Let me correct myself right out of the gate. The Masters doesn’t NEED anything or anyone. But I firmly believe the annual Augusta golf get together would benefit most going forward if one player started winning the most coveted coat in golf. That player is Rickie Fowler.
The Masters Tournament was first played in 1934 and Horton Smith was the winner. He won it again two years later and then gave way to, among others, Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead (who was the first to receive a green jacket in addition to the trophy and the money) and Ben Hogan. Between 1934 and 1958 those four players won 10 of the 18 tournaments and (sacrilege alert!) few people outside the insular world of golf cared. Then in 1956 two things started to emerge; television and Arnold Palmer. Palmer won the United States Amateur Championship in 1954 which put him in the 1955 event and then CBS decided to televise the final four holes in 1956 which put the Masters on the map. Arnold Palmer didn’t win that year, Jack Burke, Jr. did, but he made the cut and finished 21st. He improved 14 places the next year then won the first of his three green jackets in 1958. The “Army” was in full force by then and golf had its first bona fide superstar.
He won again in 1960 and in 1962 and was competitive in the event for the better part of thirty years (26 made cuts, 13 Top 15 finishes) and everyone watched every one. He and Jack Nicklaus passed the baton and put the jacket on each other between 1962 and ’65 then the Golden Bear ran away and dethroned Palmer as the king of Augusta. Nicklaus won the tournament 6 times between the expected victory in 1963 and the unexpected one 23 years later. During that time Gary Player won as did Billy Casper, Raymond Floyd, Seve Ballesteros, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw. Nicklaus might have been the man we appreciated best but Palmer remained the one we loved the most.
By 1988 Nicklaus had been memorialized, Palmer was a fond memory and the Europeans started owning The Masters. Sandy Lyle started the trend and he was followed by Nick Faldo (3 times), Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer and Jose Maria Olazabal. In nine years only two Americans interrupted the reverse colonization, Fred Couples (somehow) in 1992 and Ben Crenshaw (somehow) in ’95. U.S. golf fans hungered for a homegrown hero and in 1997 we got him. Tiger Woods brought his record setting six straight USGA titles and his three PGA TOUR titles to Magnolia Lane and raised the bar to heights never before seen. He blew away the tournament scoring record and won the event by 12 shots and we ate it up. He dominated the play on the course for the next eight years winning three more times and has dominated the discussion outside the ropes every year whether he wins, contends or doesn’t even compete. Sure Phil Mickelson won three green jackets of his own in that time but he was never Tiger, never will be. Non Tiger winners in the Tiger era also included Mike Weir, Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera and Trevor Immelman. And that brings me to today.
Since Tiger’s last Masters win (2005) Mickelson has done his darndest to capture our attention and he’s done a pretty decent job, but for all intents and purposes his green jacket days are done. Could he win again? Certainly. Will he? I wouldn’t bet on it. Since his last victory (2010) the winners have been Charl Schwartzel, Bubba Watson (twice), Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth. All great players, most nice guys but none are Arnie, Jack or Tiger. They’re more like Player, Faldo and Crenshaw. We’re fine when they win and they have their own loyal followings but they don’t excite the masses, they don’t light a fire under the unenlightened and the game has yet to show any interest in carrying its torch for any of them.
Several players will be competing for the green jacket during the next decade and more. They include the people mentioned in the previous paragraph. To that list I’d add Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and the guy I argue The Masters needs more than any of them, Rickie Fowler. Make no mistake Rory, Jason, Henrik and the rest will be awkwardly putting on sport coats in the Butler cabin for years to come, some of them more than once. They will all be admired but, in my mind, only Fowler has the chance to be adored. Have you been to a professional golf tournament lately? Have you watched one on TV? Have you played a round of golf anywhere in the country over the past 5 years? None of the fans under 20 are wearing grey slacks or collarless Nike golf shirts. They are almost all wearing bright orange! Flat billed hats outnumber flat front Under Armour pants. Pouncing Pumas have the jump on swooshes.
They all have great golf games. They all can drive it long, straight or long AND straight. They all can hit it close and putt the eyes out. But Rickie Fowler has something on all of them. He has flair, he has charisma, he has a swagger. He has what Augusta needs and what I, for one, want. Somebody to rally behind, really cheer for. It’s a great time for Rickie to become this generation’s Arnie.