Young generation could pass golf's greatest, say Nicklaus and Faldo
By Edgar Thompson
ORLANDO – A 20-year-old Jack Nicklaus witnessed the end of an era with Ben Hogan's last major championship run at the 1960 U.S. Open.
The Golden Bear soon ushered in the next generation of golf and spearheaded it until it grew into the greatest collection of talent at one time the game had seen.
To win 73 times on the PGA Tour, including record 18 major championships, Nicklaus first stared down Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Billy Casper until Lee Trevino, Johnny Miller, Ray Floyd and Tom Watson joined the fray.
Add Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Hubert Green, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, among others, to the mix and wins were tough to come by. Yet, each picked up at least 19 victories – more than all but five active PGA Tour players – and one major championship.
But Nicklaus said golf features a group of players capable of rivaling golf's greatest generation.
World No. 1 Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy headline a lineup so talented, deep and determined it could produce a period as competitive as any.
"There's a bunch of them, and there's a bunch of really good ones," Nicklaus said at last month's PNC Father-Son Challenge.
One man, Tiger Woods, has made it possible.
Woods inspired the 20-somethings now on Tour to train, practice and strive to take on any shot and dominate the competition.
Woods' injuries and increasing ineffectiveness has since opened the door for these young guns to find their way to the winner's circle and develop their confidence.
"It's a blessing for them to have had Tiger not being at the top because they've had an opportunity to not have to put up with being afraid of somebody dominating the game," Nicklaus said. "They can go play. As a result of that they've been able to go out and win and prove to themselves they are there and can be there."
Spieth and McIlroy best have filled the void.
The 22-year-old Spieth's win this past weekend in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions matched Woods' modern-era record of seven PGA Tour titles won before the age of 23.
The 26-year-old old McIlroy, who is No. 3 worldwide, is only the third player behind Woods and Nicklaus to win 10 PGA Tour events and four majors by age 25.
Jason Day's PGA Championship win last August was a breakthrough performance – and one of five wins in 2015 for the 28-year-old.
When 2015 ended three players under age 30 were ranked in the top-3 for the first time since the world rankings were introduced in 1986.
"That gives us longevity," CBS lead analyst and six-time major winner Nick Faldo said. "We have 10 more years of really good golf if those guys spearhead it."
The long-established veterans on Tour are not taking a backseat, either. Major winners Bubba Watson, Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Jim Furyk and Zach Johnson are ranked in the top 12, as are Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson – the best two players without a major.
At 45, Phil Mickelson still can contend on golf's biggest stage.
Yet, much of the attention is on the game's up-and-comers.
The first three winners of the Tour's wrap-around season were a pair of 23-year-olds and 22-year-old Justin Thomas, whom many expect to become an elite player as early as 2016. The 145-pound Thomas averages close to 300 yards off the tee and plays the aggressive style commonplace among his peers.
"This is a new refreshing transition," Faldo said. "The end of Tiger's era and the start of a different style of golf again. It's amazing. They're mentally strong, technically strong, physically strong.
"It's a great time."
Sunday showdowns between the likes of Spieth and McIroy or Day and Johnson would up the ante.
Nicklaus and Palmer trading green jackets at the Masters from 1962-65 or Nicklaus' one-shot win at the 1975 Masters over Miller and Tom Weiskopf or one-shot loss to Watson in the 1977 British Open defined golf's greatest era.
"We want to see the good guys, the really top-name players going against each other," Wadkins said. "When Tiger won a lot of his it was guys you can't honestly remember who they were."
Nicklaus fully expects the coming season – and beyond – to be quite memorable.
"I think the next year or two is going to be very interesting in the game of golf," he said. "It's going to be fun to watch."
This article was written by Edgar Thompson from The Orlando Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.