AUGUSTA, Ga. — Golf has always seemed to have its dominant players come in bunches.
Back in the 1940s it was Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. In the 1960s thanks in part to the marketing savvy of their agents at IMG, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player were referred to as the “Big Three.”
Then there was Tiger Woods and, well, Tiger Woods. About 10-12 years ago people tried to turn him, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen into the “Big Five,” but Woods ended up crushing them, too. More like the “Big One and the Medium Four.”
It’s hard to identify an era within an era, but this is shaping up to be the era of golf’s new Big Three.
There are a lot of players who could be included in the conversation, but we’re specifically talking about American Jordan Spieth, Australian Jason Day and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy.
All are in their 20s and have volleyed the No. 1 ranking between themselves lately like they were playing doubles tennis instead of golf. And all enter this year’s Masters as the top three favorites (Day, McIlroy and Spieth in that order) to slip into a green jacket come Sunday evening.
Day, 28, is the new world No. 1, having won six tournaments around the world since July, including last year’s PGA Championship.
Spieth, 22, had one of the most brilliant years ever in golf in 2015, winning the Masters and the U.S. Open, including a record-tying 18-under par total here at Augusta National.
McIlroy, 25, is the former world No. 1, currently at No. 3.
“I’m clinging on at the minute,” McIlroy said jokingly.
Any golfer would like to do McIlroy’s kind of clinging. He already has four majors — a U.S. Open, British Open and two PGAs. If he wins the Masters, he will become just the sixth player to complete the career grand slam.
The three are friendly and complimentary competitors, but competitors all the same. They wouldn’t have gotten to where they are if they weren’t.
“If one of us plays well then usually there’s two out of three or three out of three guys that are going to step up practicing and playing harder,” Day said. “It’s inspiring and motivating to watch the other guy win because you know that you can do that, so why can’t it be you?”
All have something the other doesn’t. Spieth has the green jacket that Day and McIlroy have only seen brush past their golf gloves — Day finished second in his debut in 2011, McIlroy a career-best fourth last year. McIlroy has the most majors, including that British Open claret jug, the prize that vies with the green jacket for being considered the biggest in golf. And Day has the hottest year going and the current favorite’s role, though Spieth said he’s happy with that.
“Isn’t Jason the favorite?” Spieth asked. “So, nice. He can be the favorite. I’ll go ahead and we’ll just do our thing.”
Nicklaus said Tuesday that Day’s trajectory is higher than any other player in the sport. That may be true, but unfortunately Day looks like one of those athletes who has rock-solid talent and a glass body. He’s had a major thumb injury, was nearly forced to withdraw from last year’s U.S. Open with vertigo and almost pulled out of this year’s WGC-Dell Match Play with a bulging disc before going on to win.
“It’s the same old bulging disc that I’ve always had,” he said. “Every now and then it flares up and you just can’t do anything about it. Right now I’m not even thinking about it because I don’t have any problems at all.”
Spieth’s biggest problem, if he has one, is that his 2015 was so great his 2016 can’t escape the shadows. He won the Tournament of Champions in January by eight shots over former University High golfer Patrick Reed but hasn’t finished better than ninth since.
Still, the second-youngest Masters winner ever behind Woods doesn’t lack for confidence.
“My tools that I have right now, I know I can beat everybody if I just let them kind of come out,” he said. “And obviously, you need the right breaks and you need the putts to fall.”
McIlroy almost broke a window here in 2011. He led the entire week going to the back nine Sunday when he snap-hooked his drive on the 10th near one of the cabins on the left side of the fairway. That led to a triple-bogey 7 which led to a back-nine 43 which bled into a final-round 80.
McIlroy’s ability to win here seems a mathematical certainty. Still, he seems to sense demons lurking among the lush landscaping.
“I feel like I’ve got everything I need to become a Masters champion,” McIlroy said. “But I think that each and every year that passes that I don’t it will become increasingly more difficult. So there’s no time like the present to get it done.”
No time better to be watching golf’s new Big Three in their collective prime.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.