SAN DIEGO – Small details from Torrey Pines paint a much larger picture of the PGA Tour.
There was the putt on the 18th hole, a 60-footer for eagle that peeled off to the right, broke back to the left and slowly tumbled into the cup as it was losing speed. Not since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines has a putt on the 18th hole received so much attention.
What followed was a fist-pumping celebration, both arms, not just a right uppercut.
And it was hard to ignore that Jon Rahm was wearing a red shirt.
The victory by the 22-year-old from Spain was the latest reminder how quickly and powerfully golf is shifting to a younger generation.
And how much harder it’s going to be for Tiger Woods.
Rahm is the kind of player Jack Nicklaus had in mind when he said he has never seen so much depth on the PGA Tour.
Nicklaus met him last June at the Memorial when the Arizona State star received the Jack Nicklaus Award as the top college player. Rahm was exempt for his first U.S. Open as the No. 1 player in the world amateur ranking, and Nicklaus offered a few tips on how to prepare for Oakmont. Two weeks later, Rahm bounced back from a 76 in the opening round and tied for 23rd.
At the time, Nicklaus was far more familiar with Justin Thomas and Hideki Matsuyama, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
That’s what led him to say in an interview right before Christmas that the biggest obstacle facing Woods in his pursuit of Nicklaus’ record in the majors might be the new generation of stars more than injuries or age.
Nicklaus won the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship in 1980 when he was 40 and then started to slow down by choice. His oldest son was in college. His business was taking off. He didn’t work at golf the way he once did. That’s why he describes the `86 Masters – his 18th and final major – as “an accident in many ways.”
“I didn’t really pay attention to it after that,” Nicklaus said. “I still liked to play golf because I could be part of the scene.”
Nicklaus had eight seasons of at least five PGA Tour victories. Golf in 1980 was on the cusp of an era where dominance was shared. Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros were hitting stride. During a two-year stretch, rookies included Mark O’Meara, Fred Couples, John Cook, Scott Hoch, Hal Sutton and Payne Stewart.
“A whole bunch of kids were coming along, and he’s got the same thing,” Nicklaus said, referring to Woods. “He’s got an issue with some really good players every year. The thing is, those really good players didn’t have the problem of having him. So they all learned how to win. They learned how to win and gain the confidence they needed to project their careers forward. So he not only has my record to contend with, he’s got a lot of kids who are really good. You’ve got a pretty interesting next couple of years.”
Last year ended with the 23-year-old Thomas winning in Malaysia for the second straight year and the 24-year-old Matsuyama winning a World Golf Championship by seven shots in the HSBC Champions. The new year began with Thomas sweeping the two Hawaii tournaments (Matsuyama was runner-up at Kapalua). Spieth, who won the Australian Open late last year, finished third in his opening two events of 2016.
Eight of the 11 events in the PGA Tour season have been won by players in their 20s.
That doesn’t include the top three players in the world – Jason Day (29), Dustin Johnson (32) and Rory McIlroy (27).
Thomas, who shot a 59 in the first round of the Sony Open, stepped away for all of two weeks and already has more company in the growing list of young talent. Adding to Rahm’s hype is the 60 weeks he spent atop the world amateur ranking, the college awards, and the fact he never spent a day in the minor leagues. He secured his PGA Tour card in just four starts.
Both are playing the Phoenix Open this week, along with Spieth and Rickie Fowler. Matsuyama is the defending champion.
Woods took his 41-year-old body with three back surgeries and four knee surgeries to the Dubai Desert Classic, where he won’t be facing deep rough, bumpy greens or bone-chilling temperatures in the morning.
The stronger field is at the Phoenix Open. Even so, Dubai has Henrik Stenson, Alex Noren and Sergio Garcia. Also in the field at Emirates Golf Club are 21-year-old Jeunghan Wang and 26-year-old Tommy Fleetwood. They won the last two events on the European Tour.
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