It’s been a while since a golfer has impressed me as much as Brooks Koepka did in claiming the US PGA Championship title in August.
On a final day when just about everyone wanted Tiger Woods to win and complete one of the most remarkable comebacks in sport never mind golf, Brooks showed himself to be clearly the better player in almost every respect. Which was a weird thing to watch for those of us who grew up watching Tiger win just about everything.
But in winning at Bellerive, Brooks drove the ball amazingly well. And his iron play was just about as good. What a golfer he is turning out to be. Indeed, this was even better than when he won the US Open at Shinnecock Hills in June. Back then he saw off Dustin Johnson and Tommy Fleetwood – no mean effort – but this time he won with maybe the greatest golfer of all-time chasing him down. Not many people have done that.
It was also great to see my mate Adam Scott returning to something like his best form. Adam was actually closer to beating Brooks than Tiger was, albeit he finished third in the end. Where Tiger never actually caught Brooks on the last day, Adam was tied with five holes to play. That fact got lost in the shuffle a little bit, especially in a US media focused on Tiger.
Still, the overall impression I was left with when it was all over is that professional golf in America is in a really good place. The new-look schedule next year will only enhance that feeling. The FedEx Cup finishing earlier to avoid clashing with the NFL and the US PGA moving to May all makes perfect sense.
But it is the quality of the play at the top of the game that has me most energised. Right now, it is hard to tell exactly who is the No.1 player in golf. I can see that position changing three or four times in the next 12 months or so. There’s Justin Thomas, who was unbeatable for three or four months earlier this year. Then Tommy Fleetwood went on a tear. Then it was Rickie Fowler. Then Dustin. For two months up to his Open Championship victory at Carnoustie, Francesco Molinari was playing the best golf of anyone. And now it is Brooks’ turn.
I’ve never seen anything like this during the 20-odd years I have been a professional. The 10 players at the top of the rankings are now so good, they are almost interchangeable. I can’t think of another period in the game where there has been quite this much quality.
Exactly why that is, I’m not sure. There probably isn’t one single reason. But the level of coaching, equipment and practice must have something to do with it. Where golf was once something of a ‘dark art,’ it seems to me like we are beginning to understand the game a bit more. Plus, the “Tiger-effect’ cannot be underestimated. All of the kids who, 20 years ago, picked up clubs after watching him in action are now men. That effect is real and it is happening right now.
Which is not to say it is unique. It has happened before, although maybe not to quite the same extent. In the two decades after Greg Norman was the dominant figure in Australian golf, Robert Allenby, Stuart Appleby, Adam, myself, Greg Chalmers and Marc Leishman all emerged on the world stage. That is not a coincidence. All of us were inspired by Greg. Just as the current generation was largely inspired by Tiger.
Having said that, there has been an occasional loss of perspective along the way. Some of what was happening got lost in the hype when Tiger was the clear No.1. Too often, the impression given was that he was the only good player, simply because he was so much better than everyone else.
This generation is different though. Now it is clear that there is a group of guys who are really, really good. But it was Tiger who raised that bar. He made kids want to play. He made them want to play better. He did what Jack Nicklaus did – he played a game no one had ever seen before. And now everyone is playing that game.
All of which only underlines how important it is for any sport to produce genuine heroes. Spain had Seve Ballesteros and, after him, along came a host of top-class Spanish golfers. In South Africa, Bobby Locke inspired Gary Player, who inspired Ernie Els and Retief Goosen. Then along came Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace.
Nick Faldo did the same in England. A decade or so later we had Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Luke Donald. Now there are 10 Englishmen in the world’s top-100. And the same is true in the women’s game. Look at the effect Se Ri Pak’s success has had in South Korea. That nation now dominates the LPGA Tour. One genuinely charismatic hero is enough to set off a conveyor belt of champions.
This is hardly news, but how the game is played at the top level has changed hugely over the past 25 years. Talk to almost any pro who retired around the turn of the century and they cannot believe the way the best golfers play now. For them, it doesn’t compute. And, I must admit, it is the same for me. Only 12 years after winning a major championship, I don’t play the game like those guys at the top. I may play a game that the old pros don’t recognise. But I don’t recognise the way Brooks and Rory McIlroy and Dustin play. It’s unbelievable.
All of which stems from the ‘Tiger effect.’ As golf became “cool” people saw the way it could be played. The money exploded. Fame became the currency everyone wanted to deal in. And more and more people were suddenly trying to get good.
“This is hardly news, but how the game is played at the top level has changed hugely over the past 25 years.” – Geoff Ogilvy
Not just players, of course. There has been a ripple effect throughout the game. For a long time swing technique was a bit mysterious. Even 10 years ago, everyone seemed to have a bit of theory about how best to apply the club squarely to the ball. Then, when distance became the thing in pro golf, everyone went to the range and tried to hit longer shots. Generally speaking, when you try to do that, the better or more correctly your body works the further you will hit the ball.
You can approach that in two ways. I have spent most of my career trying to get my body to work in the right way. But today the best players don’t bother so much with that. Their focus is simply on swinging the club as fast as they can. In the process of doing that, their techniques improve. They have to if you want to swing the club faster. So a side-effect of everyone trying to hit 350-yard drives is an acceleration in the learning curve.
It seems to me that is the way we should always have been coached. Back in the day, the great coaches always tried to teach impact. Not, say, fancy backswing positions. Harvey Penick didn’t care where the club was on the backswing. And neither does Trackman and all the other gizmos we see on ranges today. All they do is teach impact in an organised and scientific way. It’s “don’t worry about how you swing it, just make the club do this at impact.” And if you manage that, it is almost certainly the case that you have done pretty much everything else really well too.
I smile now when I think back on some of the conversations I used to have with fellow players in locker rooms. Everyone had a theory. Now, everyone knows a lot more. There are no mystical theories out there. Everyone knows what everyone else is working on. While all of that has maybe taken some of the fun out of the game, the general standard has gone through the roof.
So where we are now has a lot to do with Tiger. And it has a lot to do with the technology available. Both have accelerated the process. And it probably isn’t going to slow down any time soon.