AUGUSTA, GA. – It is fitting that Hazeltine National has earned a place in the future of American golf, because Hazeltine National has helped predict American golf’s future.
At the PGA Championship at Hazeltine in 2009, Y.E. Yang stared down Tiger Woods in what amounted to match play on Sunday. Yang, who has since disappeared from the international golf scene, was not intimidated, and Woods did not make his patented clutch putts. Woods’ best finish at a major since then has been a tie for third, and he did not contend in his latest comeback, this past weekend at the Masters.
That PGA and this year’s Masters gave us a glimpse into golf’s future, a future without Woods as a dominating figure.
At the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine in 2016, Woods settled for being a vice captain and Patrick Reed became the emotional and performance leader of a U.S. team that won back the trophy with a resounding and rowdy victory. Reed’s display of guts and emotion left little doubt that he was capable of winning a major, and he did so at the 2018 Masters.
Reed teamed with Jordan Spieth at that Ryder Cup, and Brooks Koepka matched Reed with three points. Today, the four reigning major championship winners are Reed, Spieth, Koepka and Justin Thomas, who figures to be a Ryder Cup competitor for the next decade.
Rickie Fowler went 2-1 at Hazeltine and finished second at the Masters, one shot behind Reed.
Woods barely made the cut and finished tied for 32nd.
With Woods in the tournament, television ratings soared. Even at 42, with no major championships since 2008 and no Masters titles since 2005, he remains the only golfer who can capture the imagination of the average sports fan.
For golfers and diehard fans, what was demonstrated over the weekend at Augusta National is that Woods is no longer needed to make the game compelling, or to bolster American golf.
The U.S. boasts all four major winners and the top-ranked player in the world, Dustin Johnson.
Thomas and Spieth are 24. Reed and Koepka are 27. Fowler is 29. Johnson is 33 and is one of the game’s fittest players. Of that group, all but Fowler have won a major, and Fowler has won a Players Championship — which features a deeper, stronger field than some of the majors, including the Masters — and has finished in the top five at eight majors.
Long dependent on Woods and Phil Mickelson — and sometimes dependent on them getting along, which rarely happened until recently — American golf now can view Phil and Tiger as the genial uncles who drop by on holidays. Their presence isn’t necessary, just occasionally entertaining.
When the Ryder Cup returns to Hazeltine in 2028, this could be the bulk of the American team:
Woods as captain.
Mickelson as vice captain, along with Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson.
A team led by Spieth, Thomas, Koepka, Fowler, Reed, Dustin Johnson, as well as a few youngsters and late bloomers to be named later.
It’s easy to imagine that by then Spieth, Thomas, Fowler and Reed will have won more majors, and more Ryder Cups.
The 2018 Masters didn’t need Woods and Mickelson in contention to produce a stunning tournament, and American golf no longer needs them to thrive.