In the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Paul Newman as Butch and the Sundance Kid, played by Robert Redford, pause at the top of a mountain to consider the predicament they have found themselves in, being chased by a distant but persistent posse that doesn’t seem to get closer but never seems to go away.
“They can’t track us over the rocks,” says Butch.
“Tell them that,” says Sundance.
“They are beginning to get on my nerves,” says Butch. “Who are those guys?”
So let’s stretch our imaginations to the limit and suppose that Tiger Woods is Butch Cassidy and Phil Mickelson is the Sundance Kid, and they are actually on speaking terms. And in that scenario, at the end of the 2011 golf season, Woods might have well uttered those same words to Mickelson, except now a posse of players—some young veterans, some rookies—are no longer a cloud of dust in the distance. They are right on their heels, their thunderous hoof beats within pitching wedge range, and closing rapidly.
In every sport, aging greats must inevitably give way to the bright young prospects. These generational changes always seem particularly evident in golf. In golf’s modern era since World War II, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson gave way to Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and the greatest of them all, Jack Nicklaus. Those Hall of Famers gave way to Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Seve Ballesteros, and in turn, they were followed by Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and Nick Price.
Tiger Woods then blasted onto the scene as golf’s supernova, with Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els shining brightly right next to him for more than a decade. During that period, Woods utterly dominated with his 14 major titles and 71 PGA Tour victories. Mickelson, Singh and Els all produced multiple major wins and Hall of Fame careers. Woods is now 36, but his left leg is much older. All the others have crossed the 40-something threshold. Those four all-time greats produced one victory in 2011, by Mickelson at the Houston Open.
The time for another generational change on the PGA Tour has arrived.
At the end of the 2011 season, these were the nominees for PGA Tour player of the year: Luke Donald, Keegan Bradley, Bill Haas, Nick Watney and Webb Simpson (yes, Webb Simpson). Donald ended the season as the No. 1–ranked player in the world.
“These sort of changes have been going on for a couple of years,” says Ian Baker-Finch, the CBS television commentator and winner of the 1991 British Open. “This year it has been more evident with the younger guys showing up, like a rookie [Bradley] winning a major. You have players turning 40, Els, [Retief] Goosen, Mickelson, [Jim] Furyk. Players we’ve known for so many years are shifting into the twilight. There were always two or three young stars in every generation. Now there might be 12 to 15.”
Want to know a certain indicator that this generational change is in full flight? EA Sports announced this fall that Tiger Woods will have to share the cover of the 2013 PGA Tour video game that bears his name with U.S. Open winner Rory McIlroy and mop-haired star-in-the-making Rickie Fowler.
For sure, if Woods’ personal life and left knee had not crumbled, if Mickelson had not contracted an arthritic condition, if Singh’s back hadn’t been showing chronic signs of old age, if Els’ putter hadn’t fallen off like a rusty muffler, the new generation of players might not yet have emerged from the shadow of their distinguished predecessors. But combine the deterioration of the old with the acceleration, talent and polish of the new, and it’s clear that the pursuers have made up significant ground.
That posse is led by the marvelously talented 22-year-old Northern Irishman McIlroy (see Cigar Aficionado, July/Aug. 2009), who showed resiliency by overcoming a dramatic and potentially traumatic fourth-round collapse at the Masters to win the U.S. Open at Congressional. It was a performance that would have befitted Woods at his dominating best.
Charl Schwartzel, the 27-year-old Masters winner, is poised to carry on the tradition of championship South African golf.
Martin Kaymer, also 27, seems destined to improve on the magnificent record of his German predecessor, Bernhard Langer.
Keegan Bradley, a 25-year-old American whose previous claim to fame was being the nephew of LPGA icon Pat Bradley, put on a stunning performance during his rookie year. He won the PGA Championship and the Byron Nelson, plus scored a bonus win in the PGA Grand Slam of golf against McIlroy, Schwartzel and Darren Clarke.
Bradley isn’t the lone American. The new American players are overloaded with talent. Dustin Johnson, 27, has shown enough fortitude to overcome two major championship debacles in 2010—blowing up in the final round of the U.S. Open after leading and falling victim to a rules violation in the PGA Championship—to be a winner and constant contender, and this was only his fourth year as a professional. Bubba Watson, 33, is the game’s most watchable shot maker and he has credited dealing with the illness and death of his father for taking the pressure off of playing the game. Watney, 30, has harnessed his power and improved his putting significantly, allowing him to win twice in 2011. Bill Haas, 29, son of veteran tour player Jay Haas, won the Tour Championship in style, hitting a Mickelson-like shot out of the water hazard on the 17th hole on the final day.
Fowler, 23, has yet to win on the PGA Tour but he has proven to be a constant presence near the top of the leaderboard. He scored his first pro win in the fall at the Korea Open, beating runner-up McIlroy by six shots.
