A year ago, Rory McIlroy was the unquestioned best player of his generation, already a green jacket shy of a career Grand Slam halfway through his 20s. A year ago, Jordan Spieth was a relatively unproven phenom who would have been finishing his senior year in college had he not gone pro. A year ago, Jason Day was the classic golf underachiever, prodigiously talented and perpetually in the hunt, but still in search of a major breakthrough.
Right now, you could make a case for any of them as the Best Player in Golf, depending upon how wide a lens you choose for this snapshot of a fascinating moment for the sport. And some clarity could come this week, with another Masters set to begin Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club.
Day, 28, is the man of the moment, with five wins in 11 PGA Tour starts dating to last August’s PGA Championship, his maiden major title. He also holds the title of world No. 1, having leapfrogged first McIlroy then Spieth with back-to-back wins in March.
“The mindset is different [now],” Day said of the Masters after the second of his consecutive victories, in the WGC Dell Match Play in Austin. “Knowing that I’ve been in the heat of the battle, especially more so recently, and understanding what that feels like – because everyone knows when you’re standing there on Sunday at Augusta, it’s quiet and you’re in your own little world. . . . I’m going to have a lot of fun there this year. And I feel like I’m going to play well.”
Pan out to a wider view of the past 12 months, and Spieth is the man to beat. In 2015 he dominated as no one has since Tiger Woods in his prime, not only winning the Masters and U.S. Open but coming within a handful of shots at St. Andrews and Whistling Straits of completing the elusive Grand Slam.
Another win in the first tournament of 2016, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions – where he became only the second player in PGA Tour history to reach 30 under in a 72-hole event – portended another big year for the 22-year-old Texan, though a string of middling performances since has cost him both his No. 1 ranking and an immeasurable amount of confidence.
In an even wider view, however, it is McIlroy, 26, who remains the measuring stick for this generation, his four major titles surpassed only by Woods and Phil Mickelson in the past quarter-century. Though his lack of a major in 2015 defines the year as a disappointment, he contended at Augusta National, made a late charge in the U.S. Open to sneak into the top 10, and also won four times worldwide.
“I think this year’s Masters might be the hardest one to win in quite a while, as far as the depth of the field and the quality of golf being played by people who play Augusta National very well,” Spieth said Wednesday at the Shell Houston Open. “Rory [is] playing strong golf this year. He wants it very, very badly. We all know that. Everybody wants it badly.”
But it isn’t as if this week’s Masters champion is destined to come from golf’s so-called Big Three. What is most striking about this year’s field is its sheer top-heaviness. Nearly everyone who matters has been playing out of their minds – at least at some point – in the preceding weeks.
Like Day, Adam Scott, the world No. 6 and the 2013 Masters champ, notched back-to-back wins this spring. Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion and world No. 4, is in the midst of one of the best stretches of golf in his career, having already won once and finished runner-up once on the PGA Tour; a third green jacket would put him in rarefied company, with only Woods, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus having won more.
Rickie Fowler, ranked fifth in the world, won on the European Tour earlier this year, and watch out for South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champ, who won the Valspar Championship on the PGA Tour’s Florida swing – his third win worldwide since November.
“Seeing the guys that have won – with Bubba in L.A., Adam in those two starts in Florida, Charl in Tampa and Jason last week – everyone is running in good form,” McIlroy said. “And they’re all good champions, a few of them are Masters champions. Everyone is playing well, and that’s really what you want to do. You want your game rounding into form this time of year.”
In fact, the only player in the top six of the world rankings without a victory this year is McIlroy himself, his play thus far in 2016 marked by brilliant ball-striking and awful putting.
It is easy to imagine an epic, hard-fought, five- or six-way battle down the stretch at Augusta, with some combination of Day, Spieth, McIlroy, Watson, Scott, Fowler and Schwartzel trading blows on the back nine.
But it doesn’t always work that way. Scott, for example, had not seriously contended all year before he won in 2013. Angel Cabrera was coming off two straight missed cuts when he won in 2009.
And in 2007, all the best players in the world – Woods, Mickelson, Scott, Ernie Els, Jim Furyk – were in excellent form heading to Augusta. But cool temperatures and gusty winds turned the field upside down, and from that elite group only Woods managed to finish in the top 10. The winner was Zach Johnson, previously ranked 56th.
So perhaps the hypothetical “out-of-nowhere” winner this year could be the 45-year-old Mickelson, ranked just 20th in the world but already with three top-five finishes on tour this year. A year ago at Augusta, he closed 67-69 to finish as runner-up to Spieth.
“I kind of would like to slide under and go unnoticed,” Mickelson told reporters last week. “The fact is I’m playing well and [Augusta National is] a golf course that I play extremely well at. And I would be very surprised if I didn’t have a very good chance on the weekend.”