In the previous 16 years of golf’s most fickle event, the Match Play has never delivered No. 1 against No. 2, so the only way McIlroy and Spieth could face-off would be to reach the final match. Under a new format this year, that was even more difficult. The 64 players were broken into 16 four-player pools over three days. McIlroy nearly didn’t make it out of his group, surviving by making a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, winning the 18th hole with a birdie and then disposing of Billy Horschel in 20 holes. Spieth wasn’t so fortunate. Lee Westwood make a key birdie on the 17th and held on to beat the Masters champion on the 18th hole. McIlroy had two more close calls against Paul Casey and Jim Furyk before breezing to his second WGC title by beating Gary Woodland.
The only disappointment for McIlroy was a weather delay that forced him to cancel a quick flight over to Las Vegas to watch the Manny Pacquiao- Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight. Oddly enough, the best viewing was in the press center. McIlroy and his girlfriend sat among a dozen reporters watching the fight, which would have been an anomaly with previous world No. 1s. McIlroy is comfortable in any company, and his victory seemed to be the perfect answer to Spieth winning the Masters.
“I think everyone — not just me, but everyone on tour — was inspired seeing Jordan do what he did at Augusta,” McIlroy said. “This is the start of a nice little run of golf for me, and I wanted to come out and play well and increase my lead in the world rankings … and keep going. But it’s always nice to have people pushing you. And I feel like he’s one of the guys doing that right now.”
The tables turned a week later at The Players Championship. Instead of McIlroy being questioned about a challenge from Spieth, it was Spieth try- ing to downplay any rivalry. He noted that the gap between McIlroy and Spieth in the World Ranking was equal to the gap between Spieth and the eighth-ranked player. As for McIlroy, he practically yawned when asked about Spieth’s challenge. “Last year it was Rickie [Fowler]. This year it’s Jordan, might be someone else, could have been Tiger. There’s been four or five rivalries over the past year. So it doesn’t really do anything for me.”
The PGA Tour put McIlroy and Spieth in the same group. Spieth opened with a 75 to match his worst score of the year, and he wound up missing the cut by three shots. McIlroy broke par all four rounds and tied for eighth, four shots out of a playoff. Spieth was upset with his game, though it was clear he could feel the attention of living up to his part in his growing rivalry. “I don’t believe in this whole rivalry thing. I don’t believe I’m on his level,” Spieth said. “Rory McIlroy is far ahead of any younger players, including myself. I never thought there was a rivalry. He’s a good player, and I have to work hard to get up to that level.”
If that wasn’t enough, McIlroy headed up to North Carolina the next week, shot a career-low 61 in the third round and blew away the field for a seven-shot victory. What rivalry?
Little could McIlroy know, that would be his best golf for the next six months. As the defending champion of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, he missed the cut in the European Tour flagship event. The next week at Royal County Down, where he was host of his national championship, McIlroy missed another cut at the Irish Open. For all his greatness, McIlroy is prone to having spells of missed cuts. That’s part of his tour DNA, different from a player like Woods. It typically is no cause of alarm, though it wasn’t the best form to be taking to Chambers Bay for the U.S. Open. “I’d rather, in a six-tournament period, have three wins and three missed cuts than six top-10s,” he said. “Volatility in golf is actually a good thing. If your good weeks are really good, it far outweighs the bad weeks.” Turns out the U.S. Open was an ordinary week. He flirted with a great comeback on Sunday, but ultimately tied for ninth, five shots behind Spieth. Yes, there was a rivalry. McIlroy and Spieth not only were Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, they had won the last four majors. The last time two players had split the last four was in 1971-72 by Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus.
The year began to take shape at Chambers Bay in two respects. Spieth was motoring toward a Grand Slam, which not many would have predicted at the start of the year. And Woods was sinking to depths no one imagined. Just two weeks before the U.S. Open, the five-time winner of the Memorial shot a career-worst 85 in the third round. If there was any thought it was just an anomaly, he opened with an 80 at the U.S. Open. In the first 19 seasons of his PGA Tour career, Woods had only one round in the 80s — the 81 in wind and rain off Muirfield in the 2002 British Open. Halfway through his 20th season, he added three more.
