Winning majors is tougher than ever

HAVEN, Wis. -- The following is bad news for any golf-crazy youngster with Ben Curtis posters lining his bedroom walls, or any driving-range dreamer modeling his career path after Rich Beem, or any prospective pro hell-bent on becoming the next Shaun Micheel.

The days of the one-hit wonder are over.

Don't get me wrong: No offense intended toward any of the -- how can I put this nicely? -- less-heralded major champions of the past 15 years. Curtis withstood a bevy of credible contenders; Beem held off Tiger Woods in his prime; Micheel hit one of the greatest pressure shots in history. Each deserves the accolades that have followed those career pinnacles.

This is a new era, though. The game's elite players aren't just getting better; they're getting younger. They're not capable of winning someday; they're capable of winning today.

Welcome to modern golf, where a 27-year-old up-and-comer claimed a major championship on Sunday and instantly became the oldest player in the top three in the world rankings.

Jason Day joined new No. 1 Jordan Spieth and erstwhile No. 1 Rory McIlroy as twenty-somethings who have combined for five of the past six major titles. Suddenly, men's golf is mirroring men's tennis, with a superstar subset of players serving as not just the favorites to win the game's big events, but the only ones who are doing it.

(OK, so last month's Open Championship winner, Zach Johnson, might be an outlier because of his "old age" -- he's 39 -- but the past Masters champion hardly fits the bill of a guy who got on a roll for 72 holes and knocked off the big boys.)

This isn't exactly a new phenomenon. The last true one-hit wonder to win a major -- not the last player to win only one, but the last to win one shockingly -- was Todd Hamilton at the 2004 Open Championship. Since then, there's been an amalgam of great players and really good players who have claimed majors, but with the current death grip the so-called young guns are putting on winning these events, it has becoming progressively more difficult for anyone else to break into the club.

"I think golf is in a very healthy stage now," Day maintained. "Three to five years ago, it was kind of struggling a little bit with the identity of who was really going to be that No. 1 player in the world, who was going to be the next best thing, and kind of Rory came out and was really dominating. But there was no one really kind of challenging him for that role."

Times have changed. Call it the byproduct of the Tiger era.

As Woods struggles to regain some semblance of the lofty stature he held for so long, players of the next generation are enjoying the spoils of what he taught by example.

Woods first won a major when he was 21 years old; today's players, unlike those of the previous era, understand that winning at such a young age isn't improbable. Woods was supremely confident in his own abilities; so, too, is the younger set, who hit the ball longer and straighter and higher than any generation before them. Woods sang the praises of a schedule that saw him trying to peak four times per year, rather than weekly; today's elite players have quickly adopted a similar mentality of preparing for the majors.

"It doesn't matter apparently if you've won a major or not before," contested Spieth. "It helped me at the U.S. Open, [but] here we did what we could and it wasn't enough, because Jason just played that good."

This exclusive club won't remain too exclusive for long. Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler -- now vying for the backhanded compliment of best player to have never won a major -- appear destined to get to the winner's circle. Brooks Koepka has risen to the challenge of major championships. Patrick Reed and Hideki Matsuyama each has the ability to get there, too.

It has all led to what might be called an impending golden age, with so many prodigious talents playing so well in so many big events.

Case in point: Entering the final round of the PGA Championship, Spieth figured he needed to post a 4-under 68 in order to leapfrog playing partner Day and win his third major title this year. As it turns out, he shot that exact number -- and lost by three strokes, as the champion became the first major winner ever to record a final score of 20 under par.

There are 235 days between Day tapping in the final putt on Sunday afternoon and the initial tee shot of next year's Masters. Until then, the game's bright generation of uber-talented players will jostle for position, taking turns beating each other's brains with birdie binges.

When that day does come, though, expect 'em all to be focused, prepared and ready to win, making it tougher than ever for someone outside the elite division -- those one-hit wonders -- to prevail in another major championship setting.

As Day insisted, his reflection gleaming in the Wanamaker Trophy not long after his biggest victory: "I'm looking forward to the future, the sheer competition of being able to fight against these guys each week and have that competition and fight against them. It's going to be a lot of fun over the next five to 10 years."