The hype, the intrigue, the chatter about the 2018 golfing year has been dominated by two men, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. The void in stardust caused by Woods' absence from the game is a reflection of how long he was dominant for; 281 weeks as the number one in the world, his red shirt on Sunday often precipitating a metaphorical white handkerchief to be raised by his playing partner. Woods also changed sport; at times he walked on water; he broke racial boundaries; he heralded an influx of huge money into golf. We all have the computer game, somewhere at home, in some format. It's hardly an insubstantial legacy.
Life moves on though, and this year will mark a full decade since Woods' 14th and to date last major championship. After four back surgeries, it's a question of 'if' rather than 'when' the 42 year old can regularly compete in U.S. PGA Tour events, of which he has won 79. His comeback in the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas was encouraging, and Woods has always been a top athlete, back trouble notwithstanding, so there could be a few years in a healthy Tiger just yet. The problem is that three of the top four players in the world; Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas are nearly two decades younger. Golf is a game that requires unbelievable concentration over 4 rounds; and the question is whether Woods can deliver under major championship pressure when the cameras are on. The decline of performance of players in their 40's has been consistent for years. One can produce for a day, possibly 3, but 4? "He's Tiger Woods," one may say, but this is a different era now and the previous rules of combat may no longer apply. Count me as a sceptic that a 15th major is easily in the offing. He'll be doing well to win at all this year.
McIlroy is only 28, and is dripping with natural talent, but his trajectory hasn't been smooth since he won the Open Championship and U.S. PGA within a month in 2014. Injuries have interrupted the flow, Spieth and Jason Day took advantage in the arena and last year for the Holywood native was one big cough and splutter. He got married, which was fantastic for him, but on course, he was stifled by a rib injury, ended the annum without a win and sacked his caddie JP Fitzgerald. The intention for McIlroy is to play seven events before April's Masters, the only major he hasn't won. The question for McIllroy is whether the application is burning to match the talent; is he really hurting after seeing these new kids on the block claim the big prizes? He should be, and that gives us hope we will see McIlroy's outstanding talent resurface to bring Sunday's television drama to the cliff edge, as we discover ourselves on the edge of the couch, gaping like goldfish.
What about everyone else? Perhaps we should be focusing on tomorrow's world, because those currently making noise may not stop any time soon. Dustin Johnson has just won the Tournament of Champions by 8 shots in Hawaii to solidify his position on top of the world. A healthy DJ can win anywhere, any time. Jordan Spieth's Open win at Royal Birkdale last July was almost religious, so how can he not believe anything is possible when he finds himself in a similar situation once again? Justin Thomas recovered brilliantly from a U.S. Open flame out to win the U.S. PGA at the age of 24. Rickie Fowler has been so consistent that he may only need to gently tap on the major door for it to swing his way. And what about Jon Rahm?
I was looking at the improvement in the world rankings from 2016 to 2017 and Spaniard Rahm moved from 137th to 4th. In his first full season as a professional, Rahm eagled the last to win the Farmers Insurance Open on the PGA Tour, took the Irish Open at Portstewart by 6 shots and won the season ending DP World Tour Championship on the European Tour in Dubai. That's not an ordinary event. The win there followed a streak of 4 top 10's in America. Rahm turned 23 in November. Mentored as a teenager by Phil Mickelson's brother Tim, Rahm cut his cloth in Arizona, becoming the top collegiate golfer in the USA. He was then the top ranked amateur in the world for 60 weeks. A student of the game, counting Seve Ballesteros as his hero and Ben Hogan as a big influence, Rahm brings huge qualities to the table - physical strength, power off the tee, finesse, and a beautiful touch around the greens. He can be fiery, but that is something which experience will temper. A second place finish behind Johnson in Hawaii to start 2018 is a positive sign for the year ahead. What Rahm holds in his armoury above all else though, is this unshakeable self belief. It doesn't come across as cockiness, rather, there's a fearlessness to his nature that makes one sit up and pay attention. The results don't lie. It's not too soon. Spieth's first major title was claimed at the age of 21, Seve's at 22. Don't be surprised if Jon Rahm is the latest young gun to pull up the drawbridge up on the 'Tiger era', at Augusta, Shinnecock Hills, Carnoustie, or Bellerive, the host courses for the 4 majors in 2018. While Woods retains that 'Pied Piper' aura with the mass media, the real blockbuster, 'Rahmbo' may be on a screen near you.