Time whooshes along and before you know, it’s time to start asking Rory McIlroy about somehow winning none of the last — wait, let’s count them up — 20 major tournaments. Such questions come as both fussy and legit. He answers them, as ever, with decency and aplomb.
“I mean, yeah, I wouldn’t say it — it doesn’t keep me up at night and I don’t think about it every day, but when I play these major championships, it’s something that I’m obviously reminded of,” he said before the 102nd PGA Championship. “Yeah, look, I would have liked to have won a couple more majors in that time frame, and I feel like I’ve had a couple of decent chances to do so and I just haven’t gotten the job done.”
He has not disintegrated. He has tucked eight top-10s and five top-fives into those 20 majors since that 2014 PGA Championship that became his fourth major title, even if some have been late-week sneak-ins. His world ranking stands at No. 3 one month after it stood at No. 1. His year-end world rankings since his No. 1 after 2014: 3, 2, 11, 8, 2. If that’s a failure, may all know failure.
It’s just that it might be a leading indicator of something else: There are more guys than ever who can pip you out of your major chances. As global male golf ends a 13-month major hiatus wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, it has entered some sort of modified golden age.
It is not quite the golden age of global male tennis, easily followable with its three bigwigs and the two others (Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka) who sometimes have intruded upon them. It’s a more populous mix, maybe five to 10 players, harder to follow but ample with skill, backdropped by the idea that the guy who beat them all at the 2019 Masters, Tiger Woods, probably fuelled this mass excellence from inside their boyhood TV sets starting one generation ago.
“We are at an era right now where it’s going to be hard to have somebody distance themselves,” said Jon Rahm, the 25-year-old who recently held down the No. 1 ranking for a stay of telltale brevity: two weeks. “When you have so many great players playing who go out at the same time, at any given point for two or three months, one of us can get hot and take the No. 1 spot. I think we might be entering an era where we bounce back and forth.”
Referring to Woods and his record 683 weeks spent at No. 1 (more than 13 years aggregate), including campouts covering 264 and 281 weeks, Rahm said, “It’s going to be hard to have a Tiger-esque case right now because there’s so many players with so much talent and who are really, really good.”
You have a time when the player who replaces Rahm at No. 1, Justin Thomas, already knows about a cup-of-espresso turn at the summit. It began in 2018. It lasted four weeks. “Yeah, I mean, can’t say much about Jon,” Thomas offered here. “We had it pretty much the same amount of time when I had it a couple years ago, but it was the same sort of thing. It was to where literally it could change every single week, and not only just change but it could change with not even winning a tournament, it’s that close.”
If Thomas, No. 2 Rahm, No. 3 McIlroy, No. 4 Webb Simpson, No. 5 Dustin Johnson or No. 6 Brooks Koepka won this PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park, it would not register as a shock. All have won majors except Rahm, who just got started in life. Simpson has won a major in this city (the 2012 US Open at Olympic, just a short drive of either kind from Harding Park). McIlroy and Koepka have won four majors each.
Even a guy amid a struggling 2020, Koepka, has sprinkled enough greatness across recent years to rate an unsurprising potential winner here. “I enjoy when things get complicated,” he said Tuesday. “There’s always disaster lurking, I think it’s something I enjoy, where every shot really means something.”
Disaster lurks all over these grounds.
And then the rankings brim with major winners and those surnames that have materialised on major leaderboards, from No. 8 Patrick Reed to No. 11 Xander Schauffele to No. 13 Tommy Fleetwood to No. 17 Tony Finau. At No. 21, one finds Gary Woodland, who won a stacked 2019 US Open at Pebble Beach. At No. 26, there’s Irishman Shane Lowry, golf’s most recent major winner, those 13 months ago at the 2019 British Open at a goose-bumpily merry Portrush, Northern Ireland.
“Don’t know,” Lowry said about whether that major win will grant him more confidence, “because this is the first time I’ve done that (played with a major win in stash).”
Given this barrage of highbrow talent, one might forget another barometer of how tough things have become: Jordan Spieth hasn’t won any of the past nine majors, giving him 11 more before he’d have to field the McIlroy questions. Sitting at No. 62, he’s an emblem of how a dip can become a larger dip with so many men capable of barrelling on by. When Spieth rode a carnival of a fourth round to win the 2017 British Open at Birkdale in England, it brought him to an enticing spot McIlroy shares: one major shy of the full dinner set.
For McIlroy, it’s still the Masters.
For Spieth, it’s here.
“It’s something that I really want,” he said of the PGA Championship. “It’s probably the No. 1 goal in the game of golf for me right now is to try and capture [a career grand slam]. I’d love to be able to hold all four trophies, and this is the one that comes in the way right now.”
Then throw in a further batch, the onrushing group like Schauffele at age 26, Patrick Cantlay at 28, Fleetwood at 29 and Finau at 30. There has always been a wave of potential on the way, but it just seems steeper and more capable than ever, as if Woods’s example infused their boyhoods with possibility and expectation. In this climate, it makes sense there’d be somebody to alight here with realistic hopes — at age 23.
He’s Collin Morikawa, and he rolled out of college at Cal in spring 2019 to turn up at a US Open in Pebble Beach, make the cut, shoot a respectable 1 over par and land in 35th. From there, he has played 28 tournaments, made 26 cuts, won twice, reached a further playoff. “I don’t know what event I’m in, almost to 30, I guess, but I’ve gotten really comfortable out here,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve gotten to know all these guys, the guys I’ve been watching on TV for years now, and I think that makes it easier because I’m not coming out here — if I compare it to when I was at the US Open last year, I don’t really know many guys. I would come out here, do my own thing.
“Last summer, I got to play with Rory. I got to play with D.J., Justin Rose. I played with all these bunch of guys but I had never met them and I didn’t know them, so it was kind of like, ‘Wow, these guys know what they’re doing.’ I’m out here now knowing these guys, talking to these guys, playing practice rounds with them. So there’s a sense of comfort and a sense of, OK, I know I belong here and we are all here to just play really good golf. Yeah, I do feel very comfortable.”
If that does help Morikawa, and the way things are going these years, it might have behoved them to be snootier.