Professional golf has long benefited from the extended dominance of Tiger Woods. Even before his legendary win at the 97′ Masters, Tiger Woods owned the world of golf. People tune in to watch when Tiger is in contention, and they conversely tune out when he’s not. The popularity, TV ratings and purse values grew exponentially under Tiger’s reign. While partly due to his race and his age when burst on the scene, most of Tiger’s drawing power was from the crushing weight of his greatness. People like a winner, and Tiger has done that more than all but one player in the history of the PGA Tour.
But Tiger is now 18 months shy of 40 years old and breaking down physically. Tiger Woods can’t carry the game forever and golf has been been in desperate need of an influx of young talent, and a new superstar to hitch the wagons to.
The first half of that equation has been delivered, in spades.
As John Strege notes in his piece at Golf Digest, with his win at the Zurich Classic, Seung-Yul Noh has become the 4th player under 25 to win on the PGA Tour so far this season. The young talent influx that has taken over the Tour this year seems like a great thing, until perhaps, you realize that none of those men are named Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth.
The two most recent youngsters to be christened as “the Next Big Thing”, neither player has managed to capitalize on the hype to the point of being a true draw. Spieth nearly sealed his ticket to superstardom before getting railroaded by an unstoppable Bubba Watson at the Masters, and McIlroy despite his two majors had such a precipitous drop-off in production last year, that he’s almost become an afterthought in the current court of golf royalty.
As vital as a base of healthy young talent is to any sport, it’s meaningless to the casual fan without a polarizing figure at the top of the mountain. Tiger Woods has earned his mystique by dominating hall of fame contemporaries like Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. It’s nice that Seung-Yul Noh, Patrick Reed, Harris English and Russell Henley are living up to their potential and winning tournaments, but we’ve seen more than a handful of newcomers burst on the scene, only to level off. The window for a torch passing moment is closing, and with every new, first-time winner, we’re moving farther away from an answer to who will really be the next big thing.