here will be no asterisk adjacent to 2020 on the Wanamaker Trophy. That the US PGA Championship will take place from Thursday minus spectators ultimately will not matter to the player who claims the first major of a year like no other.
With strange circumstances comes opportunity. If Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods are naturally at the forefront of people’s minds at majors, the new breed could benefit from the absence of spectators at Harding Park. The US PGA backdrop will not and cannot be the same.
“It’s probably going to be easier for people who haven’t won majors before to feel comfortable in that position,” says McIlroy.
This event will feel, to all intents and purposes, precisely the same as those PGA Tour stops that have been ongoing since mid-June.
It does not feel so long ago that McIlroy was part of an exciting wave of fresh talent. The Northern Irishman, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth were hailed as the group to haul the game into the 21st century. It would be nonsensical to pension off any of that quartet – McIlroy and Fowler are 31, Thomas and Spieth 27 – but suddenly there are new kids on the block.
Rahm’s rise to the summit of the world rankings at the age of 25 means a major victory appears his next logical step. History is not particularly on his side this time; the last player to win their first major while ranked No 1 was Fred Couples, at the 1992 Masters.
If the Spaniard’s trajectory is well known, less has been spoken about Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff. At 23, 22 and 21 the trio are the embodiment of the theory that suggests the gap between leading college players and professionals has never been smaller. “I think the game is getting better, younger,” says Spieth.
“You’re seeing guys in their early 20s, a number of them in the top 10 on a Sunday, guys that are not afraid to shoot 63-62 on the weekends of tournaments. I don’t think that’s going to be going away.
“It’ll be interesting to see once we have all these major championships how that affects the younger guys, what kind of adjustments they make. I know I had to make adjustments after my first few in how I was approaching them especially on the weekend and in contention.
Viktor Hovland is among golf’s young rising stars. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA
“Without fans that becomes a lot easier. It’s easier to just be zoned in on pure golf. With these younger guys, it’ll be interesting to see who can maybe break away in the majors and make a significant impact.
“We’re going to have, it looks like, seven of them in 12 months to get a pretty good idea because they’re certainly not too young to be there on a Sunday afternoon and they’re very much talented enough.”
Spieth cites the standard of college and amateur golf in the United States as key. “In general the courses and the competition have gotten tougher and that allow the transition to the PGA Tour to be a bit easier,” he says.
Morikawa, a glorious iron player, recovered from a painful play‑off defeat at the Charles Schwab Challenge to win the Workday Charity Open last month. Thomas was swatted aside there. Morikawa has risen to No 12 in the world, with the time he takes over putts the only real note of concern.
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The Oslo-born Hovland started 2020 by winning in Puerto Rico. He would have been a near certainty to play in the Ryder Cup had it remained on schedule this year, with the 12-month delay likely to do his case no harm whatsoever.
Wolff, known for an unorthodox swing, lies just outside the world’s top 50. He won last year’s 3M Open, a month after turning professional.
Tyrrell Hatton is another whose hopes should be carefully considered. The Englishman has not played much this year but when he has, performances have been impressive. Before the current World Golf Championship in Memphis, Hatton had finished 14th, sixth, first, third and fourth in 2020 PGA Tour events. His scoring average is the third best on tour.
If Harding Park offers scope for the outlier, Hatton should also be part of this, different conversation.