Then there’s that Webb Simpson guy, a 26-year-old in his third season on the PGA who suddenly parachuted himself right into the herd of top younger players with two victories and more than $6 million in earnings.
And now consider how deep the posse’s roster is when you take into account young winners such as Jhonattan Vegas, 27, a charismatic Venezuelan; Gary Woodland, 27, a monster hitter; and Jason Day, 24, an Australian who has vaulted into the top 10 in the World Golf Rankings. Heard of Tom Lewis, Matteo Manassero, Bud Cauley, Patrick Cantlay and Harris English? You will.
Day, who won the Byron Nelson tournament last year and finished second in the Masters and U.S. Open this year, did a good job at the end of the season summing up the new generation of players.
“It’s getting tough. You look at the fields these days, there are a lot of young guys coming straight out of college or not even straight out of college but turning professional very young and playing professional golf at a high level and succeeding,” says Day. “There’s a kid over here, Bud Cauley, he’s played seven or eight events and he got his Tour card for next year. He’s 21 or 22. Just goes to show how the game is evolving and changing.”
Baker-Finch sees the younger players as having a particular trait in common—a healthy frame of mind unsullied by being hammered by Tiger Woods.
“These young guys don’t have the same scar tissue as the older guys who have been beaten by Tiger,” says Baker-Finch.
“They have been inspired by Tiger but not beaten by him. The more the young guys win, the more their confidence grows. Keegan Bradley winning a major as a rookie, that gives all the young guys so much more confidence. They all say, ‘If he can do it, so can I.’ When you had Tiger winning eight times a year, Phil winning four times, Vijay winning a lot, the young guys didn’t have much of a chance. When Dustin Johnson won his first it was wow, this was an anomaly. But now they have become the winners.”
No one has improved more and made up more ground on the world’s top players than Luke Donald. He’s no youngster at 34, but in a very real sense he is a newcomer to the thin air of golf’s stratosphere. He hasn’t won a major, but he’s won big tournaments, been on the leaderboard in nearly every tournament he’s played, and when challenged for the PGA Tour money title at the end of the season by Simpson, he entered the final tournament at Disney and won it, becoming the first player to simultaneously be the leading money winner on the PGA Tour and European Tour.
Back in May, he dramatically defeated Lee Westwood in a play-off to win the BMW PGA Championship, the second biggest event on the European Tour. In doing so he took over the World No. 1 ranking and has held onto it since.
“Growing up in the Tiger Woods era, you didn’t even think it was possible [to take over No. 1],” says Donald. “But I’ve been able to get my game to where I have been able to play consistently well . . . and all the things have worked out mathematically for me to be able to do that.”
But with Woods falling like a stone out of the world’s top 50, it was time for Donald, and a raft of other players, to rise. None did so quite so dramatically this season as Simpson. Simpson was a Wake Forest All-American who gained his Tour card for the 2009 season. He was able to retain that card his first two seasons without doing anything extraordinary. Then he started to climb the ladder in 2011 with a passel of good results to start the season. He finished runner-up in Tampa and New Orleans, the latter after calling a penalty on himself after the ball moved when he soled his putter on the 15th hole; he was forced into a play-off with Bubba Watson which he lost. Two impressive wins late in the season at the Wyndham Championship and a FedExCup victory at the Deutsche Bank Championship pole-vaulted him into the Tour’s elite with more than $6,300,000 in earnings.
“I think I’m slow to perform,” says Simpson. “Not a slow learner, just a slow performer.”
He says he turned quality results into winning results by taking slightly more time addressing his putts. “I knew we figured out something big,” says Simpson. “I aimed the ball in a tournament round a little quicker than I do on the [practice] green.” He estimated he was rushing himself by a half a second a putt. When he slowed down, a move imperceptible to anyone else, he made more putts, won tournaments, won loads of cash.
“Pretty amazing,” he says. Yeah.
David Toms, the 44-year-old veteran who rejuvenated his game this season, sees Simpson as an example of how the current crop of young players approaches the game.
“The game has changed a little bit,” says Toms. “Power is a big part of our game now, so most of these young guys you see that are successful can hit the ball a long way. But at the same time their short games are right there on par with the best in the game, so quite a lethal combination with power and touch. A lot of that, we didn’t have when I first got on tour.
“I’d also say that they come out and are very confident, very seasoned, whether it was college golf or Nationwide Tour golf or just junior golf that they played at a high level. It seems that they are confident players that have been around the block, so to speak, and they are ready to play great. There seems to be a lot more young players that are playing great than say 10 or 15 years ago They aren’t scared to play great golf. They’re able to handle the media. To me, they are just ready.”
