Despite a complete nosedive in television ratings every time Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are absent from a tournament, the PGA Tour has been attempting to convince the general public that professional golf is in a great place with a new crop of “up-and-coming stars.”
At times, it can even feel as if the PGA Tour’s push for this “next generation” of “stars” is more to convince itself and its sponsors of a bright post-Woods future than it is to convince the general public to tune in and watch Matt Kuchar rack up yet another top-10 finish.
While there is no question that the PGA Tour does possess some talented young players, the tour’s biggest problem right now comes down to winning.
It is difficult to market these talented young players as golf’s next generation of stars when they simply do not win golf tournaments.
How can the tour possibly attempt to use Rickie Fowler as the face of any marketing materials when the guy has won just one PGA Tour event in five years as a pro?
Jordan Spieth has moved up to seventh in the Official World Golf Ranking and has recently become the ringleader of this new “young gun” craze with his whopping one PGA Tour win at the extremely weak-fielded John Deere Classic.
Jason Day is ranked sixth in the Official World Golf Ranking but has just two PGA Tour wins in eight years on tour.
Keegan Bradley is 27 years old and hasn’t added to his three-win career total since August of 2012.
Webb Simpson is 28 years old and has four PGA Tour wins. However, two of those wins came at very weak-fielded events (the Wyndham Championship and the Shriners Hospital for Children Open, which is a Fall Series event).
Hunter Mahan is 31 years old and has just five PGA Tour wins in 12 years on tour.
Harris English has two PGA Tour wins, both of which have come at glorified Web.com Tour events (the FedEx St. Jude Classic and OHL Classic at Mayakoba).
Patrick Reed was considered golf’s “next big star” a couple of months ago when he won the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral, but that was his first career win at any kind of high-profile event. Since that time, Reed has finished no better than a tie for 48th and missed the cut at the Masters, which was the first major championship he ever attended.
Bill Haas is 31-years-old and the 2011 FedEx Cup Champion. Yet he has just five career PGA Tour wins, with only three of those wins coming at events containing even halfway decent fields.
The only two exceptions among this “young gun” crowd would be Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson.
McIlroy has 11 professional wins, including two major championships; however, he hasn’t found the winners circle on the PGA Tour since the 2012 PGA Championship and has shown a propensity to let his game slip for prolonged periods of time.
Johnson has eight PGA Tour wins at the age of 29, but he has also let a number of tournaments, including several major championships, slip through his hands. And like McIlroy, he is prone to long stretches where he is completely MIA from PGA Tour leaderboards.
When excluding McIlroy, who has a legitimate chance to be the top dog of this next generation if he can manage to find some form of consistency, the other players the PGA Tour is constantly trying to shove down our throats as the game’s “future” have combined for just 13 wins at tournaments that would be considered high-quality events and two major championships.
To put that into perspective, during Woods’ first five years as a pro, he won 29 PGA Tour events, including six majors.
This was a period of time when the masses flocked to the game in a manner that had not been seen since a young man by the name of Arnold Palmer travelled the country cocking his head and hitching his pants up in the early 1960s, and is it any wonder why?
Woods winning 29 times in five years with six majors, including four major championship wins in a row, was damn entertaining.
Unfortunately, Kuchar’s slew of top-10s and Rickie Fowler’s one career PGA Tour win are just not going to get many people reaching for the remote control on Sunday afternoon, which was quite evident during the 2014 Masters.
Despite players such as Fowler, Spieth, Kuchar and Bubba Watson in the mix on Sunday, the Masters weekend television ratings hit their lowest level since 1957.
Even at the very top of the Official World Golf Ranking, with players who are a bit too old to be considered young guns but are still among the PGA Tour’s top stars, we see similar results.
Adam Scott is the No. 2 player in the world but has won just two PGA Tour events since 2011. One of those two wins was the 2013 Masters, though.
Henrik Stenson has four career PGA Tour wins but has won just twice on the PGA Tour since 2009. Both of those wins, including a win at the Tour Championship, came during last year’s FedEx Cup playoffs and were enough to earn him the title and a $10 million payday.
Matt Kuchar is 35 years old and the No. 5 player in the world, but he has just seven PGA Tour wins in 15 years as a professional.
Justin Rose, who is the 10th-ranked player in the world, has just five PGA Tour wins in 11 years on tour.
Eternal optimists will say this level of parity is simply the result of so many great players out on tour right now.
However, that has always been the case.
As the game has slowly expanded around the globe, each generation of professional golf has rightfully claimed that its generation has deeper and more talented fields than the previous generation.
But almost without fail, a single great player or small group of great players from each generation has managed to separate himself or itself from the rest (with the one recent exception being 1986 - 1996, which is general not viewed as a golden era in the game).
This would suggest that the level of parity we are now seeing on the PGA Tour is not a case of too many great players but rather a lack of any truly great player/players with the ability to distance himself/themselves from the pack.
This is, of course, troubling news for the PGA Tour and the game of golf in general.
Golf participation has already declined in recent years, particularly here in America.
In contrast to sports such as NFL football, in which parity has resulted in a popularity boom for the game, golf has never managed to thrive when void of a dominant force.
Woods and Mickelson are both nearing the twilight of their careers, and when the day inevitably arrives that these two giants of the game are no longer competitive, the PGA Tour could be in for a very rude awakening.
That is not to say the game of golf will simply keel over and die when Woods and Mickelson retire. The PGA Tour has been around for a long time, and golf has been played for hundreds of years. There is nothing to suggest that the game of golf won’t survive long into the future.
However, there is a big difference between surviving and thriving.
Over the past 17 years or so, the game of golf thrived largely as a result of Woods’ arrival on the scene back in 1996.
The PGA Tour doesn’t need another Woods in order to thrive for the next 17 years.
Golf has been played in a professional manner since the early 1860s, and Woods is one of the top two or three players to have ever picked up a golf club. The likelihood of another Woods emerging in the next decade or two would is incredibly slim, and the game has managed to thrive during periods of time in which the dominant player or players have not been nearly as successful as Woods.
That being said, the PGA Tour does need at least one of these talented young players to step up and assume his position as the game’s next dominant force.
That doesn’t mean they need to win 14 major championships or 30 percent of tournaments they enter. But they certainly need to start winning a lot more than they have been in order to provide entertainment in a sport that is teetering on the edge of a hard decline.
The only problem with that scenario is that, in this writer’s opinion, there is no one on tour right now (with the possible exception of McIlroy, if he can manage to find some level of consistency) with the ability, personality and showmanship to even come remotely close to filling the void that will be left by the likes of Woods and Mickelson.
And that is a major problem for the PGA Tour, no matter how much it tries to convince you otherwise.