In winning the November Masters and showing us an emotional side of himself that most had never seen, Dustin Johnson did more than earn himself a lifetime invitation to the tournament’s Champions Dinner.
He brought a bit more definition to the past decade of major championship golf. While some will argue that a new decade began in 2020, others contend the decade is actually ending on Dec. 31 this year.
We’ll not quibble about that but will lean toward the latter because people who deal in such matters say this is the last year of the decade and it allows this look at what has happened since Charl Schwartzel won the 2011 Masters.
Are we in the midst of a great era, one we may only fully appreciate sometime down the road?
It’s not like when Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson seemed to trade major championship victories or when Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player ruled the game. But it’s not bad.
In the past 10 years (that’s 39 major championships since the Open Championship was not played this year), five players have combined to win more than one-third of the majors played.
Are Johnson and Koepka the most charismatic players? Maybe not, but they are the personification of the modern game and that’s meant as a compliment.
Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka won four each, Jordan Spieth won three while Johnson and Bubba Watson won two apiece. That’s 15 out of 39, nearly 40 percent.
By comparison, Nicklaus, Palmer and Player won 15 of 40 from 1961 through 1970. Hogan, Nelson and Snead won 15 of 27 in the war-torn years from 1941 to 1950.
Then there’s the nine majors Tiger Woods won from 2001 through 2010 (that doesn’t include the three he won in 2000). Phil Mickelson won four in that window, giving them 13 of 40, a success rate of nearly a third (32.5 percent) among the two of them.
The past decade of major championships has been defined by bursts – the Rory burst, then Spieth’s then Koepka’s. Their wins came in clumps.
McIlroy won four in 15 starts and now hasn’t won one since that rainy PGA Championship Sunday at Valhalla in 2014.
Spieth won three in 11 starts and was a putt away from a playoff in another.
Koepka did Spieth one better, winning four majors in 11 starts, doubling up on consecutive U.S. Open and PGA Championship trophies.
That’s an almost dizzying collection of numbers but they help underscore where this moment fits in the game’s historical timeline.
The reality is the PGA Tour has been transitioning from the Woods-Mickelson era for a while and it’s officially closed now.
There was a time when the notion of them aging out sent a shiver up spines. Turns out things are just fine, even better when they still find their way into contention.
With his victory at Augusta, Johnson redefined his place among the all-timers. Major championship victories do that and, fairly or not, Johnson had been defined as much by the majors he lost as the one he won in 2016.
Jason Dufner, Keegan Bradley and Jimmy Walker have won one major in the past decade but their careers don’t match Johnson’s. It was important for him to win a second.
He’s a rare talent who’s already won more PGA Tour events than Raymond Floyd, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Greg Norman, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite and other Hall of Famers. The case can be made that Johnson has been the decade’s best player and the second major may confirm it.
Koepka, it felt like, almost snuck up on everyone. He was considered a good player but he became a dominant force in majors. When some suggested his U.S. Open win at Erin Hills was a product of an open, forgiving layout, he responded by winning again at Shinnecock Hills.
He beat Tiger to win a PGA at Bellerive then beat Johnson to win at brutal Bethpage. It’s impossible to question that résumé.
Are Johnson and Koepka the most charismatic players? Maybe not, but they are the personification of the modern game and that’s meant as a compliment. They would be good in any generation.
The same goes for McIlroy, whose pure talent may be unmatched. But the longer he’s gone without winning a major – without giving himself a serious chance on the closing holes – the heavier his burden has become.
Every major now feels like a referendum on McIlroy. His T5 at the Masters last week was an example of how McIlroy has wrestled with the majors. He effectively shot himself out of contention immediately then played his way back up the board for a backdoor top-five.
He’s talked before virtually every major about how he’s trying to approach the biggest events but the results, while good, haven’t produced another win. It seems preposterous to think he won’t win another major – he could win several more since he’s just 31 – and he can take solace in the fact that he’s four ahead of where Mickelson and Ben Hogan were at his age.
The more problematic player is Spieth, whose three-year run is beginning to look like a comet passing through. He’s wondrously talented, especially with a putter in his hand. We may one day look back on this tough period as a temporary detour but it’s hard for him to find the sunshine at the moment.
Bubba being Bubba, all things remain possible. He’s been the outlier, a quirky left-handed artist whose achievements probably exceeded his own imagination.
There’s the old saying that life is what happens while we’re busy making plans.
It’s that way with major championship golf, too. As decades go, this has been a good one.