Jason Day tightened his grip on the world No 1 spot the last time he played, a wire-to-wire victory in The Players Championship against the best field in golf to claim his seventh big title in the last 10 months.
That was three weeks ago, and, in some respects, it seems like a long time.
The following week, Rory McIlroy headed home to Ireland and delivered two perfect shots with fairway metals over the last three holes at The K Club to win the Irish Open for his first victory of the year.
Not to be forgotten, Jordan Spieth won the following week at Colonial with a birdie-birdie-birdie finish — none of them easy — for a victory he badly needed to help erase any lingering disappointment from the Masters.
“I extended my lead for a while,” said Day. “And now Jordan and Rory are both closing in on it.”
The top three remain Day, Spieth and McIlroy, the same order it has been since Day first went back to No 1 on March 27, when he won the Dell Match Play in Texas. The Australian, who lives in Ohio, is assured of staying at the top regardless of what happens this week.
Spieth offered a different perspective.
“Jason may say we closed the gap. Well, he didn’t play,” Spieth said with a grin. “The last time he played, he beat the best field in golf.”
One thing is certain: The top three in the world are on top of their game going into the Memorial, with the US Open looming two weeks away. The hype is building for another showdown at a major, just as it was at the Masters, but that never really materialised. Spieth was the only player of the top three who challenged for the green jacket until he blew up on the back nine and Danny Willett closed with a 67 to win by three.
Neither Day nor McIlroy broke 70 all week and tied for 10th.
The debate is whether they really deserve to be called the “Big Three,” a moniker first used for tournament host Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player. That title was more about marketing through Mark McCormack and IMG, and besides, they already had collected a large share of the majors.
However, the youngsters — Spieth at 22, McIlroy just turned 27, Day at 28 — have made their case. They have rotated at No 1 since August 10. At one point, the top spot changed hands six times in six weeks. Plus, they have won five of the last seven majors.
Right now, everyone is chasing Day.
“I heard a couple of weeks ago that it bothered Jordan that I was winning tournaments and have the No 1 spot in the world, and it should,” said Day. “It should bother guys who are competitive and want to stay on top as well. There’s nothing wrong with being bothered by that. I hope it motivates them just as much as it motivates me to see other guys on top of the world and winning tournaments. It’s great to see how they’ve responded so quickly.”
Nicklaus was asked about the big three and he quickly mentioned another era — Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, and Ben Hogan. He could have gone back to the Great Triumvirate of Harry Vardon, JH Taylor and James Braid from the turn of the century — the 19th century — when they combined to win the British Open 16 times over a span of 21 years.
Nicklaus believes a “Big Three” is not far away from being a big number of great players, because of the depth in golf, which the 18-time major champion and tournament host says is the strongest he has ever seen.
McIlroy feels the same way.
“The three of us are at the top of the world rankings, but I think it really does the other players an injustice because the fields are so deep out here and there’s so many other great young players,” said McIlroy. “So, just to focus on us three... OK, we’re at the top of the rankings and we’ve won a few majors between us, but I think it’s just unfair to focus on us.”
He mentioned Rickie Fowler and Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson and Hideki Matsuyama.
All of them are at Muirfield Village, which features the top five in the world. It’s enough to keep their attention, even with Oakmont only two weeks away.
For Day, just playing better at the course where he is a member would help. He has never finished better than a tie for 27th. Day said part of the problem is that he takes aggressive lines when he is playing casual rounds with friends, and that gets him in trouble during a tournament.
“I’m looking to change that this week,” he said.
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