Is This Golf's Brave New World?

Heading to the WGC-HSBC Champions for the last big showdown of the stroke play season, all of this season's Majors and World Golf Championships titles are in the hands of first-time winners at that level. That's never happened before. Tim Maitland investigates whether it means the sport has truly entered a new era

Jason Day

Sharing the American Pie

However the shift is not just in Europe. During the PGA Tour's regular season there were 12 first time winners ranging from 40-year-old Harrison Frazar who popped the champagne after 354 futile attempts having all-but decided to retire - "I hate to say it, but I had pretty much given up!" - through to five rookies, something that has only happened one other time since 1970.

"If you look at this year it's been the strangest year from rookies winning to veterans winning. It's amazing. It just goes to show the diversity of golf; all different ages are winning right now, which is crazy!" exclaims 23-year-old Australian Jason Day, whose Filipino roots would have added a whole new level of diversity to the winning equation had he converted either of his second place finishes at this year's Masters and US Opens into a maiden Major win, but has still emerged this year as the second youngest player frequenting the world's top 10 after Rory McIlroy.

"I think this is a tremendously exciting time, but not especially because of the shift in power from the USA to Europe," declares Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.

"There are some far more significant longer term shifts. Firstly, the sport is appealing to a younger generation in a different way. Whether you look at the media profile of Rory McIlroy, the impact Martin Kaymer's success has had in generating a new generation of golf fans in Germany or the way that Rickie Fowler's image is resonating with teenagers... they're all touching a new demographic. We've got boys competing on the HSBC National Junior Championship in China who are cultivating his look: to them Fowler is making golf seem cool! All over the world that's going to keep a lot of boys in the game instead of looking for other places where they can express themselves," he adds.

"The other thing that excites me is how the game is growing geographically. Look at the season the Italians had last year, culminating with Francesco Molinari winning in Shanghai! Look at the impact that Jhonattan Vegas becoming the first Venezuelan to win on the PGA Tour had! Look at France being awarded the chance to host its first Ryder Cup and what that will do for the game there! Golf is pushing into new frontiers. We're certainly seeing it at our tournaments in Rio, Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Shanghai... and it's only going to accelerate the closer we get to golf's return to the Olympics in 2016."

Tiger's 30 Per Cent

The steady internationalization, however, doesn't help make sense of the PGA Tour's 2011 winners, which appear to be a swirling void. Perhaps it's best to regard it as exactly that. Tiger's dominance, almost unprecedented, ended relative suddenly by injuries and his off-course issues has created a void and the swirling vortex of winners has yet to settle into a recognizable pattern.

"Tiger was special. When he was winning so much he had something that changed the opponents mind and everything was going his way. But now everything is not going his way. There are periods in professional golf that are really tough to understand," says another of the bright young things, 18-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, who has been lurking around the top 30 in the world since winning the co-sanctioned Maybank Malaysian Open earlier this year.

One of the most compelling explanations for why the golf map seems so confused at the moment is the ratio of Tigers wins to appearances at his peak. In the Majors, from the 1999 PGA Championship to the end of 2002 he won seven of the 13 tournaments. From 2005 until the famous 2008 US Open that he won on a broken leg he claimed six of 14.

In total, from the start of his rookie season in 1996 through the end of 2009, Tiger played in 239 PGA Tour events and won 71 times. That's a winning percentage of nearly 30 per cent... even before you start to refine the numbers for the periods when he was at his red-hot, red-shirted, fist-pumping best.

Relatively few of the current top professionals will give much credence to the argument that the decline of US golf, at least when it comes to winning the top tournaments, may be the result of Tiger simply denying so many other players the opportunity to work out how to win. Statistically it seems significant.

"One in three years! One in three seasons was stripped away!" exclaims Australian veteran Stuart Appleby, a nine-time winner on the PGA Tour, who booked his ticket to this year's WGC-HSBC Champions by winning the JB Were Australian Masters at the end of last year.

"Then also, you wonder about the subliminal message of how do I beat this guy? When Tiger's was on his best? I don't think people are thinking like that. They're probably a bit more back into their own thing. You can imagine what it was like when Byron Nelson had his run many years ago when he just went win, win, win, win! For the ladies tour, they've been experiencing that kind of thing with Yani. What have you got to do? It can be deflating. What are you going to do?"

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