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As Jimmy Walker maintained nerves of steel while winning the PGA Championship on Sunday, there was one history-in-the-making point the CBS crew kept referencing: If Walker hung on, it would mean all of golf’s majors in 2016 were claimed by first-time winners.
At first glance, that might seem like no more than a fun piece of trivia. But it’s also a testament to how golf’s marquee is steadily adding new names.
After all, when we were gearing up to watch the Masters back in April, who would have thought the majors could go a full year without at least one victory from the Big Three of Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy?
Coming into the year, that threesome had accounted for five of the previous six majors. Given their youth and consistency, it seemed like the game was destined for a three-headed era of dominance.
Instead, golf was given a lesson in parity.
At Augusta, it was Britain’s Danny Willett who slid on the green jacket after benefiting from a rare meltdown by Spieth. At the U.S. Open, it was Dustin Johnson who made the most sense out of Oakmont’s baffling greens. And at the British Open it was Henrik Stenson who emerged the winner after going eye-to-eye with Phil Mickelson in what will forever rank as one of golf’s great showdowns.
Day certainly made a monster effort Sunday to halt the sweep by first-timers. His eagle on 18 was as clutch as any shot fired in 2016 and forced the issue. But in the end, the World No. 1 had to settle for being No. 2 at Baltusrol and not defending his PGA title.
“I know exactly how Jimmy feels, because I did exactly that last year,” Day told reporters, per ASAP Sports. “I know exactly that feeling, and he's a very deserving winner. So hats off, because I mean, it's not easy to win tournaments, and he controlled himself pretty darn well all day.”
It was only the third time this century that first-timers have swept golf’s four biggest prizes. The other two came in 2003, when Tiger Woods failed to win a major for the first time in five years and 2011, when McIlroy broke through with a victory at the U.S. Open.
Spieth closed out this year’s majors with a record that would satisfy most players. He tied for second at the Masters, then finished in the 30s at the U.S. Open and Brit before tying for 13th Sunday.
But that wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the 23-year-old who won the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open but couldn’t hold on to a fourth-round lead this year at Augusta.
“If I close that one out then it's one of the best major seasons I'll ever have,” Spieth said at his media conference, via ASAP Sports. “I'm not going to hang my head low on it. I made the cut in all of them, which obviously isn't the goal for me. I contended in one and had a chance to win. I learned a lot from that experience, just wanted to put myself in that chance again. Wasn't quite able to do so from here to there, but not a bad showing in the four majors this year.”
Spieth started the season with the goal of being in contention to win at least two majors but said now he’ll hit the reset button and point toward the Ryder Cup.
“That’s going to feel like a major for me,” said Spieth, making the best of his situation.
In some regards, McIlroy had the least impressive run of majors among golf’s big names. He missed the cut at Oakmont, then was sent home early again at Baltusrol.
But McIlroy was good for a 10th-place tie at the Masters after rebounding from a third-round 77. He also rose to an under-appreciated fifth-place tie at the Brit despite a draw forced him to face the worst of the weather at Royal Troon.
Going into the PGA, McIlroy had an interesting perspective on the onslaught of new winners in majors and how they were raising the level of competition in the post-Tiger Woods era. Said McIlroy, according to ASAP Sports:
“So do I feel like I've playing five or ten Tigers out there? No. I feel like that would be disrespectful towards Tiger. But the fields are deeper and so many guys have chances to win tournaments. I feel like technology has definitely brought fields closer together. Guys are able to hit it out there as long as they need to now, and it's a matter of just doing it when it counts.”
“Golf, it's in good place in terms of how many good players we have, and I feel like it's hard to separate yourself from the pack a little bit.”
That certainly proved true for McIlroy, Spieth and Day in this year’s majors. And with four new faces having learned what it takes to prevail at a major there’s no reason to think it won’t continue.
Tom Weir covered several majors as a columnist for USA Today.