McIlroy No. 1 in a year of unparalleled parity on PGA TourORLANDO, Fla. - The PGA Tour hasn’t seen this kind of parity in two decades.
Jordan Spieth won the Valspar Championship last week at Innisbrook to become the 18th winner in 18 tournaments this season. The last time the PGA Tour went this deep before it had a multiple winner was in 1994 with Nick Price, whose second win came at Colonial in the 21st event of the season.
Price went on to win six times that year, including consecutive majors at the British Open and PGA Championship, and finally was ranked No. 1.
Rory McIlroy already is there, and it’s hard to imagine anyone replacing him this year. That won’t make it any easier for him to pile up victories.
The competition seems to be everywhere these days, even if McIlroy is just starting the PGA Tour portion of his schedule.
Bubba Watson has two Masters and a World Golf Championship, and he cannot be overlooked at Augusta National next month when he goes for a third green jacket in four years. Jack Nicklaus is the only other player to win that many in such a short stretch.
Jason Day, already a winner at Torrey Pines this year, is healthy and working harder than ever. He has been at Bay Hill for two days this week, spent Tuesday afternoon in the hot sun with a towel wrapped around his chest and under his arms during a chipping drill. He tried to land his pitch shots on a tube of lip balm placed about 25 feet away and nailed it on the sixth try.
The 21-year-old Spieth, in his third season, already has amassed more than $10 million for his career and picked up his second PGA Tour title (fourth worldwide). Brooks Koepka won against a strong field in Turkey and Phoenix. Dustin Johnson, after sitting out for six months, lost in a playoff at Riviera and won the World Golf Championship at Doral in a span of three weeks. Koepka and Johnson are examples of how much more athletic golf looks now.
The next generation - the group now faced with challenging McIlroy - grew up watching Tiger Woods outclass his competition. They were, in effect, trained by Tiger. They are hungry. And they are not intimidated by anything or anyone.
Patrick Reed went so far as to dress like Woods, with black pants and a red shirt on Sunday. The 25-year-old already has won four times, and he even showed the kind of fight that would have impressed his golfing hero in the playoff at Innisbrook, when he twice turned impossible shots into pars until Spieth beat him with a 30-foot birdie.
Reed spoke late last year about the influence Woods had on him.
“He was so much better than anyone else at the time,’’ Reed said. “With my growing up and watching it, I tried to copy his mental strength. ... You could see it just by looking at his eyes. If looks could kill you, he would literally kill you. He was so focused and determined to play well. And that’s what I’m trying to do.’’
Matt Every, who picked up his first PGA Tour win last year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, is in his fifth year on tour and already has noticed how much harder it is to win because of so many possibilities every week.
“When I first got out here, about 20 percent of guys were in shape. Now it’s 80 percent,’’ Every said. “You hardly ever see a young guy looking sloppy.’’
Whether this great depth is a detriment to golf is the question.
It’s easy to say that golf needs a dominant player because it had one for some 15 years. Even when Price went on his great run in 1994, he shared the stage with Nick Faldo and Greg Norman. Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson were the rising stars.
Woods didn’t have a rival. He had rivals, a revolving door of them for a decade, from Els to David Duval, from Mickelson to Vijay Singh.
McIlroy isn’t as dominant as Woods, at least not yet.
There is no argument who is the best player in golf. And it’s not because of the world ranking but because McIlroy won the British Open and PGA Championship in a span of four weeks and joined Nicklaus, Woods and Bobby Jones as the only players in the last century to win four majors by age 25. These things don’t happen by accident.
For now, the one comparison McIlroy has with Woods is trying to settle on a rival.
There are more options now.