The real shocker was early in the year at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. When he returned from a three-month break at the end of 2014 to let his body fully heal and to get stronger, Woods hit some curiously bad chip shots — some he duffed, some he bladed — and he tied for last. Chalk that up to rust. In what appeared to be a stock pitch, he used a four-iron to bump it along the ground. He shot 82 in the second round and attributed his short-game woes to working with a new swing consultant and getting rid of old habits. But a week later at Torrey Pines, where he is an eight-time winner as a pro, nothing changed. Woods walked off the North Course after 12 holes and in a bizarre scene in the parking lot, surrounded by reporters, he said his “glutes” didn’t stay “activated.” A week later, Woods said he was taking time off from the game because his scores were unacceptable.
He didn’t return until the Masters and, remarkably, showed few signs of any problems with his short game. It really was a stunning turnaround. After taking two months off, he tied for 17th at the Masters. Golf, however, requires a more complete game and Woods never was in contention — not at Augusta, not at The Players, not anywhere. He missed the cut in three straight majors. He went 11 straight rounds without breaking 70. And he failed to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs.
In September, Woods announced he had another back surgery to alleviate pain. And in October, he revealed a third back surgery that would keep him out indefinitely. By the end of the year, at his Hero World Challenge in early December, he still had not started rehabilitation and said he could do little more than walk. And for the first time, Woods sounded resigned that his best golf might be behind him. Woods said he wants to play again and that anything he accomplishes the rest of his career “will be gravy.”
For the players at the top — McIlroy and Spieth — their seasons suddenly were headed in different directions. The showdown in their budding rivalry figured to take place at St. Andrews in golf’s oldest championship. Spieth was trying to match Ben Hogan as the only player to win the first three professional majors of the year. McIlroy was the defending champion at the Open Championship, and he tied a major championship record with a 63 the last time the Open was held on the Old Course. It just never got that far. Just two weeks before his title defense, McIlroy posted an Insta- gram of his feet up and a black air cast around his left ankle. He was in Northern Ireland kicking around a soccer ball with friends when he turned over his ankle, fell to the ground and began writhing in pain. He ruptured tendons in his ankle and, while he avoided surgery, he missed out on the Scottish Open, the Open Championship and another title defense at the WGC – Bridgestone Invitational a week before the final major. “It’s hugely disappointing, especially with him and Jordan and everything that’s going on,” Graeme McDowell said.
Spieth had a lot on his plate, though he showed plenty of calm amid a torrent of talk about his bid for the Grand Slam. He had only seen St. Andrews when he was in Scotland for the Walker Cup in 2011. Instead of going over early, however, Spieth stuck to his plan. The John Deere Classic is where he won his first PGA Tour event in 2013. It gave him a sponsor’s exemption and he was intent on rewarding the little tournament in Middle America by honoring his commitment to play. More than just play, he went early for a stop in Iowa to help Zach Johnson with a charity event. Spieth didn’t show much charity at the TPC Deere Run. After opening with a 71, leading to speculation he would mail it in so he could get to Scotland by the weekend, Spieth responded with rounds of 64-61 to take the lead, and he wound up winning in a playoff over Tom Gillis, with Johnson finishing one shot behind.
Spieth arrived at St. Andrews on Monday and headed out to the golf course to shake off the jet lag and get ready. And he put to rest the notion that he hurt his chances at a historic Grand Slam by playing the John Deere. His fourth victory of the year gave him even more confidence. He was tied for the lead at the Open Championship with two holes to play. And he wound up one shot out of the three-man playoff. A strong effort, indeed.
Another player who missed the Open playoff by one shot didn’t get nearly as much attention, although that putt Day left short on the 18th green turned into the catalyst for his remarkable push at the end of the year. For the first half of the season, Day looked like he might be having another one-and-done year. For all his ability, and his relentless work ethic, Day had never won more than one time in any year. He shot 81 at The Players and missed the cut. He missed another cut at the Memorial, where he makes his home.
