KAPALUA, Hawaii — A hat and sunglasses attempted to serve as camouflage, but Owen Wilson can’t hide his trademark blonde locks, which were gently blowing in the trade winds. Any doubts the forever-boyish actor was among the gallery were erased by the calls of his name from a crowd parked at the bottom of Kapalua’s clubhouse veranda. Wilson was polite and waved, yet his gaze was directed right of the first tee, where a certain sinewy Swede was standing following the completion of his round. When it comes to this sport and celebrity, it’s the golfers who tend to be the ones who genuflect. Instead, it was Wilson who could not hide his eagerness, because this is a game and Ludvig Aberg is its newest toy.
There are countless chapters of the player-fan dynamic, but only a few are indelible and meaningful. Like the phase where a player who’s walked well off the path starts heading in the right direction, with fans doing everything they can to bring him back from the wilderness. Or when a player who’s suffered heartbreak after heartbreak after heartbreak can finally catch the demon he’s been chasing. Or when a former champ battles against the pressures of fate and time to show us, if only for a moment, we can be who we once were. Or, as the past two years have shown, when a player puts his game and himself on the line for a greater cause, no matter the cost that comes with the responsibility.
Yet one of the most fun chapters is undoubtedly this: When a player is the “next big thing.”
That’s what Aberg is, and it’s a title that is well-deserved. The Texas Tech grad finished atop the PGA Tour University’s ranking last season, turned pro in June and has posted seven top-10s finishes in his last 11 starts, highlighted by wins on the DP World Tour (Omega European Masters) and PGA Tour (RSM Classic). He became the first individual to play in a Ryder Cup before playing in a major and held his own in Rome in the Europeans' runaway victory. His swing is athletic, effortless, smooth; he makes Adam Scott’s look like Charles Barkley’s. He has a cut jaw and muscular build and polished vibe, almost as if he came off a Terminator assembly line if Terminators were made in Sweden. If that wasn’t enough the son-of-a-gun is charming: When asked earlier this week about his favorite restaurant in his college town of Lubbock he mentioned a steakhouse because, “You wouldn't want to get any kind of seafood in Lubbock."
Ludvig Aberg with playing partners Max Homa and Rickie Fowler in the background.
And while this is all true, it’s also a naively optimistic view, because the “next big thing” is golf’s version of the honeymoon phase. There are no expectations, only possibilities, and each meeting feels like a chance for more discovery. They seemingly do no wrong, their rights seem extra right and bright, and simple facts about their life turn into defining character traits. Golf is not a game where anyone has it all but with our “next big things,” we briefly allow ourselves to think they might.
That’s what it’s like watching Aberg in Maui. There are big drives and graceful iron shots, and his strides between shots have the conviction of a man who is in total control of his game and himself. He does a wonderful thing of seemingly being at play in his work, which is one of those New Age axioms that sounds easy but is impossibly hard. On those rare occasions when the ball doesn’t go where it’s supposed to, Aberg allows for its disobedience, knowing that, in time, the ball will learn.
He finished the first round of The Sentry with a four-under 67, which, for those of you scoring at home, is his 19th sub-70 round in his last 21 starts. That may seem high compared to the low scoring the Plantation course is known for producing, but it was one of those rounds where the score didn’t do the performance justice.
Yet honeymoons don't last forever, and that’s the point, because what makes the next-big-thing phase special is its fleeting nature.
Eventually there will be expectations, and possibilities start evaporating. Their wrongs begin to stick out, often outweighing the rights that made us fall in love in the first place. We get upset when they’re short of the unrealistic projection that they had no chance of attaining. The very thing that lifts them up tears them down. It shouldn’t be that way, but that’s how the stupid machine works, and it’s inevitable.
Owen Wilson during the first round of The Sentry at Kapalua.
Even now, the machine threatens Aberg; as one media member noted this week, Aberg’s young, but he’s not that young, three years older than Tom Kim. Plenty of rookies have gotten on heaters that turned out to be little more than dumb luck. The observation about not being that young was said in jest, yet you didn’t have to squint to see the machine’s cogs beginning to churn.
Which is all the more reason to appreciate the “next big thing” while you can. The fork in the road will come, where the “next big thing” will be “the can’t-miss that missed,” or his successes will beget higher mountains to climb because the beast can never be fed. Luckily for Aberg, that nexus remains on the horizon. For now, he is golf’s golden boy and shinning bright. Maybe that’s why Owen Wilson was keen on meeting him. Everyone wants to catch a glimpse before the patina sets in.