COLUMN: Excellence among today’s top players is unprecedented

In my role as coach to a great group of PGA Tour professionals, I’m out on the road a lot. It’s one thing to watch these guys on television, but it’s completely different to be out there in person. One thing becomes very clear when you are in such close proximity to the greatest players in the world: the bar of excellence is constantly being raised.

By Jamie Mulligan, PGA professional, Virginia Country Club

I mean no offense to Jack Nicklaus – arguably the greatest player of all time – or any of the other elite players from that era, but there are players currently residing on the (formerly Nationwide) Tour who are better all around than some of the guys who were considered the elite players in the world 30 years ago.

It’s not just that the modern player is better in one facet of the game. It’s a macro improvement with the modern-day player’s skill set better across the board in virtually every category. I’m not even factoring in the mechanics of the swing or the advances in equipment. The average modern player is just bigger, stronger and more skilled. They have taken their fitness, training and nutrition levels up to match that of the other world-class athletes competing in other sports. They are, for lack of a more descriptive term, better.

Look at the selection process for the Ryder Cup this year and you’ll see how tough it was to pick the players for the final spots on the team. You really couldn’t have gone wrong with any combination of players ranked in the top 30.

Take a player like Bo Van Pelt. You might think, Bo Van Pelt? The guy has won only once on the PGA Tour. Take a little closer look and you will see he’s one of the more impressive players on Tour. At 6-feet-4 and 200 pounds, he’s a big, powerful player. He’s earned more than $2 million each of the last three years. Not only that, he’s finished in the top 25 more than 50 percent of the time during that span. He consistently hits the big shot at the right time and you have to ask yourself how this guy has only won once in his career? Take one look at the players he’s competing against and you can begin to see why it’s tougher to win on the PGA Tour now than at possibly any other time in the history of the game.

Tiger Woods also is a popular media target these days. Everyone questions why he isn’t winning majors or dominating like he once did. The quick response from most casual observers is that Tiger is no longer the player he once was. The reality is that during Tiger’s prime years, he performed at a level that was unprecedented in history. His success rate and dominance was what you might experience one time in the history of a sport – and nothing lasts forever. While he was out dealing with his personal issues, injuries and rebuilding his golf swing, the rest of the PGA Tour continued to improve across the board. Even with his alleged “drop off,” Tiger has won three times this year, finished in the top 25 in 60 percent of his starts, including three out of four major championships. In other words, he’s still pretty darn good.

The bar also is being raised across the board without regard to age. The modern player is becoming more competitive at earlier stages than at any time in the game’s history.  Some of the best players in the world are barely old enough to buy a drink in a pub.  Look at the numbers that junior golfers barely in their teens are posting. There was a time when posting even-par rounds meant that you might have a career in the game. That’s just no longer the case. Players that expect to compete on the highest levels, even at this young age, are shooting rounds in the 60s on the best courses across the country.

The pursuit of golf excellence truly is endless. As players around the world strive to find the secret to success, all of us fans of the game should know that the chase is never-ending as long as elite players continue to raise the bar.

Jamie Mulligan is chief operating officer at Long Beach’s Virginia Country Club and a PGA teaching professional who currently works with several tour pros.

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