'Big Three' back in golf as Woods wilts

Tiger Woods (AFP)
Tiger Woods (AFP)

Paris - A watershed year in golf saw the emergence of a new "Big Three", filling the vacuum left by the fast-fading Tiger Woods.

Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy ended the year on the world rankings podium, in that order, and their rivalry is set to shine brightly in the new year.

Spieth, at just 22, is the youngest of the three and, for much of the year gone by, he was the story.

He won the Masters for his first major title in April and followed up by taking the US Open two months later. He then set sail for St Andrews with talk of the never-before achieved calendar-year Grand Slam starting to dominate sporting pages.

He came agonisingly close to becoming just the second player, after Ben Hogan in 1953, to win the first three majors of the year, but a bogey at the 17th, the Road Hole, saw him miss out by one stroke on a three-man playoff won by Zach Johnson.

Spieth then lost the world number one spot he had taken from McIlroy in June to the then 27-year-old Australian Day, who won four tournaments from late July to mid-September, including his first major at the PGA Championship.

The Texan though regained the number one spot with his win in the closing Tour Championship, clinching the FedEx Cup into the bargain.

McIlroy in contrast had a mixed bag of a year, failing to add to his haul of major titles which remains at four.

He only had himself to blame after being forced to miss the defence of his British Open crown because of an ankle ligament injury picked up during an impromptu football kick about with friends.

But the 26-year-old from Northern Ireland finished the year strongly, a superb showing in Dubai in November giving him the DP World Tour Championship title and the Race to Dubai European Tour crown.

Spieth says he fully expects himself to win at least one major championship in 2016, but he believes it might be too early to put himself and Day up on a pedestal with McIlroy.

"I think for Rory it's a bit different because he's been consistent for a number of years now," he said.

"It's still so early in my career so it's hard for me to compare to others. But what an exciting year it was for golf, with so many young players playing so well.

"If Rory was healthy for the whole year he would have made a bigger impact than he was able to make in a shorter season.

"And then with what Rickie Fowler did this season, breaking through with three wins and Jason and myself it was exciting."

McIlroy says he has learned a lesson from the football injury mishap and that he is energised by the challenge presented by such as Spieth and Day.

But his current focus is very much on the Masters at Augusta National in April where he will attempt, for the second straight year, to become just the sixth man to win all four of golf's majors.

"It's always going to be there until I get to put a green jacket on my back," he said.

"It's obviously the first real goal of the year is to try and get ready for the Masters and be in as good a shape as possible going in there.

"But golf's in a great place. Guys are playing better than ever it seems like, at least for me, the last couple of years."

As for Woods, the 14-time major winner turns 40 on December 30 at a time when his very future in the game is up in the air.

Asked in early December if it was possible he may not play at all in 2016 as he recovers from two operations on his back in September and October, Woods replied: "You know, I've been asked this quite a bit lately and the answer is I don't know, only because I really don't, I really don't.

"For my 20 years out here, I think I've achieved a lot, and if that's all it entails, then I've had a pretty good run. But I'm hoping that's not it.

"I'm hoping that I can get back out here and compete against these guys.

"But if that's not the case anymore, then I'll find other avenues, that being growing my foundation, golf course design or other projects I have going on right now that will certainly take up more of my time."

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