Tiger to catch Jack? McIlroy's glory days over? USA set for Ryder Cup dominance? – golf's biggest debates in the 2020s

By Sports Desk December 26, 2019

When the 2010s began, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Brooks Koepka had a combined major tally of zero.

Tiger Woods boasted 14 but was weathering the storm of a very public scandal and about to endure a barren spell almost as remarkable as his reign of dominance.

The holders of golf's four most prestigious titles were Angel Cabrera, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and YE Yang.

Meanwhile, the Ryder Cup resided in the United States, claimed in dominant fashion against Nick Faldo's beleaguered European side at Valhalla. 

Reflecting now on the 11 majors shared by McIlroy, Spieth and Koepka; the stunning return to glory enjoyed by Woods at the 2019 Masters; the relative obscurity of Cabrera, Glover, Cink and Yang; and Europe winning four of the past five Ryder Cups, it becomes apparent just how drastically the golfing landscape has changed.

It ought to be enough to warn anyone off making predictions for the 10 years ahead, but Omnisport's golf experts Russell Greaves and Peter Hanson have gone ahead and done it anyway.

 

CAN TIGER CATCH JACK?

The facts: Woods' victory at Augusta earned him a fifth green jacket and 15th major, leaving him three behind Jack Nicklaus.

RG: This is one of the longest-running debates in sport, up there with the Messi-Ronaldo argument in football.

I suspect in both cases I will take a different view from my colleague (it's Messi, hands down), as I'm of the opinion that Tiger's long pursuit of Nicklaus' haul of 18 majors will prove in vain. He spent most of the 2010s in decline and has left it too late to pull out of that nosedive.

In mid-May 2024 he will hit a significant landmark in becoming older than the oldest major winner in history – the 1968 US PGA Championship victor Julius Boros, who was 48 years, four months and 18 days old. Time is against Tiger and even he doesn't have a club in the bag to fashion a way out of the hazard that is old age. 

PH: Not unlike the Messi-Ronaldo debate (for which Ronaldo is the obvious answer), this discussion has become a little weary and repetitive in recent years.

But here's the thing, we're not discussing your average athlete. This isn't a mere a golfing mortal. Tiger Woods is a once-in-a-generation talent, one who had been consistently written off before his glorious Augusta triumph in April. Such an achievement did admittedly appear beyond him.

Never again should we make the mistake of saying a target is beyond Woods' reach. Time may be against him but if any player is capable of winning a major in their fifties it's Tiger. Simply, Woods can achieve the unthinkable over the next decade.

RORY'S GLORY DAYS OVER?

The facts: McIlroy won his fourth major in 2014 but has not tasted victory since.

RG: It speaks volumes of McIlroy's quality that people look upon his CV – featuring four major wins and 95 weeks at the summit of the world rankings – and consider him to have underachieved.

It is a compliment and insult all at once; an emphatic underlining of how high expectations are, and also a crude dismissal of his already lofty achievements.

But in the decade to come, McIlroy will enjoy a resurgence in majors and cement his place among the all-time greats. 

PH: When McIlroy won major number four, and a second US PGA Championship, at Valhalla in August 2014, you would have been laughed at hysterically for suggesting he would not win another before the close of the decade.

And yet, for one reason or another, it has not quite clicked for McIlroy since. There have been near misses, plenty of 'what ifs' and no shortage of frustrations. We have seen a much more serene McIlroy over the past few years and you do wonder if some of the edge that made him such a formidable talent is gone.

Still, McIlroy is a phenomenal competitor. It is hard to imagine he will not again be a major winner over the next 10 years. But you sense it may be a return of six or seven career majors rather than the double-digit tally many previously predicted.

WHO WILL ENJOY RYDER CUP SUPREMACY?

The facts: Team Europe have claimed eight of the previous 10 Ryder Cups and won the 2018 edition by seven points.

RG: Thomas Bjorn's Europe produced a superb performance to win the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National, but do not expect to see similar scenes again any time soon.

That result in France represented a shock that is not likely to be repeated. Team USA boast far greater strength in depth and how much longer can the likes of Sergio Garcia and Ian Poulter continue to defy their relatively lowly ranking to deliver the goods on this stage?

If the USA lacked anything in 2018, it was the sense of togetherness so evident within the hosts, but with that lesson now learned the harsh way they will be raring to go at Whistling Straits and in the tournaments to come this decade, three of which will be Stateside. 

PH: Every time we reach a Ryder Cup it seems as though Europe are written off before a ball has even been struck off a tee. And yet, last year, it was again the Americans preparing for an ugly post-mortem.

