When 24-year-old Justin Thomas walked off the 18th green at Quail Hollow as the winner of the PGA Championship in August, waiting for him on his way to the scoring office was Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler. Smiles, handshakes and hugs abounded for the newly minted major championship winner.
It was a gathering of “The Nexus” of the Next Generation of Golf, three of the best and brightest who have fully arrived and have taken over the reins of the game in the second decade of the 21st century. And in doing so, their play, their prospects and their presence signal that the Tiger Era is over.
For the better part of 15 years, Tiger Woods ruled golf. With 14 major championships, 79 PGA Tour victories, more than $100 million in earnings and $1 billion in endorsements, Woods cast a broad shadow across the golf landscape even as he enlivened it. Yet over the last nine years, a personal scandal, injuries and serious back surgeries have taken him from the pinnacle and out of the game.
Inevitably his era would have ended, it just ended quicker than anyone expected. But there’s no question that the likes of Spieth, Thomas, Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Hideki Matsuyama are supremely talented and infectiously likable players who have stepped into the vacated spotlight, ready to shine entirely on their own in ways that are quite different than that of Tiger.
Unlike Woods, whose legendary game was shielded with a Teflon personality, today’s players are open, approachable and social media savvy, a combination that makes them just right for the Internet age. They aren’t afraid to put themselves out there, not hesitant to connect with the fans in a way maybe not seen since the great Arnold Palmer. (Although we have to give Phil Mickelson props in that regard.)
As the great Ernie Els, who knows all too well how big a shadow Woods cast, said when asked about today’s young players fortifying and growing the game: “They get it.”
Spieth, just 24, won his first British Open this past July and his third major championship following wins at the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open. Thomas has had a breakout season, winning five tournaments through September including the PGA, his first major. He also shot a 59 at the Hawaiian Open and a nine-under-par 63 at the U.S. Open, the lowest score relative to par in tournament history. McIlroy, 28, battling injury this season, still has a formidable record with four majors. Twenty-nine-year-old Jason Day has the 2015 PGA Championship to his credit along with four other wins that season. Fowler has yet to win a major, though the 28-year-old has been in the mix and won the 2015 Players Championship in impressive fashion. Matsuyama has won five PGA Tour events and is consistently found near the top of the leaderboards, with a major championship almost certainly on the horizon.
But here’s the thing: When they got to the tour, they were ready for it. There were no deer-in-the-headlights moments, no backing off of the shots needed to win, no shying away from the responsibilities of the game.
Jim Furyk, who fashioned an accomplished career in Woods’ shadow, is the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup captain. He gets to play with the Next Generation and in his role as captain gets to analyze them. He is impressed.
“You could see it coming a few years ago of how many good, young players we have. They’re more prepared,” Furyk said this summer at the Hartford tournament. “They’re ready to win at an earlier age than we were two decades ago, three decades ago.
“I mean, when I came out in the early ’90s, it was rare that more than one guy out of college would get a card. No one could. Phil Mickelson didn’t quit school early to turn pro. He won a tour event when he was a junior in college and stayed for his senior year. So those things didn’t happen, but these kids are coming out younger, at an earlier age and getting more prepared.”
Tiger set the standards physically and mentally for being prepared for the game of golf. But Woods was always a solitary figure on the Tour, not known to socialize with other players or walk head first into crowds that adored him. You never saw him walking arm-in-arm with Mickelson, his primary protagonist, heard of him hanging around the clubhouse for long chitchat with fellow competitors, or watched him sign 15 minutes of autographs. And he didn’t wait around the scoring tent to congratulate the winner. If he was the loser, he was gone. The private jet was wheels up before the winner could lift his trophy.
But here were Spieth and Fowler waiting in their civvies for Thomas to walk off as the new PGA Champion. They had come up through the junior ranks together, trying to beat each other’s brains out, and in the process driving each other to get better. These are players who embrace the camaraderie of the game as much as they do the competition. With the Next Generation, the spoils of victory are friendship.
“It’s awesome and I think they know I would do the same for them,” said Thomas after winning the PGA. “It’s a cool little friendship we have. I know Rickie was a couple groups in front and Jordan was probably through nine or something when I finished. But I think that kind of shows where the game is right now, where all of us are. I mean, we obviously all want to win. We want to beat the other person. But if we can’t win, we at least want to enjoy it with our friends. I think that we’ll all be able to enjoy this together, and I know it’s going to make them more hungry, just like it did me.”
Thomas and Fowler were staying in a rental house with Spieth at the Open at Royal Birkdale. But hanging out together and civility doesn’t mean these competitors don’t want to win. Spieth’s British Open victory (aided by the most epic penalty drop in history) just dug into Thomas big time. Was he frustrated?
“Frustration probably isn’t the right word. Jealousy definitely is. I mean, there’s no reason to hide it,” he says. “I was jealous that Sergio [Garcia] won [the Masters]; that Brooks [Koepka] won [the U.S. Open]; that Jordan won. I wanted to be doing that, and I wasn’t.”
