PEBBLE BEACH — Five weeks into the new year, all five winners on the PGA Tour were among the top 50 in the world.
Jason Day didn't need numbers to illustrate what is becoming increasingly clear.
“The game is kind of changing,” Day said after winning a four-man playoff at Torrey Pines. “It's evolving into very young, tall, big, strong-looking guys out here that hit it a mile and have fantastic touch. It's getting tougher. It's really tough to win out here.”
That's easy for him to say with only three PGA Tour wins in eight years. For all his talent, the 27-year-old Australian has been cursed by nagging injuries. His hope is to stay healthy all year and finally achieve, or at least make significant progress, toward his lifelong goal of being No. 1 in the world.
The road to the top, however, is starting to look like a California freeway at rush hour.
Day was 18 when he first started playing on the PGA Tour in 2006, the year that Woods won multiple majors for the second straight year and ended the season by winning his last six PGA Tour events. Woods made it look easy.
The new target is Rory McIlroy, who also can make it look easy. McIlroy already has four majors, one by a record margin (eight shots in the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island) and two in wire-to-wire fashion (US Open at Congressional, British Open at Hoylake). McIlroy is going to make Day's goal a lot harder to reach.
But it's everyone around him that will make the road feel even longer.
It's easy to jump on Day's bandwagon because he is blessed with enormous power and skill, he believes he has his injuries under control and is more motivated than ever. Day has six top 10s — and no finish out of the top 20 except for injury-related WDs — since the British Open last summer.
But look around.
A week earlier, Brooks Koepka was hailed as a rising star for his victory in the Phoenix Open. The 24-year-old Floridian is powerful, the prototype of the modern golfer, and his quiet work ethic figures to take him even further than he already has come.
Don't forget Jimmy Walker and his nine-shot win at the Sony Open, the largest margin on the PGA Tour in nearly six years. That was Walker's fourth victory in his last 32 starts in America. No one has won more during that stretch, and remember, Walker lost a four-shot lead on the back nine at Kapalua and was only two shots out of the playoff at Torrey Pines last week.
The winner at Kapalua? Patrick Reed, who at 24 picked up his fourth career victory.
The list keeps growing.
Koepka was in the mix at the Phoenix Open with Hideki Matsuyama, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson and hard-charging Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old Texan who is becoming a fixture among the top 10 in the world. Day was in a playoff at Torrey Pines with Harris English, an athletic 25-year-old from Georgia who already has two PGA Tour wins and has the game that makes other players watch.
“The game is in a good spot, especially with the younger guys,” Day said. “It's evolving into a fantastic, powerful sport.”
Most of the players, particularly the younger ones, are a product of the Tiger era. They are better off because they only watched him, they didn't get beat by him.
“A lot of people of my generation are used to getting our heads bashed in by Tiger,” said Charles Howell III after he missed the playoff at Torrey Pines by one shot. “These guys don't really seem to be afraid of anything and they come out ready to win.”
Howell mentioned Spieth and Justin Thomas, a 21-year-old rookie who already has played in the final group on weekends at two tournaments this year.
“Where Tiger used to be the motivating factor,” Howell said, “these young kids are now.” Day is playing the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am this week, and he can move up two spots to No. 2 with a victory. He's still miles from McIlroy. A year ago, Day won the Match Play Championship to reach No. 4 and had legitimate ambitions to reach the top of the ranking. Woods was No. 1, though there were early signs that he was fading. Day wound up missing most of the next three months with a thumb injury, and McIlroy soon ruled the world of golf.
Day always thought he would have to beat Woods. Now it's McIlroy.
“There's certain players that come along in this world of golf and make winning look so easy, and he's one of those guys that make winning look very easy,” Day said of McIlroy. “I can tell you right now, it's not easy. It's not easy to win.”
And that makes the road to the top even harder.