Sporting Life

Sporting Life: For all its fine talent, golf seeks a standout leading man

Men's golf is a game in search of its wild side. An aristocratic pursuit that is seeking a beast. Another Golden Bear, a Great White Shark, a Tiger. A predator in finely creased long pants. A champion who sets the standard and demands the cameras. Not just No. 1 but also The One.

Golf is currently stuffed with grand players, but it needs a single, standout hero. One star who is the envy of the locker room, fills press galleries everywhere, improves his peers and has sponsors drooling. One performer who is beloved or even actively disliked by a certain crowd. As a Sports Illustrated headline noted on a September 1986 cover which featured Ivan Lendl: "The Champion That Nobody Cares About". Every sport, in whatever way, needs a conversation piece.

Golf's Major tribe are meeting this week to flex their talented muscles at the US Open in Erin Hills, which has five trees, 138 bunkers and fescue grass so thick, even after cutting, that world-class swearing is a guarantee. Since 2013, 15 different men have won the last 17 Majors, and while uncertainty has its own tension, it's not the same as when one man is favourite to win them all. History takes more than talent, it requires nerve.

Jason Day, 29 (one Major), Jordan Spieth, 23 (two Majors), Rory McIlroy, 28 (four Majors), Dustin Johnson, 32 (one Major) and Hideki Matsuyama, 25 (no Major) are personable, different, hungry, but I'm still waiting for one to pull away. To stop being so polite and greedily own the game.

Forget the "next Tiger" because that's more than a generation away, golf just needs someone to grab the game by its designer collar for even three years. Since Woods was last No. 1 in 2013-14, the position has swopped hands 12 times between five players. It reflects a certain competitiveness but too many champions is too vague, like a movie where you're never quite sure who the leading man is.

Always in sport there must be a player in command, a champion who is pursued by his peers, or as Jimmy Connors said of Bjorn Borg who beat him at Wimbledon in 1978: "I'll chase the son of a b***h to the ends of the earth." A champion who must find many ways to win, in many situations, and whose defeat is an event in itself for watcher and victor. As Chad le Clos said after upsetting Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly at the 2012 Olympics: "I can't believe I beat him in the final. It is something that I've lived over in my mind a million times. I'm still shocked that I've won."

All sports require one exceptional athlete at their helm because in any pub discussion on the world's greatest sportsman currently they need to have a representative. Golf ain't got one. All sports pray for a salesman, a ticket seller, a show stopper, a history maker, whose name makes people wake up at 4am. Even to jeer, or fear, a bit like Mike Tyson.

All sports require one exceptional athlete at their helm because in any pub discussion on the world's greatest sportsman currently they need to have a representative. Golf ain't got one. All sports pray for a salesman, a ticket seller, a show stopper, a history maker, whose name makes people wake up at 4am. Even to jeer, or fear, a bit like Mike Tyson.

Dominant athletes, after all, provoke a curiosity and pull people in. Who is this runner Mo Farah? Is Lewis Hamilton overrated? Floyd Mayweather fought at lighter weights that don't usually interest non-fighting fans and yet his unblemished fight record had our attention. Golf doesn't have this.

All sports relish a distinctive hero, like Seve Ballesteros was once to golf, because the best player in a sport is idol, ambassador, stylist. In the way he trains or plays, or behaves, he influences us. Tom Brady doesn't eat white sugar or white flour. Should we? On YouTube there's a charming old Nike ad, Let Your Game Speak, where young players mimic a variety of Michael Jordan's moves. It is imitation as worship.

Golf needs this. Golf needs a peerless figure because only they change the questions we ask. Can he win again? How does he? What's his secret? There's a thrill to witnessing a player separate himself and agree to wear the pressure of pre-eminence and suffer in his quest to make history. People want to see this rise and then, when bored of domination, the fall. We call a man King James and then wait for his dethroning.

Golfers have made small charges towards domination but then have fallen back. McIlroy won two Majors in 2014 but his biggest feat since has been matrimony this year. The precise Spieth won two Majors in 2015 and is a young man learning to wear pressure while Day has had to tragically deal with his mother's cancer and his own vertigo. The big-hitting Johnson came closest with three wins this spring and then literally fell before the Masters.

So golf waits for its hero. Of course, it's much harder to accumulate Majors here and be imperious every week - Roger Federer's 18 Slams took 14 years, Jack Nicklaus' 18 Majors took 24 - but it's possible. It takes luck, timing, health, bravery, and if that sounds difficult, then it's supposed to be. After all, if you distance yourself from your peers for a few years the reward is exceptional. You're no longer just a player, you become an era.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'For all its fine talent, golf seeks a standout leading man'. Print Edition | Subscribe