Keegan Bradley has been carrying his famous aunt’s name his whole life, though was never quite certain he would be able to match her accomplishments. But with constant support from Pat Bradley, a battleground mentality gained on the Nationwide Tour, and mentoring from Phil Mickelson, a member of the generation that he is now overtaking, Bradley won the PGA Championship in an impressive play-off with Jason Duffer. He then won the Byron Nelson Championship in a play-off against Ryan Palmer.
A breathless Bradley said just after his PGA win: “It seems like a dream and I’m afraid I’m going to wake up here in the next five minutes and it’s not going to be real.”
It was real, very real. And his aunt thinks she knows why.
“Keegs really gets joy out of his success,” says Pat Bradley. “In that way, he is much different from me. I got mine from fear of failure.”
There is no fear of failure in Rory McIlroy. He led the British Open at St Andrews in 2010 after the first round, then got caught up in bad weather conditions the second day and shot 80. Still, he made the cut and played well on the weekend. Then, leading the Masters by four shots last April, he shot 80 in the final round. He hit such a pulled hook off the 10th tee that his next shot was played from the lawn that separates a pair of member cabins. It was a disappointing loss, but in the end not disheartening. A little more than two months later, he stomped all over the field at the U.S. Open at Congressional, winning with a total of 16 under par, the lowest score in Open history. He won by eight shots over Jason Day.
“I don’t know if it shows I have a very short memory,” said McIlroy after he had taken the first round lead at the Open. “I took the experience at Augusta and learned from it. You can’t be thinking about what happened before.”
Looking ahead to the youngest tier of stars, there are rays of brilliance.
At 17, Matteo Manassero of Italy became the youngest player to win a European Tour event last year and he won again this year. He has played in all four majors by the age of 18, and presents himself as a mature professional well beyond his years.
Bud Cauley left the University of Alabama after his junior year this past May and turned pro. The 21-year-old qualified for the U.S. Open and got sponsor exemptions into PGA tournaments, and earned enough money to finish in the top 125 on the money list and go straight to the PGA Tour in 2012, bypassing qualifying school and the Nationwide Tour.
Tom Lewis, a 20-year-old English lad from Welwyn Garden City (home of Nick Faldo), made a statement at the British Open this summer, shooting a 65 to tie for the first round lead, the lowest score ever shot by an amateur. He played alongside Tom Watson, the five-time Open champ, who is his namesake. Three months later, after turning pro, Lewis won the Portugal Masters, only his third start as a professional.
Patrick Cantlay, a 19-year-old sophomore at UCLA, put on quite a performance this summer. He was low amateur in the U.S. Open, tying for 21st. Playing on a sponsor’s exemption in the Travelers Championship, he shot a 60, the lowest round ever by an amateur in a tour event. He finished tied for 20th at the AT&T National, Tiger Woods’ event. He finished tied for ninth in the Canadian Open. He was the world’s top- ranked amateur at the end of 2011, and did not have plans to turn pro.
Harris English, a 22-year-old who played golf at the University of Georgia, won the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational as an amateur this summer, turned pro and is now playing the Nationwide Tour. He just earned his PGA Tour card for 2012 at the qualifying school.
But lest we get carried away with burying Tiger, Phil, Vijay and Els under a pile of young talent, let’s bring in wily veteran Kenny Perry, who divides his time between the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour. In the Age of Tiger, Perry’s seen it all, including playing practice rounds with many of the younger generation during the past two seasons.
“I still don’t see anybody as mentally tough as Tiger Woods,” says Perry. “They are all polished players and hit the ball a mile, but I don’t see anyone right now that is separating themselves from the rest of the field the way Tiger did, and the way Phil did sometimes, Vijay. Luke Donald is No. 1. He doesn’t have the wow factor of Tiger, for sure. But he’s just become so darn consistent, has a great short game, great putter and he’s able to finish in the top 10 all the time and win a couple.
“Bubba Watson has some wow factor because he hits it so long and he can curve the ball so far. The new balls don’t curve much, but he can curve it 50 yards if he wants to, so that’s pretty entertaining to see. You know, I like that wow factor, and Tiger had a huge amount of it. It was something to play with him, see him hit a shot. And he was such a great putter, clutch putter. He was just different from anybody else and that made him special to play with.”
But Perry does see young talent bound for glory.
“College golf is so much more different than when I played,” says Perry. “I think now it produces a lot of very talented, polished players and any one of them is capable of playing tour golf. I played with Bud Cauley at [Jackson]. I was in awe of this little kid. He can’t be 5-8, but he was hitting it a mile, had a short game. He’s a player.”
This young posse of players, so filled with talent and confidence, still has a long way to go to match the record of Woods, or Mickelson for that matter. With so many bright prospects clawing their way to the top, Baker-Finch thinks it might be difficult for any one of them produce the extraordinary record of the generation before them.
“This group may not have a Tiger or a Phil, but someone like Rory McIlroy has so much promise and already has that major under his belt,” says Baker-Finch. “There are so many young stars now.”
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.