Three weeks later, Spieth couldn’t come up with a second straight major at the PGA, but that disappointment didn’t factor into his decision to stay around to congratulate Thomas.
“He’s one of my best friends. We’ve been going at it since we were 13 years old,” says Spieth. “Speaking of the younger generation and sticking around to congratulate Justin, we realize how hard it is to win and how difficult it is to win a major. I’ve played so many rounds, practiced so much with Justin and with Rickie. It’s the least I can do. I’ve experienced the joy they are having. I know what Justin is feeling. Just three weeks before I experienced that same feeling at the British Open. It was his first major and I remembered that feeling. You are just so happy for your buddy. It’s not rivalries. Think of your best friend and being able to experience the highs of their life.”
There is a bit of a caveat to Spieth and Fowler hanging around.
“As younger guys, we don’t have families, we don’t have wives and kids we’re traveling with,” says Spieth. “It will be a different story moving on. But if we can be there, we’ll be there.” Then, he adds with a smile, “But if we’re done early and you have a couple of screaming kids . . .”
Fowler still hasn’t broken the major barrier and says that the buddy-thing doesn’t lessen his desire to put a pounding on his friends.
“It’s fun to see your buddies play well,’’ Fowler says. “But at the same time, it’s even more satisfying when you get to go out and beat all of your buddies. [Justin Thomas’ major] is only going to make me want to beat him more.’’
The Next Generation also includes winners like Patrick Reed, Daniel Berger, and a really bright new star on the horizon, Jon Rahm.
Early in the season, the 22-year-old Rahm won the Farmers Insurance Open and in July the Spaniard showed his versatility by winning the Irish Open with a record score on the links of Portstewart. He has a quick, extremely powerful swing—think Nick Price in his prime and 50 yards longer.
Rahm played at Arizona State, Mickelson’s alma mater and where his brother Tim was the golf coach. Tim Mickelson is now Rahm’s agent. Phil the Thrill has played a few rounds with Rahm and wasn’t hesitant to express an opinion on the young Rahm’s future after he won at San Diego.
“I’ve played a couple times with him, and let’s just say I will only be his partner from now on,” says Mickelson. “I haven’t been able to beat him.”
Mickelson piled on heaps of admiration. “Jon doesn’t have weaknesses,” says Mickelson. “Every part of his game is a strength. I think he’s one of the best players in the world. He’s more than just a good young player. I think there’s an intangible that some guys have where they want to have the pressure put on them, they want to be in that tough position, they want to have everything fall on their shoulders. And he has that.”
Hideki Matsuyama is on track to become the first Japanese player to win a major championship, and certainly the best player from his country since Isao Aoki. Ernie Els played with Matsuyama at this past PGA Championship and comes away with a certain sense of awe.
“I remember in my prime and a lot of other guys’ primes when you needed it there was that 20 yards and he’s got that ability,” says Els. “When you have that kind of firepower, he’s got an extra gear. He plays within himself and then can let it go. The whole package is there.”
And there’s more, the intangible that exists beyond the swing. “There’s not really any flaws in (the swing and) he’s not scared of the lead,” says Els.
From his view at the top of the game, as a four-time major championship winner and all-around good guy for the game of golf, Els, now 47, thinks the sport has a bright future as he and his generation pass the baton. Els is particularly impressed that the Next Generation embodies the spirit of all generations, reaching out to the fans in the most personable of sports, starting their own foundations, embracing the charitable component of the game. Els is deeply involved with charitable works through his Els for Autism Foundation, which is chaired by Marvin R. Shanken, editor publisher of Cigar Aficionado.
Els was once asked for his thoughts on the young players who were going to participate in the Pro-Am. “These young players have it all,” said Els. “They are talented, smart, good people. They know how to give back. Justin is playing in my event and I really appreciate how this young man gives back. With players like Justin and Jordan, and there are a lot of others, too, the game is in good hands.”
As these young golfers embrace the spotlight in their own unique way, Woods now seems far more connected to the Next Generation than he was to his own. After Thomas won the PGA, Woods sent him congratulations and invited him for dinner at his restaurant. Thomas found it “surreal” that Woods wanted to hang out with him in Florida.
“I probably got just as much joy out of that as I did winning, which is just bizarre to say and probably for you all to hear me say,” Thomas said at the Northern Trust, the first FedExCup playoff event. “It’s just really cool. [Woods] has taken an unbelievable role with some of us young guys and wanting to help us if he can.” Beyond his ability and titles, Woods’ legacy in the great game of golf may, oddly enough, evolve to include that of mentor to the Next Generation.
Though it seems that they don’t need much of it, this Next Generation of golf superstars is willing and able to help each other through their close-knit bonds. Heck, they even vacation together. Instagram and Twitter posts show players like Spieth, Thomas and Fowler together in the Bahamas, jumping off of yachts.
“There is a genuine like for each other,” says Spieth. “Off the course, we’re just a bunch of guys who like to hang out together. And you know what? We smoke a few cigars, too.”
The Next Generation of great players is also the Next Generation of cigar aficionados.
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.