Tiger Woods’ future is in doubt. The 39-year-old golf legend recently had to withdraw from the Farmer’s Insurance Open at Torrey Pines after just 11 holes with back issues. Woods also missed the cut at the Waste Management Phoenix Open after shooting a career-worst, second-round 82.
His official world golf ranking has plummeted to 62nd. This might not be the end for Woods, but it could be a while before we see one of the greatest golfers of all-time return to anywhere near his top form.
With the typical Woods absent there is a gaping hole in the golf world, especially for the casual fan. But there is also a mix of young golfers who are doing amazing things on the course. While Woods is a once-in-a-generation talent, there are plenty of players poised to ascend to the top of the game. They might even do things on the course that would remind a fan of Woods at his best.
Here’s a look at three of those young golfers:
Spieth is the obvious choice. At just 21 years old, he’s already put together an impressive resume. Spieth's won on tour (2013 John Deere Classic), played in the Ryder Cup (2014), and always seems to be in contention (18 PGA Tour top-ten finishes). Perhaps his most impressive result was tying for second at the 2014 Masters.
Spieth, like Woods, was also considered a prodigy of sorts. He won the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship twice (2009, 2011), joining Woods as the only two golfers to win the competition multiple times. He played in his first PGA event at 17 years old and finished it tied for 21st. He’s now ninth in the official world golf rankings.
What might stand out the most about Spieth is the fact that he doesn't excel at one particular aspect of the game. He doesn’t bomb the ball of the tee (89th in distance in 2014), he’s not particularly accurate off the tee (146th in total driving), he’s not an elite putter (20th in strokes gained from putting in 2014) and he isn’t remarkable at approach shots (152nd in greens in regulation in 2014). Yet the surprisingly poised Spieth scores so well and so consistently. He was sixth in birdie average on tour last year and eighth in FedEx Cup season points. Those are two great indicators of steady play and his 2014 scoring average of 69.946 (14th) backs that up.
Spieth has a knack for finding pars and birdies—which is really all that matters. He also has some breathtaking moments on the course, including an amazing bunker shot to force a playoff in his first tour win.
But the true beauty in Spieth’s game is the workmanlike ability to shoot low scores. When Woods was at his best, every round was consistent. He was dominant, sure, but remarkably steady. In 1999, one of his best years, Woods’ scoring average was 69.56, a consistent, low round. Woods was beatable in a singular round, but over four days his steady greatness would wear down the field. Spieth isn’t there yet, but you can see glimpses of the same type of steadiness. That’s a mature game for a 21-year-old.
Koepka is a less obvious choice than Spieth, but those truly paying attention saw his ascent coming. In November 2014, Koepka won the European Tour’s Turkish Airlines Open, besting a strong field and top-four finishers Ian Poulter (No. 2), Henrik Stenson (No. 3) and Miguel Angel Jiménez (No. 4). The 24-year-old was playing sterling golf and was named the European Tour's Rookie of the Year.
Koepka's been even better in the start of 2015. He won the Waste Management Phoenix Open, which was largely lost in the news amidst the fervor of Woods’ return to golf. Koepka's currently sixth in FedEx Cup points, scoring an average 69.343 and 19th in the official world golf rankings.
Koepka launches the ball off the tee, leading the tour in driving distance at 313.3 yards in 2015. Much like early Woods, he has an edge on the field by shortening holes with towering drives. Koepka has averaged 57.6 holes-per-eagle in 2015, best on tour. He has the young-Woods ability to cut his score down quickly with power and big scoring holes.
The 22-year-old has been a star in the making for a while, debuting at the Masters in 2010 after winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur title. Matsuyama has been improving ever since, winning for the first time at the Memorial Tournament in 2014. He’s also 14th in the official world golf rankings. The Japanese star got his season off to an auspicious start, his best finish a tie for second at the Waste Management Phoenix Open after some impressive golf.
His game is slightly reminiscent of Woods in the early 2000’s when everything was clicking. In the beginning of 2001, Woods completed the “Tiger Slam” by winning the Masters and his fourth consecutive major. Now, to be clear, Matsuyama is nowhere near that level—perhaps nobody in history is. But Matsuyama has some similarities in style to Woods in 2001. Woods was great at just about everything that season, ranking near the top in most important stats. His most obvious flaw was putting. He ranked 102nd in putting average and 134th in putts per round in 2001.
Matsuyama ranked 85th in putting average and 65th in putts per round in 2014. Yet everything else about Matsuyama’s game was pretty solid. He drove the ball well and had a scoring average of 70.083. Matsuyama’s other main weakness, aside from putting, was not hitting greens with approach shots frequently enough, but his iron play was by no means terrible. Matsuyama is powerful and competitive, and has very few flaws in his game. He has 10 career top-10 finishes, four of which have come in just eight 2015 starts. Matsuyama could be putting it all together.