This major season proves winning the big one in golf is harder than ever
This stretch of first-time major winners shows that golf has reached another level in 2016 and should only continue on an upward trajectory
Quantifying golfers and tournaments across seasons and decades is no simple task.
On one hand, no sport is more easily-quantifiable than golf. It's one of the most democratic sports ever invented. If you take the fewest strokes, you win. The ball and the cup don't care about your age or your race or what you look like. The scorecard doesn't care how much your watch company pays you. The trophy doesn't ask what your teammates did. It's easy to negotiate the numbers in that sense.
On the other, looking across decades is difficult. Is 2016 a more difficult year to win a major championship than, say, 1971? Does more players notching top 10s at majors in this era signify good parity or bad parity? Would somebody like Adam Scott have won 10 majors in the 1960s and just one in the 2000s? I don't know the answers to those questions, and I believe both sides can be argued with equal conviction.
Here's what I do know, though. Tiger Woods (and a few golfers before him who laid the foundation) increased the amount of money paid out to golfers in this era. Seven players earned over $1 million this year in the major championships alone. That's seven players who got within striking distance of the entire career earnings of some players in the 1950s and 1960s.
Jimmy Walker took home $1.8 million on Sunday for his efforts at Baltusrol. At the 1970 PGA Championship, Dave Stockton won $40,000. Even when you factor in inflation, Walker's haul is still seven times greater than Stockton's four-plus decades earlier. Golf has never been more lucrative.
Consider that Walker's total is also about 20 percent higher than what Shaun Micheel won in 2003 (factoring in inflation). We are just now seeing the competitive landscape fill out as money really started flowing 20-25 years ago when Tiger hit the scene. Kids from that era are starting to reach the PGA Tour. The future will be more competitive than ever.
Across history, there has not really been an industry in which an increase in money has not brought greater competition. This is one of the pillars upon which capitalism is built. It would be hard to argue that golf in past eras, in which players had offseason jobs, was played at a higher level than this era in which you can make a life's fortune in five months. You can make the argument, I suppose. I'm just not sure it's a very good one.
Earlier this year when Jim Herman won the Houston Open, Jason Dufner hopped on Twitter to express his disgust at how players outside the top 10 or 20 were being covered -- as if they had done something miraculous to win a golf tournament.
Golf announcers are so exhausting. Doesn't surprise me one bit Herman is going win this event. 144-156 guys tee it up able to win every week— Jason Dufner (@JasonDufner) April 3, 2016
My point is, every player out here is extremely good.It isn't luck or unfathomable playing,everybody is capable to have a great week and win— Jason Dufner (@JasonDufner) April 3, 2016
This is true. It's the difference between golf in the 1970s and the 2010s. The players at the top might be similar across generations, and they likely are, but the No. 140-ranked player in a given tournament is almost certainly better in 2016 than he was in 1971. Same goes all the way up from there to the top 10 or 20.
So if you're Jason Day or Jordan Spieth, not only do you have to beat the Rory McIlroys and Bubba Watsons of the world every week, now you have to beat the Jimmy Walkers and Webb Simpsons -- really good players who might catch fire for 72 holes.
Golf is growing globally, too. From 1934-80, only one non-American won the Masters (Gary Player). Since 1980, 13 different non-Americans have won the Masters. The sport has exploded all over the world in the last few decades, and we're starting to see the consequences of that, so to speak.
All of this means it's harder than ever to win. Wins mean more these days than they used to. Think about the one-time major winners right now. Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuizen, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day. That is an absolute murderer's row of golfers. Stick any one of them in the 1950s-80s and they win two plus majors. Actually, probably more. Book it.
"It shows you how deep golf is right now," said Rickie Fowler of Walker's win on Sunday. "It's not just a handful of guys. It's 20, 30 or 40; you can go down the list. There are guys in contention who are ranked outside the top 50 in the world. It's a fine line. It's very cool to see the guys who have won this year."
You did go down the list in 2016. For just the fifth time ever, all four majors were won by players who had never won one before. Really good players, I might add.
- Danny Willett was ranked No. 12 in the world going into the Masters
- Dustin Johnson was ranked No. 6 in the world going into the U.S. Open
- Henrik Stenson was ranked No. 6 in the world going into the Open Championship
- Jimmy Walker was ranked No. 48 in the world going into the PGA Championship
Walker's win on Sunday made it five straight first-time winners too as Day took his first at the PGA Championship last year. It could happen again next year, too. Think about that. Would anyone be surprised if, say, Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia swept the 2017 major championship season? No.
One of those bygone players I mentioned earlier, Jack Nicklaus, argued that Henrik Stenson, a zero-time major winner (at the time), recently played at a higher level at the 2016 Open Championship than himself (an 18-time major winner) and Tom Watson (an eight-time major winner) did at the famous 1977 Duel in the Sun at Turnberry.
So what does any of this actually mean? This is sort of the rub for me because of the misconception in golf today. It means that Walker, Simpson, Willett and Keegan Bradley will probably not win another major but still have had really good careers.
It means that you're going to see fewer Micheels and Rich Beems because somebody in the top 50 in the world is going to play really well in a given major week and win.
It means that two majors is a really great career, three is the new five and five is the new 10. If you win five majors in this era, you're a damn legend. That's what was so mystifying about the comments a few weeks ago comparing 27-year-old McIlroy to Ringo from the Beatles. Does anyone understand what four majors means in this stretch of golf?
I know we like to be presumptuous when it comes to doling out wins, but we need to stop for a minute and remind ourselves of how few major championships there are and how much they each mean.
It means that Woods likely wouldn't have had quite the career he has had if he had to play against the generation of golfers he effectively birthed. It also means that Day's string of 13 top 10s in his first 25 majors is far more impressive than anyone is giving him credit for.
Best Major Top 10 Percentage— Jamie Kennedy (@jamierkennedy) July 31, 2016
It means a lot of things, but mostly it means that golf is awesome right now. When great players with fun personalities are playing tremendous golf, that means the sport is in a good spot (no matter what Woods is doing).
"I think it shows that everybody out here playing is really good, and everybody's got a chance to win," said Walker on Sunday after taking home his first. "I think it just shows how deep golf is, I really do. It's deep. Anybody can win."
In 2016, "anybody" did win -- four separate times.
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