The Rory McIlroy Era Has Arrived Right on Schedule

Michael FitzpatrickFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2014

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland holds up the Claret Jug trophy after winning the British Open Golf championship at the Royal Liverpool golf club, Hoylake, England, Sunday July 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Scott Heppell/Associated Press

Throughout the past century of professional golf, the game has followed a very similar pattern as it relates to the presence of a dominate force. All of this talk recently about how we are entering what could be a prolonged period of parity was never going to be accurate.

Parity has never reigned supreme in the game of golf.

Whenever one dominant force in the game is nearing the back-nine of his career, another dominant force seems to quickly arise.

This is the way it has been for more than 100 years, and as we have just witnessed with Rory McIlroy’s third major championship last Sunday at Royal Liverpool, this is the way it will continue be for the foreseeable future.

Harry Vardon won the last of his seven career majors in 1914, which was the very same year that Walter Hagen won his first major title at the U.S. Open.

Hagen went on to win 11 majors and 38 PGA Tour events between 1914 and 1929.

Although Bobby Jones was 10 years younger than Hagen, their careers did overlap a bit in the late 1920s. However, Hagen’s reign of dominance ended in 1929, which was one year before Jones won what was considered at that time to be golf’s grand slam.

Jones abruptly retired in 1930 at the age of 28, which was precisely the time when Gene Sarazen’s career began to pick back up.  

Although Sarazen had won two majors in the early 1920s, his career entered a lull between 1925 and 1929. However, Sarazen came back and won four majors and 19 PGA Tour events between 1930 and 1935.

Just as Sarazen began to slow down in 1935, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead emerged onto the scene.

Nelson won his first major at the 1937 Masters and proceeded to win another four majors and 49 PGA Tour events between 1937 and 1946, before retiring at the age of 34 to open a cattle ranch in his home state of Texas.

Snead won his first major at the 1942 PGA Championship, and won seven majors and 75 PGA Tour events between 1927 and 1955.

Hogan, although the same age as Snead and Nelson, was more of a later bloomer.

Hogan didn’t win his first PGA Tour event until 1940 (he won the Hershey Four-Ball in 1938, which is considered a PGA Tour win, but that was a team event), and didn’t win his first major until 1946.

But between 1940 and 1953, Hogan won nine majors and 62 PGA Tour events.

The era of Hogan and Snead was coming to a close by the late 1950s, which is precisely the time that a young charismatic golfer by the name of Arnold Palmer hit the professional scene.

Palmer won seven tournaments between 1955 and 1957, but his first major championship title came at the 1958 Masters.

Palmer would then proceed to win 28 PGA Tour events and six majors between 1958 and the end of 1962.

However, Palmer’s reign was cut short by Jack Nicklaus.

Nicklaus shocked the golf world with an 18-hole playoff victory over Palmer at the 1962 U.S. Open, which was held right in Palmer’s backyard at Oakmont Country Club, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

While Palmer would still go on to win 27 more PGA Tour events between 1963 and 1973, he would capture just one more major title, which came at the 1964 Masters.

The Nicklaus era officially began in 1962 and would last into the early 1980s, although Nicklaus began to slow down a bit in the late 1970s.

Associated Press

Nicklaus’ reign of dominance very much coincided with Gary Player’s storied career. Player won nine majors, 24 PGA Tour events and scores of other tournaments around the world between 1959 and 1978.

Lee Trevino’s career also overlapped with the second half of Nicklaus’ prime.

Trevino won his first major at the 1968 U.S. Open and would win 29 PGA Tour events, including six majors, between 1968 and 1984.

As Nicklaus began to make the turn towards the back-nine in his career, a young Tom Watson was just hitting his stride.

Watson won his first major in 1975 and would win eight majors between 1975 and 1984, with five of those eight majors coming in the early 1980s.

Throughout the past 100 years of professional golf, the period between the mid-1980s and around 1997 is about the only period that some could legitimately argue was a period of parity.

However, this period only latest about 10 years and contained players such as Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and, of course, Greg Norman.

Norman won 20 PGA Tour events, including two majors, between 1984 and 1997. Norman, who tacked on about as many air miles as Player did during his career, also had 90 worldwide career professional wins, the vast majority of which occurred between the mid-1980s and 1997.

Between 1986 and 1997, Norman finished the year as the top ranked golfer in the world seven times.

The Australian native—affectionately referred to as the Great White Shark—topped the PGA Tour money list in 1986, 1990 and 1995 and won the PGA Tour’s Vardon Trophy for the lowest scoring average in 1989, 1990 and 1994.

5 Sep 1997: Greg Norman hits the ball during the Canadian Open at the Royal Montreal Golf Course in Montreal, Quebec.
Gray Mortimore/Getty Images

Norman was without question the dominant force of this generation, and were it not for his major championship struggles, he might very well have gone down as one of the most dominant players in the history of the game.  

So, while there may not have been a true dominant force at the majors between the mid-1980s and 1997, the era was not completely void of a dominant force.

Norman’s reign abruptly ended the moment Tiger Woods decided to leave Stanford University and turn professional back in 1996. Between 1997 and 2008, Woods dominated the game in a manner that had never before been seen in professional golf.  

Woods won 14 majors during that time period, including four majors in a row between the 2000 U.S. Open and 2001 Masters, which came to be known as the “Tiger Slam”.

Woods spent 246 consecutive weeks as the No. 1 ranked player in the World Golf Rankings, before briefly loosing that spot to Vijay Singh in late 2004. Woods would regain the No. 1 spot in 2005 and not relinquish it again until October of 2010.

Woods won the PGA Tour’s Player of the year award 10 times between 1997 and 2009 and won the Vardon Trophy eight times during that same time period.

People can argue for all eternity about who they consider to be the greatest golfer of all-time was. However, it would be quite difficult for anyone to argue that Woods was not the most dominant player in the history of the game between 1997 and 2009.

But, like every great golfer that has come before him, Woods’ reign at the top is coming to a close.

It has now been six years since Woods’ last major championship title. If his recent form is anything to go by, one could certainly surmise that Woods is going to have a very difficult time winning one more major, let alone the five that he needs to surpass Nicklaus’ record of 18 career major championship titles.

So, as has been the case for more than 100 years now, whenever one door closes in professional golf, another one opens.

Uncredited/Associated Press

McIlroy’s two-stroke victory at last week’s Open Championship for his third major championship title at the age of 25 was truly a coming out party for the Northern Irishman.

McIlroy joins Woods and Nicklaus as the only golfers since 1934 to win three major championships before the age of 26. He also became the first European golfer in history to win three different majors.

While McIlroy may not be the next Woods or Nicklaus, it is clear that he has assumed his place as the dominant force of this next generation in the game.

There is no large group of so-called “young guns,” and we are not about to enter a period of parity in the game.

McIlroy’s best is head-and-shoulders above his peers’, which is the very definition of what it takes to be a dominant force in professional golf. And based on the history of professional golf, McIlroy’s recent ascension to the top of the game should come as a surprise no one.

This changing of the guard between Woods and McIlroy is occurring right on schedule.

Anyone who has followed the history of professional golf knew very well that another dominant force was bound to arise sooner rather than later.

The only questions were who and when. Well, those questions have now been answered.

Welcome to the Rory McIlroy era.


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