- In our weekly roundup of four big topics in the world of golf: a U.S. youth movement that may have its roots before the pros, Rory McIlroy's latest collapse and an early look at how tough this year's U.S. Open course is.
Every week, SI.com's Daniel Rapaport will be answering four of the biggest questions from the week in golf. To submit questions for the following week's column, simply tweet at @Daniel_Rapaport or @SI_Golf.
There was no FORE Questions last week, so we'll discuss the last two weeks of golf in this column.
All the sudden there's another new young American on the scene: 21-year-old Aaron Wise. The 2016 NCAA champion finished T-2 at the Wells Fargo Championship then won his very next start at the AT&T Byron Nelson. How do you explain this recent crop of precocious Americans?
Let's start with Wise, who announced himself on the PGA Tour in a matter of 14 days. Wise is now one of 13(!) Americans under 30 in the top 68 of the Official World Golf Ranking, joining No. 1 Justin Thomas (25), No. 5 Jordan Spieth (24), No. 7 Rickie Fowler (29), No. 9 Brooks Koepka (28), No. 13 Patrick Reed (27), No. 24 Xander Schauffele (24), No. 35 Tony Finau (28), No. 36 Patrick Cantlay (26), No. 38 Bryson DeChambeau (24), No. 40 Daniel Berger (25), No. 57 Russell Henley (29) and No. 60 Peter Uihlein (28). Perhaps more impressively, there are six Americans 25 or younger in the world's top 70.
Granted, I do not know where this type of stat might be available, but it's hard to believe there's been another time with so many young Americans among the elites. What's interesting about Wise is that unlike Thomas or Spieth or DeChambeau or Henley or Uihlein—all of whom were deemed prodigies in their mid-teen years—Wise wasn't labeled as a can't-miss guy until he blossomed at the University of Oregon, where he won the individual and team national titles in 2016. Wise simply didn't have the money to compete on the elite junior tours, which require parents to cough up hefty sums for travel, lessons, etc. His humble beginnings are reflected in his easy-going demeanor—after all, he didn't even get mad when his longtime girlfriend friend-zoned him on national television—and all signs point toward him being a gallery favorite for years to come.
It's difficult to pinpoint any specific reason behind this youth movement. Tiger Woods' impact cannot be underestimated. If you're 25 right now, you were 8 when Tiger was at his absolute peak in 2001. This crop of Americans was at its most impressionable age while Tiger was redefining what it meant to be a golfer. Tiger almost singlehandedly made golf cool, a sport worthy of the attention and dedication of great young athletes. Being a golfer no longer meant being lumped in with slightly overweight 30-somethings; now the face of golf was a 25-year-old multiracial guy who was fit as can be. Tiger made it so that you could play golf and be considered a world-class athlete.
So many of these guys—Spieth, Thomas, pretty much all of them—have spoken about the impact Tiger had on their golfing lives. We're now seeing the effects of an American superstar reigniting the buzz around a sport.
I also find myself appreciating the effect college golf has on these guys more and more. Apart from Finau, every one of those players played at a top-notch Division I program where they competed against other elite players week in and week out. The quality of play in college golf is better than it has ever been—just look at how quickly many former college studs have found success on Tour—and that relenteless competition is ideal preparation for the challenges offered by the pros.
Non-American guys have noticed this too, and that's why players like Jon Rahm, Thomas Pieters and Matthew Fitzpatrick have opted to play college golf rather than turn pro right away. Any Web.com Tour event is a great place to identify the game's next stars, but this week's NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek is equally fertile ground.
The days seem to be gone when a player wasn't expected to hit his prime until his late 20s or early 30s. Of course, everyone's career arc is unique and some players peak much later into their careers (Kevin Kisner, Patton Kizzire and Jimmy Walker are great examples of that), so don't write someone off if they haven't chalked up multiple wins by their 25th birthday. But the game is getting younger and younger, as are its best players.
For the third straight week on Tour, the tournament scoring record was in play over the weekend. Webb Simpson set the 54-hole scoring record at the Players before faltering over the final round, then Aaron Wise broke the record at the Byron Nelson, and most recently Justin Rose missed it by one at Colonial by bogeying 18. Is this ridiculously low scoring the new norm, or do you expect changes to be made with the intention of curbing the birdies?
Before the #LiveUnderPar era, the PGA Tour's slogan for the longest time was “These Guys Are Good.” The way it's going this season, a more appropriate mantra might be “These Guys Are Too Good.”
The longest guys can easily fly the ball 320, and they do so with a much tighter dispersion than the bombers of decades past (guys like John Daly weren't hitting it nearly as straight as, say, Koepka). Thanks to Trackman, they know exactly how far their ball flies with and without wind. With the benefit of advanced stats and even more advanced stat gurus—a number of players work with a "numbers guy" who helps them take advantage of the incredible amount of data at their disposal—they have more fine-tuned strategies of how to attack a course than ever before. They know what their best numbers to lay up to are, what pins they can attack and much more. The modern golfer is bigger, stronger and, perhaps most imporantly, smarter than ever before.