There is something about this glorious competition that stirs a response in the Europeans that the Americans just simply cannot seem to replicate – or certainly not on the same consistent basis.

Sure, the likes of Garcia and Poulter are nearing the end of their famous journeys, but the heroics of Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood in Paris - coupled with the fact the likes of Justin Rose, McIlroy and Jon Rahm have plenty of golf left in them - means there remains a strong nucleus. Home or away, Europe will still have the upper hand when it comes to the Ryder Cup in the 2020s.

AMERICA v REST OF THE WORLD: WHO WILL WIN THE MOST MAJORS?

The facts: Three of the four majors are held by Americans. The most recent US clean sweep was in 1982, while 1994 was the last year that no American won one. In the 2010s, it finished America 21-19 rest of the world. 

RG: There will be another American lockout of the majors in the coming decade, quite probably more than one. It has been a close call in the previous two years and the past eight majors in the US have been won by home hopes.

Consider the five most recent non-Americans who spoiled the party – Danny Willett, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia, Francesco Molinari and Shane Lowry – what odds on any of those repeating the feat? I'll accept Molinari as a 50-50 but wouldn't back any of the others.

With Brooks Koepka (more on him later) such a keen collector of majors, Tiger still prowling (I said he wouldn't get to 18, but I fancy him for another Masters title), Patrick Reed a likely repeat winner, Dustin Johnson surely destined to win another and Justin Thomas a shoo-in, I see a lot of silverware finding its home in the United States.

PH: The Ryder Cup is one thing but the majors are a completely different animal and in that regard the Americans are locked in to dominate.

In each of the previous three years, the United States were missing just once victor to complete a sweep and I just feel it is a feat that is guaranteed to be achieved at some stage in the next decade.

There is enough talent in McIlroy, Rahm, Fleetwood and Rose to keep things close but, I have to agree with Russ here, the strength in depth possessed by America means there is only one outcome to this question.

 

CAN KOEPKA KEEP UP THE PACE?

The facts: Koepka triumphed four times in eight major outings from the 2017 U.S. Open to the 2019 US PGA Championship, while by the end of the latter year his record showed a T6, T4, T2 and outright second-placed finish across the sport's quartet of headline events.

RG: It would be fascinating to see anyone make the case for Koepka failing to add to his impressive major haul, and it's not something I'm willing to attempt.

The guy is a stone-cold winner when it comes to the big tournaments and nothing about him – from his technical brilliance to his mental toughness – suggests he will go off the rails.

He is one victory away from tying with the likes of Seve Ballesteros and Phil Mickelson, and two away from Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino – he will surpass them all.

PH: I have to start my answer here with a caveat. You will not find a bigger Brooks Koepka fanboy in the world than me. I simply love the guy. He is someone who is just unashamedly himself and why would you not be with the success he has had?

What is remarkable is the way Koepka came from relative obscurity to become the best in the world. While McIlroy, Spieth, Thomas and countless others were making claims to be the dominant force, Koepka – who cut his teeth on the European Tour, a rarity for an American – came up on the rails to steal a march on more well-known and, some would argue, marketable names.

But that chip on the shoulder is what I admire most about him and what makes him so difficult to beat. At this stage, I genuinely believe it is just a question of how many majors he will win. I don't think it is a stretch in any way to say he will have at least 10 in 2029.

WHO WILL BE THE FIRST-TIME MAJOR WINNERS?

The facts: There are 40 majors in any given decade and in the 2010s there were 25 first-time winners.

RG: As the numbers above suggest, there is a lot of scope for maiden major winners in the space of 10 years, but let's pick out four who are pretty much nailed on. 

Tony Finau has got everything required to join the club and I'm confident his compatriot Rickie Fowler will finally get off the mark too.

On the European side, Jon Rahm will follow in the footsteps of fellow Spaniards Seve and Sergio, while Ryder Cup star Tommy Fleetwood is also a safe bet.

PH: This is always a fun question and one where you can look like the fount of all knowledge or end up with egg splattered all over your face.

Continuing a theme of predicted American dominance, I think the most obvious candidate to break their duck is Xander Schauffele, a man who has four top-five finishes and another inside the top 10 to his name.

Compatriot Patrick Cantlay is another I expect to see win one of golf's big four, while Bryson DeChambeau and Finau are outside bets. Rahm has all the makings of a major winner too, I just hope it doesn't take him as long as it did Sergio to become one. I also see Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick becoming Open champions.

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