In golf, as in the greatest hit of De La Soul, three is The Magic Number.
It’s been this way since the 1920s, when Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen were slugging it out for supremacy. When those three talents faded, along came Ben, Byron and Sam (that would be Mr Hogan, Mr Nelson and Mr Snead to you).
This was an innocent, pre-Mad Men era, when the golf was great but the sports marketing was non-existent until the mid-1960s when an Ohio-based sports agent called Mark McCormack decided to capitalise on the success of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player by setting a series of made-for-TV events pitting the three best players in the world against each other.
The Big Three are still at it today, in a marketing sense at least.
After the Tiger Woods era (when one player is so dominant, there can only be a Big Cat) came the Rory McIlroy era and after the McIlroy era came the Jordan Spieth era, which flared like the sun during this glorious summer past until it was replaced, in the aftermath of Jason Day’s (below) record-breaking performance at the PGA Championship, by something else altogether.
McIlroy, Spieth and Day. The Big Three. Between them these 20-somethings have won five of the last six majors. But which of them has the edge over the other two?
At their peak
The fog might lift a little this coming week when all three – World Nos 1, 2 and 3 – tee it up at the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston, starting Friday. It never makes sense to read too much into the outcome of one tournament but what chance has sense got when measured against the excitement generated by Day’s recent run of form?
Three wins in his last four events has seen the Australian elevated from the backing chorus to front of stage alongside McIlroy and Spieth. There is even the widely-circulated notion that Day is better than his two rivals.
There will be a true reckoning at the Augusta Masters next spring, when we can assume the three will be primed and ready to perform at their peak. But in the meantime four days of golf in Boston will offer at least a snapshot of where the rivalry stands right now.
By the most reliable measure of current form, Day is the early favourite in Boston. His performance in the Barclay’s last week, where he all but lapped the field, was every bit as impressive as his efforts at Whistling Straits, even if the circumstances were marginally less auspicious. Once judged to be an unreliable front-runner, he has clearly conquered any lingering nerves.
Turn it on
And while the Australian was doing his best impression of Tiger in his heyday, Spieth (above) was traipsing around the same course with his shoulders drooped and his iron shots going mostly where they shouldn’t. The gritty Texan hasn’t looked quite so disconsolate for a very long time, prompting the thought that perhaps the efforts of a near-epochal season have finally caught up with him.
By contrast, McIlroy’s problem might be not enough golf rather than too much. He hasn’t played since the PGA Championship (T17), giving himself time to fully recuperate from the ankle injury that kept him out of the Open Championship. Still, his history suggest that he isn’t someone who needs to play himself into form. He can show up and turn it on, as he has done countless times in the past.
He also has more to prove than the other two right now, not least because his return to the World No 1 ranking this week (without having hit a shot) was widely ridiculed. Nothing motivates the Irishman more than humbling the critics, except perhaps the notion that he might not, after all, be the undisputed heir to Tiger Woods’ mantle.
Expect McIlroy to show up in Boston primed and ready. Expect him, too, to beat both Day and Spieth.
That juicy three-ball is the tournament within the tournament, but what of the tournament itself?
The field has been reduced to 100 as part of the FedExCup play-offs but the winner is likely to come from the list of usual suspects.
The TPC course in Boston has developed a habit of identifying great winners over the years. Bubba Watson (22/1) (four top threes in last seven starts) is playing well. So too are Dustin Johnson (16/1), Justin Rose (16/1) and Henrik Stenson (16/1).
Bill Haas (66/1) (above) might not carry the star power of those four but he had a top-10 finish last year and four other top-25 finishes in eight other appearances.
If the winner isn’t a mop-top superstar from Holywood, Co Down then Haas or one of those other five can take his place.
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