Golf courses have done their part to keep up. A 500-yard par 4 no longer raises any eyebrows at all, nor does a 600-yard par 5. But the courses simply haven't been able to keep up with the progress in distance. So, if the Tour has an issue with these record-breaking performances week in and week out, there are only two courses of action. The courses have to be made significantly more difficult—longer, thicker rough, firmer greens—or the equipment needs to be scaled back.
Both those discussions are worth having if you have a problem with winning scores of -20, but I'm not sure the powers that be see much wrong with birdie binges like what we saw from Justin Rose and Brooks Koepka on Sunday at Colonial. The NBA is higher scoring and faster-paced than ever; there are more home runs in baseball than ever; the NFL is more pass-happy than ever. Why should golf be any different? The general arc of progress in industry—and sport is an industry—is that advances in technology leads to smarter, more efficient performance. This is nothing but natural. More simply, it's generally fun to watch guys make birdies.
That's not to say every week needs to be one long collage of par-breakers. Some tournaments, the U.S. Open chief among them, aim to be a tougher test that weeds out the pretenders from the contenders. And I'd expect the USGA to exact some revenge at Shinnecock this year after Erin Hills proved relatively benign in 2017. But if we're being realistic, the only way to curb scoring is significant changes to the courses or the equipment. Neither is imminent.
Another disappointing weekend for Rory McIlroy. Could this year of near-misses have an effect on his confidence down the stretch?
Disappointing indeed. Rory's 65 on Friday at the BMW Championship was such a ridiculous display of ball-striking, the type only a handful of guys in the world can manage, that playing partner Alex Noren said it was the best round of golf he's ever seen and quipped that he should quit the game altogether. He carried a three-shot lead into the weekend at the European Tour's premier event, then put forth two indifferent rounds on the weekend and watched another title slip from his grasp. Adding insult to injury for Rory is that he had a front-row seat on Sunday as his playing partner Francesco Molinari, a solid but inferior player, cruised to victory.
What made the week so frustrating—Rory was clearly disappointed after Sunday—wasn't his ehh play over the weekend. It was his unbelievable play over the first few days. Why can't the guy who makes other top-20 players go googly-eyed over his game do it consistently?
So many times over the past few years, we've seen McIlroy make shooting in the 60s look as easy as successfully tying a pair of shoes. When he makes one of those Rory birdies—a 330-yard towering two-yard draw into the middle of the fairway, a knockdown nine iron to four feet, a putt that rams into the back of the hole—you wonder how he ever makes a bogey. The best way to contextualize McIlroy's talent is that having just turned 29, he has four majors, 14 PGA Tour wins and 13 European Tour wins; has been No. 1 in the world for nearly two years; is currently No. 6 in the world and the conventional wisdom is that he hasn't maximized his potential.
I wouldn't worry about Rory. Confidence is never something he has been in short supply of, and he's the type of guy who will choose to remember his closing 64 at Bay Hill way more than the 74 at Augusta or the 70 at Wentworth. Still, that doesn't mean it isn't distinctly shocking to see his play drop off so much from one day to another.
Just how hard is Shinnecock Hills?
Wow, how fortuitous that some random person asked this question the week after I was lucky enough to tee it up at the track that will host this year's U.S. Open!
The USGA was kind enough to let a bunch of media members play Shinny as part of the Open's official preview day, and what an incredibly difficult golf course that is. I teed off in the afternoon wave at 2 p.m., and by that time the wind was blowing with moderate speed, which is the only thing necessary to turn Shinnecock from a fair test into a hold-on-for-life battle. The fairways have been widened significantly since the infamous '04 Open—average width back then was about 25 yards, now it's about 41—but the wind combined with the contouring fairways make finding the short grass distinctly difficult. And the fescue looming, like, one yard off the fairway is absolutely brutal. The grass comes up to your knee and is thick enough to make even a 60-yard pitch out anything but routine.
The greens weren't nearly as firm or fast as they will be at the Open, but you could easily see how diabolical the green complexes will be with a little less moisture. One of the biggest differences between '04 and this year's setup is the addition of shaved areas surrounding the greens. Back in '04, most of the greens were surrounded by thick rough, which presents its own set of challenges. But this year, balls that miss the green in the wrong spots will habitually roll 30-plus yards away from the putting surface, which will leave ultra-delicate chips off paper-thin lies.
There are some holes that make par seem like a genuinely unattainable pipe dream. Case in point: 18. It plays about 500 yards from the back tee—a par 4, of course—and is both uphill and into the wind. After hitting my tee shot and realizing what was still left to come, I asked the caddy whether this was the prevailing wind. I fully expected him to say no—how can a hole that narrow, that long and that uphill also be designed to play into the wind? He assured me that the wind we were playing in is exactly what the USGA wants for the championship. Still in disbelief, I remarked that even the longest players in the world will be faced with a 210-plus-yard approach, uphill and into the wind. He smiled and said, "It's the U.S. Open, man."
I'm about a two handicap these days, and I played poorly but not that poorly...and I struggled to break 90...from not even close to the championship tees. My biggest takeaway from the day is how unbelievably incredible these professionals are to even sniff par on a layout that difficult. I genuinely hope the weather cooperates—no rain in the week before, with wind a factor—because I think this could be the first year since 2013 that the winning score of the U.S. Open is over par.