The sign of life returned not long after Day was taken away from Chambers Bay in an ambulance. Playing his final hole of the second round in the U.S. Open, Day wobbled and then collapsed on the ninth tee with what turned out to be symptoms of vertigo. Spieth helped him to his feet, Day finished the round and then returned on Saturday. He felt nauseous. He had to wait for his eyes to stop dancing before he could swing. And yet he somehow managed to make three birdies on the final four holes for a 68 that gave him a share of the lead going into the final day. “That was the greatest round I’ve ever watched,” said Colin Swatton, his caddie and longtime coach. Day couldn’t keep up in the final round and tied for ninth, but he showed what was in his heart.
After a month off, he challenged every step of the way at St. Andrews and again had a share of the 54-hole lead. He looked devastated, however, when a 30-foot putt to get into the playoff came up short. What he gained that week was belief. “All those major championships I lost, it was built-up scar tissue,” he said. “Scar tissue can be bad. But it can also heal and be good for you. No matter what happened that whole week, I felt calm. There was no stress. I was patient with myself. No matter what happened, I was letting it unfold and not forcing the issue.”
As far as that McIlroy-Spieth rivalry, however, Day began to force himself into the conversation.
The first time he contended in a major, Day simply ran out of holes in the 2011 Masters. He had back-to-back runner-up finishes that year in the majors, though the U.S. Open at Congressional was simply a matter of play- ing as well as anyone not named Rory McIlroy, who won by eight shots. He couldn’t keep up with Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera in the 2013 Masters, finishing two shots out of their playoff. A bogey on the 18th hole at Merion ended his hopes in the U.S. Open that year. And then he left a putt short at St. Andrews to get into a playoff. If there was a lingering hangover, there was an immediate answer. Six days later, the Aussie held off Bubba Watson with a birdie on the final hole to win the RBC Canadian Open, making him a multiple winner for the first time in his career.
And he was just getting started. Day has idolized Woods since he was a kid, so it was particularly meaningful when Woods sent out a tweet before the PGA Championship still had a few holes remaining, “Game over, very happy for Jason. Great dude and well deserved.” The fact Woods was watch- ing in some respects brought Day’s journey full circle on the PGA Tour. As a 20-year-old rookie in 2008, he had big goals, big talent and some big talk. In an interview with Australian writers going into his rookie season, he was asked if Woods was aware of him. “I can’t say for sure, but I think he is. If I was him, I would be,” Day said. “I watch everyone. He watches a lot of golf. He has so much time. He played 16 events — what does he do with his time? He’d be aware of me. He’d be saying, ‘Here’s another kid coming up.’”
It was a slow climb, to be sure. It took three years for him to win, fol- lowed by three more years with more injuries than victories. And when he ended the drought at the WGC – Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona, Day revealed a hand injury that slowed him the rest of the year. So consider the vertigo symptoms at Chambers Bay, and it looked like this would be yet another setback. Instead, he charged forward and brought the “Big Three” back into golf ’s lexicon.
The FedExCup began in 2007 and was largely misunderstood thanks to some aggressive promotion by the PGA Tour. It wasn’t meant to be bigger than the majors, nor would it determine the tour’s best player. It was a separate competition at the end of the year that was weighted toward players who performed the best and most consistently. Throw out the years that Woods won — 2007 and 2009 when he was in a class by himself — and this year’s four-tournament “Playoffs” reflected the year. Spieth and Day were Nos. 1 and 2, and McIlroy was lagging behind from having missed two months. It was a chance for McIlroy to catch up, and barring that, it was set up as a clash between Spieth and Day.
It sure looked like a one-man show when Day won The Barclays at Plain- field by six shots, and then he blew away the field at Conway Farms north of Chicago to win by seven shots and grab the No. 1 seed going into the finale at the Tour Championship. Rickie Fowler won the other playoff event, the Deutsche Bank Championship at the TPC Boston, and so he, too, was in the mix for the $10 million bonus. As for Spieth? He missed the cut at Plainfield, and then he missed the cut at the TPC Boston. Spieth feared he was losing some of his swagger. Day’s victory in the BMW Championship moved him to No. 1 in the world for the first time, making him the third Australian to reach the top behind Greg Norman and Adam Scott. And he led the PGA Tour with five victories. McIlroy, meanwhile, never got any momentum. He skipped The Barclays because he didn’t want to play too much golf while coming back from ankle surgery, and he never seriously challenged in Boston or Chicago. He was No. 11 in the FedExCup going into the Tour Championship, though he still had another end to his season in Europe. For him, this was not the finish line.
