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Hideki Matsuyama's strong run shows folly of Big Three concept

I'd like to think we're collectively smarter about anointing golf's biggest stars than we were at the beginning of this year. I'd like to think we learned something about the game at its highest level -- and more importantly, something about ourselves -- but maybe that's just wishful thinking.

It wasn't so long ago that the idea of a Big Three was prevalent among those who observe the game on professional and recreational platforms. And yet, it was long ago enough that I actually had to look up exactly who those three players were. The answer: Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson. That's right -- way back in early 2016, we somehow categorized the world's best players and didn't include a guy named Rory McIlroy. This is the same Rory McIlroy who wound up winning the FedEx Cup and was far and away Europe's most imposing team member at the Ryder Cup.

So yeah, sometimes we don't know nearly as much as we think we know.

That is, unless you never bought the Big Three hype and considered it a Big Four. But that, too, still eliminated deserving contenders. Some insisted we'd need to throw in Henrik Stenson for a Big Five, plus Adam Scott for a Big Six or even plus Patrick Reed for a Big Seven.

If this all sounds silly, that's because it is. All of it. As much as we'd like to compartmentalize this generation with an updated version of Jack, Arnie and Gary, that's not a viable option anymore.

I was reminded of this idea once again while watching Hideki Matsuyama win the WGC-HSBC Champions this weekend.

You'd be hard-pressed to find many people who had Matsuyama in their Big Eight or Big Nine or Big Ten or whatever it was earlier this year, but the man is good. Like, really good.

In lieu of adding another "really" to that adjective, I submit these numbers: In his past four worldwide starts, he's been top five in all of them. Six of his past nine, too. Extend that over the past 12 months, and his top-10 results have more than doubled his missed cuts.

One week after moving into the world's top 10 for the first time after a runner-up finish at the CIMB Classic, Matsuyama's 7-shot victory vaulted him to sixth in the world -- behind only Day, McIlroy, Johnson, Stenson and Spieth.

Maybe he needs to contend in a few more major championships to move into that next tier on golf's hierarchal stratosphere, but we shouldn't neglect the fact that his two MCs in majors this year were sandwiched by a T-7 at the Masters and a T-4 at the PGA Championship.

If there exists a main criticism of Matsuyama's game, it's his putting, which often ranges from passable to pitiful. For the PGA Tour season that just passed, he ranked 103rd on the greens, posting a negative score in the "strokes gained" putting statistic.

Not one of those numbers, though, is as important as this one: 24. That's his age, several years younger than "young guns" Day and McIlroy (who are barely clutching to that moniker these days) and less than 18 months older than Spieth.

All of which suggests Matsuyama should be in the conversation about the best players right now, part of some Big Six, if you will.

Except that would repeat this silly process all over again.

Any golf aficionado knows enough to not overly credit anything that happens in the year's final three months, just as we should now know enough not to limit the highest echelon of players to a specific total number.

This is the part of the story where I should warn that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Let's not rush to judgment here. Let's not automatically launch Matsuyama into some imaginary upper tier, but let's not exactly leave him out of the conversation, either.

There's a delicate balance here, but maybe we collectively learned something over the past year. This business of casually ranking the game's elite is fickle, at best. At worst, it makes us appear foolish when circumstances change. This much we should know by now.