If the media drives sport and most of the money generated comes from TV broadcasting rights then it’s hardly surprising that professional sport worldwide has always been a star-driven enterprise dominated by the world’s greatest athletes.
Just as the NBA has Michael Jordan and LeBron James, the NFL has Joe Montana and Tom Brady. And golf has had its fair share of box office superstars - from Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and more recently, Tiger Woods. Big draws who drive attendances, create fanbases, generate column inches and get more of the general public watching tournaments.
Holding court between one superstar and the next are those brilliant players who bridge the gap – Hall of Fame golfers like Nick Faldo, Greg Norman and, dare I say it, even Phil Mickelson.
While that sounds harsh, true superstardom can only be reserved for the very dominant few – players whose exploits either profoundly change their sport or stand the test of time.
In recent years, an ambitious group of young professionals – the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth, (all major champions) - have injected fresh energy and excitement into the professional golf game suggesting one might take up the baton left behind by Tiger Woods and become the game’s next superstar. But modern day mitigating factors possibly dictate otherwise.
You see, gone from today’s game are a multitude of factors that separated the great players from the good in years gone by .
Those days of inconsistent technology, where the ability to control the ball flight or to find the ‘sweet spot’ on a persimmon head came from hours of experimentation on the range or manipulation of the club head in a vice. Gone too are the years spent culturing your hands to find a way to square up a club face sufficiently to consistently find its intended target.
In today’s era, where statistical data is everything and technology is uniform, it is easy to understand how the gap between the great and the really good player has shrunk dramatically. With everyone now capable of studying each other’s playing stats, there has never been less mystery regarding performances. So it is hardly surprising that players’ physical power, size, and effort now count more than ever as players try to gain marginal advantages over their opponents.
Where once you peaked in your 30s, now kids are emerging from college with all of the necessary game tools. But with greater depth, equally talented players and fewer superstars, the professional game runs the risk of becoming... well increasingly boring.
Golf needs superstars like Tiger Woods who in his prime came into the game and struck the fear of God into his opponents with a multitude of skills that most could only dream about.
Golf needs superstars who cherish and have perfected the art of winning over long periods of time, superstars who continually want to participate and prove themselves against the very best, superstars who understand they cannot win every event but have the hunger and thirst for constant improvement. It does not need any more multi-millionaire streaky golfers who are simply happy to count their bucks while consistently playing second-fiddle.
While nobody can deny that team parity improves most sports, individual sports want their ‘banner’ stars – the Federers, Djokovics or Nadals of tennis – the Woods or Mickelsons of golf. Golf fans pick their favourite players for their star power – be that through their ability or their nationality - and they want to watch them dominate.
This week’s US Open marks the first time in 25 years there will be no Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson in the field, and although it is very much apparent that their star power is already in decline, it is just as interesting to observe whether the superstar void left by Nicklaus after Augusta in 1986 and so spectacularly taken up by Woods will be filled by one of Johnson, Day, McIlroy or Spieth. Or are we witnessing yet another group of brilliantly talented ‘gap players’ filling a void until the next superstar arrives?
As of right now, the USGA has done its best to give them the elite the chance to win another major championship this week, through a very favourable course set-up at Erin Hills.
That said, until such time as one of them definitively separates himself from the others, only then will history happily afford them the same superstar status as Mr Palmer, Mr Nicklaus and Mr Woods.
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