m not so sure. It’s appealing to watch great golf, and who isn’t mesmerized by the prodigious drives of a McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Bubba Watson, Tony Finau, or a Justin Thomas? But how much fun is it really to watch a different, often “no-name,” winner each week? And who enjoys the snooze-producing winner interviews with their steady diet of scripted, uninspiring answers?
Let’s face it, for all their skill and tour-readiness, with a few exceptions, most young players are, I don’t know how else to say it, bland and boring. As I’ve written previously on BLS, I believe professional golf needs more colorful characters—and, I might add, more players of color. It also needs a spirited rivalry at the top with a little edge to it.
A compelling McIlroy-Spieth rivalry may surely develop, but I suspect both young stars are simply too nice and respectful to bring the necessary edge to their competition. Past rivalries like Arnie-Jack-Gary and Tiger-Phil had personality conflicts that made for compelling drama. Each had their fans and detractors who would let their feelings be known, sometimes in ugly ways. Rory and Jordan? Both are hard not to like. The media will no doubt play it up, but a McIlroy-Spieth rivalry is not likely to create the kind of buzz of past rivalries.
As to the alleged expanded appeal of golf to the playing general public, which many golf pundits assume will follow from the youth movement, I also have my doubts. Why would new golfers be inspired to take up the game? The Tour is essential a white-man’s club, and a fairly wealthy one at that. Tiger and Lee Trevino inspired many African-Americans and Latinos to take up the game, but they’re no longer in the forefront of the game. I agree with Gary Player; the Tour needs more minority role models. As long as it remains largely a white-man’s club, and green fees continue their steady rise, it is extremely doubtful that people of color as well as those of lesser means, will be motivated to take up the game. There is hence little reason to believe the youth movement will enhance the appeal of the game.
The PGA Tour has become one big love boat, filled with young bland and conformist personalities afraid to express true emotions on or off the course. They seem cut out of the same mold, swinging, behaving, speaking, and dressing similarly. The few who might be inclined to show a little color or depart from a socially correct script are stifled by conformist-prone PGA Tour officials, cautious corporate sponsors, and an ever-watchful and hyper-critical media ready to pounce on any behavioral or spoken indiscretion. The PGA Tour and its sycophantic media scribes may think the youth phenomenon puts the Tour in a good place, but I don’t see it.
No, a bevy of outstanding young players alone will not sustain fan interest in following professional golf or in playing the game. Unless supplemented by a totally dominant player like Tiger, a love-hate kind of rivalry among two or three top players, the arrival of more colorful and non-white star players, or all of the above, factors that appear unlikely to materialize in the near future, I don’t see fan interest in the game growing. More likely it will decline.
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