The Tour Championship not only decided the FedExCup, it raised the debate over Player of the Year. With two majors, Spieth was looked upon as an easy choice (he already had won the points-based award from the PGA of America, which gives a bonus for multiple majors). He had won four times and two majors. No PGA Tour member had ever won two majors and not been voted Player of the Year by his peers. But what if Day were to win the Tour Championship? That would give him six wins, plus a major, with three victories in the FedExCup Playoffs against the strongest field? It almost was a referendum on the FedExCup, and how the players measured its value. Ultimately, however, it became a moot point. Day hit his tee shot out-of-bounds on the fifth hole of the tournament, made triple bogey, and never had any momentum the rest of the week.
Spieth, meanwhile, surged to a one-shot lead with a 68 on Saturday, and his putter was never hotter than the final round of the season. He closed with a 69 for a four-shot victory that gave him all the trimmings — a fifth PGA Tour victory, the Vardon Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average, the Arnold Palmer Award for winning the money title with a record $12,030,465, and the Jack Nicklaus Award as Player of the Year on the PGA Tour. Throw in the $10 million bonus, and Spieth made $1 million for each of his 22 years on earth. “It’s the greatest season I’ve ever had, obviously. But it’s one where I believe we took our game on course and off course to a level that I didn’t think would be possible at different times in my life,” he said.
There was no denying the new Big Three because of who they are and what they had done. The five victories and two majors by Spieth. The five victories and one major by Day. The four victories and No. 1 ranking for most of the year (based on his two majors the year before) by McIlroy. Plus, they all were No. 1 at various points, and in a futuristic look at the world of golf, they all were in their 20s. Day was asked a few times toward the end of the season if he felt like an old man at 27. In some corners, however, there were suggestions that maybe this was more of a Big Four. This suggestion was based on age more than ranking. What about Rickie Fowler?
The Players Championship has been mentioned as a “fifth major” for years now, though it has been established that there are only four majors. The respect for the biggest event on the biggest tour is clear, and what Fowler did at the TPC Sawgrass was a major performance. The timing could not have been better. A golf magazine ran its annual survey — an anonymous poll of players — on a variety of topics which included, “Who is the most overrated player?” It was a tie between Fowler and Ian Poulter. Both are all about fashion, and the feeling from these anonymous players must have been they are not winning enough. The survey came out a week before The Players, and Fowler gave the best response possible. In arguably the most dynamic conclusion to any event in golf, Fowler went birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie to get into a three-man playoff. He took on the perilous flag tucked to the right of the island green on the par-three 17th for another birdie. Still tied with Kevin Kisner after the three-hole playoff, they went back to the 17th for sudden death and Fowler again took dead aim at the flag and stuffed it to five feet. Think about it. Fowler took six shots to play the 17th hole on Sunday of The Players Championship, which is not unusual — except that he played it three times. It was his first PGA Tour victory in three years, and it was just the start.
Two months later, Fowler birdied the last two holes to win the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Gullane. And then he put himself into the hunt for the $10 million FedExCup bonus when he rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole that allowed him to make up a two-shot deficit and beat Henrik Stenson in the Deutsche Bank Championship. Fowler had only two victories worldwide in his five years as a pro, and ended this year with three victories.
Oddly enough, he was lacking in the majors. So one year he was winless and yet finished in the top five at all four majors, and the next year he had a career-best three victories and never seriously challenged in any of the majors. If he finds a way to put those seasons together, look out. Still, it was premature to link him with the other three, and Fowler was aware of this. “I feel like to be in the same conversation I need to get a major to at least have some sort of credentials to be there,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to be the best player in the world. I obviously have some pretty tough competition out there.”
Fowler was among 25 players — men and women, young and old — who won at least three times on various tours around the world in 2015. Among men on the major tours, Kyung-Tae Kim of South Korea won five times on the Japan Golf Tour, while Fowler won three times and Andy Sullivan of England won three times on the European Tour.