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Friday, January 13, 2017

Justin Thomas Makes History... and a Point about the Modern Game

Obviously I got busy yesterday and didn't post anything after my temporary internet blackout. But everything was back up and running in time for yesterday's excitement. And it made me think.

Justin Thomas displays 'the ball'

In case you somehow missed it, Justin Thomas became the seventh and youngest player to shoot 59 on the PGA Tour. (It's the eighth sub-60 round but Jim Furyk has both a 59 and a 58.) He's the first to shoot one after winning a tournament. He set the new course record at Waialae CC, supplanting Davis Love III's 60.

And by doing so, he made an interesting point about the "new generation" of PGA Tour pros. It has yet to be talked about, but it should be.

After all, his 59 was still only good enough for a three-stroke lead. Think about that for a moment.

We keep wondering who will be the next dominant player or players. It seems as if, almost every week, the commentators have to say "Perhaps we've ignored [fill in the blank] in this discussion." I heard some of that Thursday after Thomas blistered the course, cheered on by playing partners Jordan Spieth and Daniel Berger -- players also included in that discussion.

But perhaps we're missing the point. For all our talk about dominant players -- modern or historical -- the fact remains that there have been very few who were dominant for more than a few years. In terms of total number of PGA Tour wins, only ten players have won 40 or more times; on the European Tour, only three players. (Tiger Woods is on both lists.)

I should note at this point that some of these wins count on both tours. For this post, however, I'm going to separate them since some players focus on one tour or the other.

Still, in terms of longevity at this level, few can boast sustained success over a long career. On the ET, only Bernhard Langer exceeded 20 years (22 in total). On the PGA Tour, Sam Snead won over a 31-year period; Jack Nicklaus,Walter Hagen and Phil Mickelson, 22; and Ben Hogan, 21.

And of those, only Nicklaus and Hagen boast double-digit majors -- 18 and 11, respectively. (Gene Sarazen and Tom Watson have the longevity, but neither made the 40 win mark. And Tiger will likely make the list if his back holds up.)

My point is that long-term dominance has never been as common as we seem to think it is. And as the level of golf we see rises, the likelihood of this "new wave" duplicating what players like Nicklaus and Hagen have done is even less likely. If they give us one or two such players over the next 30 years, they will have done extremely well.

It's far more likely that we'll see some players who dominate for a year or two, then fall back for a while. Bear in mind that Tiger has 40 ET wins, 79 PGA Tour wins and 14 majors in 18 years -- and he was winless for a number of those years. If Rory McIlroy, who most would consider the dominant player among the youngsters, were to continue his career at his current rate after eight years, then in 16 years he would have only 26 ET wins, 26 PGA Tour wins and 8 majors.

Even granting Rory a handful more wins and a couple of majors for an extra two years (to get him to an 18-year career), the best of those numbers is less than two-thirds of Tiger's totals, and Tiger has yet to reach the longevity of some of the other players! Yet Rory is clearly one of the most likely young players to reach those legendary numbers.

The logic is simple: There are a limited number of titles available each year, and only four majors, yet we're seeing an increasing number of good players contending for them.

And that means that players like Justin Thomas will be "in the discussion" for a few months or so... before someone else gets hot for a while, that is. We're likely to see cycles of dominating players going forward, each doing astounding things before "cooling down" while the next cycle moves to the fore. We're unlikely to see another dominating player anytime soon.

But I would be amiss not to mention that Justin has proven something else as well -- namely, that it's sure going to be fun watching to see who DOES manage to break out next!


  1. Par 5s should be done away with on the PGA Tour. Everyone starts minus 4 and then gets to hit wedges for approaches on par 4s all day. Boring.

    1. I don't know, Brian. I've seen plenty of tournaments where the long hiiters played the par-5s poorly and the shorter hitters tore 'em up. Most players aren't nearly as consistent as Tiger was -- that's why nobody's been able to dominate the way he did.