Following his overwhelming victory in the 1997 Masters, the focus of almost every major championship for the next 17 years was on Tiger Woods, even when he was absent with injuries.
Since 2014, Woods has become largely irrelevant on the golf course, opening the way for a new generation of golfers to compete for the status of the game’s No. 1 player.
The first player to emerge from the post-Tiger era was Rory McIlroy, who made his first big splash in the U.S. at the age of 21 in Charlotte when he blistered the highly regarded Quail Hollow layout with a final round 62 to take down Phil Mickelson, who lost the 54-hole lead despite a closing 68.
Following a very public Sunday back nine meltdown at Augusta National the next year, McIlroy displayed his resolve when he rebounded to win the U.S Open two months later, the first of his four major championship victories.
After winning the final two majors of 2014, McIlroy was on the verge of establishing a Tiger-like grip on the No. 1-ranking in golf when another 21-year-old captured the first two majors of 2015, beginning with a record-matching victory in the Masters.
Jordan Spieth made the strongest run in golf history at capturing a professional calendar year Grand Slam, finishing one shot out of a playoff in the British Open and scoring a solo second place finish in the PGA Championship. Spieth replaced McIlroy’s as golf’s newest golden boy, but before he could be officially crowned, Jason Day made a spectacular Summer run that included a victory in the PGA after close calls in both the U.S. and British Opens.
That leaves golf in a similar situation to the 1960s, when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player formed the game’s Big 3, which may or may not have spawned the idea for “super group” power trios in rock music, best represented in the ‘60s by the band Cream. (Probably not.)
Golf’s modern trio of standouts has a collective five wins in the last six majors, with Spieth and Day coming up one shot short of a playoff in the British Open. Veteran Zach Johnson was the somewhat unlikely player to stop the major championship streak of the current Big 3, but despite capturing his second career major at St. Andrews, is considered no threat at converting the recently formed power trio into a quartet.
That role falls to Rickie Fowler, who has made enough noise to suggest that the band may sound better as a foursome, but needs a major on his resume to secure that status.
At any rate, those four players will be the focus of major championships this year and likely for the foreseeable future, beginning with next month’s Masters, with two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson and 2013 winner Adsam Scott joining them as favorites in Augusta.
Spieth, McIlroy and Day have seven major victories between them since 2011, with Day and Spieth both having close calls in majors prior to their breakthroughs last year.
Now all of 22 years old, Spieth is about to make his third appearance in Augusta after the best start to a Masters career by any player who has ever stepped foot on the grounds at Augusta National.
Spieth had the lead in the final round of his first Masters in 2014, but was overtaken midway through the round by Bubba Watson, who held on for his second win in Augusta in three years. Spieth came back last year to score a wire-to-wire victory, matching the 72-hole record of 18-under 270. Spieth took control of the tournament with opening scores of 64-66, and followed with a pair of 70s to win by a comfortable 4-shot margin over Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose.
Despite lacking the power games of Nicklaus, Woods, Mickelson and Watson that produced 15 Masters titles among them, Spieth carved up the lengthened Augusta National layout with stellar displays of ball-striking and putting.
Spieth followed up that brilliant performance with his U.S. Open triumph highlighted by a superbly played birdie on the 72nd hole. He was one putt away from a spot in the British Open playoff, and it took a sensational effort by Day to deny Spieth in the PGA.
After close calls in the British Open and PGA, Spieth closed out a remarkable 2015 by capturing the Tour Championship and FedExCup, and began 2016 with a runaway win in the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, shooting 30-under for 72 holes.
The win in the T of C was Spieth’s ninth as a pro since he won the 2013 John Deere Classic in a playoff that included local hero Johnson, holing a bunker shot on the 72nd hole to pull into a tie for the lead.
McIlroy is a Masters title away from a career Grand Slam, coming closest to victory in his third Augusta start. McIlroy opened with a 65 in 2011 and was still four ahead after 54 holes. Despite a shaky opening nine, he retained the lead until a wild hook off the 10th tee resulted in a triple bogey, leading to an 80 and a tie for 15th. He has recorded top-10 finishes the last two years but was not a serious contender either time, closing with a 66 last year to finish fourth.
After his back nine collapse in Augusta, McIlroy rebounded with a resounding 8-shot victory in the U.S. Open at Congressional, again opening with a 65. Following three straight disappointing showings in the 2012 majors, McIlroy put on another dominant display in the PGA at Kiawah Island’s Ocean course, again winning by eight.
McIlroy’s third and fourth majors came in succession at the end of 2014, finally getting a challenge in the PGA at Valhalla, where he narrowly held off Mickelson. An ankle injury suffered last year kept McIlroy from attempting to defend his British Open title. He came back late in the year to win the Dubai World Championship, wrapping up the Race to Dubai title for the third time in four years. He also was the PGA Tour’s leading money winner in 2012 and ’14, and has a total of 19 victories worldwide since his first professional win in Dubai at the age of 19 in 2009. He has been a major player on the world stage for some time, but has not yet turned 27.
Day is the oldest of the Big 3 at 28, and took a little longer to make his mark in golf’s major leagues. He won the Web.com Tour in 2007 at the age of 19, with his first PGA Tour victory coming in 2010 in the Byron Nelson. Day would not win again for almost four years, establishing a reputation during that time frame for coming up just short in majors.
In 2011, Day tied for second in the Masters, two shots behind Charl Schwartzel, who birdied the final four holes. He also placed second that year in the U.S. Open at Congressional, but was a distant eight shots behind McIlroy. Day was third in the 2013 Masters, two shots out of the Scott-Angel Cabrera playoff, and was runner-up for the second time in the U.S. Open at Merion, two behind Rose.
Day ended his winless drought in the 2014 WGC Match Play, going 23 holes to defeat Victor Dubuisson in a memorable championship match, and opened 2015 with a victory in San Diego. He was a contender after an opening 67 in the Masters before fading to a tie for 28th.
While the first half of 2015 belonged to Spieth, the second half was Day’s, who began a spectacular three-month stretch with a gutsy performance in the U.S. Open.
An attack of vertigo late in the third round left Day flat on his back on the final hole, which he barely got through to end the day tied for the lead. An obviously struggling Day gutted out a final round 74 to tie for 10th, and after a few weeks off, he returned to play at the British Open and missed the playoff by one shot, tying Spieth for fourth.
Day flew directly to Canada the next week and out-dueled Watson for his second win of the season. He collected his first major in the PGA at Whistling Straits, beating Spieth by three in a head-to-head final round duel, and won the first and third Playoffs events by six shots each, closing with scores of 63-62 in the Barclays and opening 61-63 in the BMW Championship in Chicago. He finished 12th or better in his other late-season starts in WGC and Playoffs events, capped by a tie for 10th in the Tour Championship.
Fowler, 27, won just once on the PGA Tour in his first five seasons, but collected two high profile wins last year (Players and Deutsche Bank Championship), along with a victory in the Scottish Open against a strong international field. He added another significant European Tour title earlier this year in Abu Dhabi, and has risen to fourth in the World Rankings behind the Big 3 before being passed by Watson after his victory in LA.
Until 2014, Fowler was mostly a non-factor in the majors, but placed in the top 5 in all four Grand Slam events that year, finishing two shots behind the winner in both the British Open (T2) and PGA (T3). He could not match that showing last year (T12 in the Masters was his best finish), but off his majors success in ’14 and four victories in the past year, has positioned himself to join the Big 3 if he can claim a major in 2016.