Time for 'Big Four' to step into the spotlight

Golf began its quest for a new hero yesterday as it faced up to the stark reality that the old one is a fading presence.

Tiger Woods is overseas and golf finds itself between a rock and a hard place.

The good news is there is a crop of replacements battling to take golf to new pastures.

"Tam Arte Quam Marte" is the Royal Troon motto, meaning "as much by skill as strength", and that might be a mantra for the next four days.

Woods' protracted absence after a third back operation is a source of perennial angst for many.

Rory McIlroy has cited the need for an icon like a golfing Lionel Messi, while even Todd Hamilton, the "unknown champion" and last of Troon's Open winners in 2004, said: "I'm in the camp that likes to see one person dominating."

However, shifting sands do not mean golf is on shaky ground. All the top four have games and stories to entice new watchers.

The flip side to that argument is the mesmerising golf produced by McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Dustin Johnson over the past two years.

If Johnson prolongs a purple patch that has wrought wins at the US Open and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in his past two outings, he may join the others in attaining No . 1 status.

However, shifting sands do not mean golf is on shaky ground. All the top four have games and stories to entice new watchers.

In one corner is Day, incumbent of top spot, formerly an under-age drinker and now a vertigo sufferer, admitting to intense stress at having to live up to self-imposed standards.

In the other is Johnson, a man of lugubrious speech and chequered back story. Believing that subtlety is a 400-yard drive, he sounded a soporific warning.

"I always feel like I'm the best player in the world," he said of making the final step to the top of the rankings.

Play his best game here and will he win? "If I have my best stuff I believe so."

This refusal to peddle self-deprecating platitudes was refreshing. Indeed, golf has been telling it straight all week.

McIlroy has been pilloried for saying he would prefer to watch diving than golf at the Olympics, but it was honesty bereft of a PR filter. And this is what matters.

This is McIlroy panning for gold where a million gallons of water were pumped off the Old Course every week in the winter; a place now saturated only with tradition.

Luke Donald pre-dates what can now be termed the "big four" as the world's No. 1.

Straddling two eras, he is well placed to judge the huge depth of the field and he says the drama is better now.

"You have four or maybe five guys dominating now, but when I started it was Tiger," he said.

"There were some great players, but he was just way ahead.

"Now there's strong competition. I was in awe of Tiger - his record, his demeanour on the course, the fact he was not easily approachable.

"These young guys are paving the way for other younger guys to think they can come out and compete straight away, specifically with what Jordan has done by winning multiple Majors."

Spieth is 22 and, like all the "big four", has something to prove.

The trauma of the Masters, when he took a quadruple bogey on the 12th, thus turning a procession into a concession, recast a previously unflappable figure.

Having looked like dominating golf last year, he arrived for The Open admitting that he does not feel like he did a year ago, that he has been hesitant from tee to green, and that, in a nutshell: "It's mostly mental."

The Texan said that everyone went through peaks and valleys, but the media had misread his journey. "I've won twice and come second in a Major," he said. "If that's a valley then it's going to be a lot of fun back up a peak."

Shane Lowry is another of Troon's many potential winners searching for peak form after a fall.

His came on the final day at the US Open when he squandered a four-stroke lead to facilitate Johnson's maiden triumph.

"The first few days afterwards were not easy," he said on Wednesday. "I'm not going to lie - there were a few moments when there might have been a tear shed or two. I was beating myself up."

Yet, Lowry's rise to contention and the top 30 is symptomatic of post-Tiger parity.

McIlroy, the leader of the pack with four Majors but none since Hoylake in 2014, may have craved a Messi, but others may look to the way Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams have dominated tennis and welcome the unpredictability.

It is a new world. Woods may yet return, but he has only made Sunday night of two of the past 10 Majors and it is 10 years since he won his last Open.

Instead of a one-man band, we have a Royal Troon variety show on a tough links stage.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'Time for 'Big Four' to step into the spotlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe