Masters 2020: This storyline from Augusta has the chance to impact pro golf well into the future
Cameron Smith was one of several International players who shined last week at the Masters.
In the shadow of Dustin Johnson’s comprehensive win at the Masters, a narrative that has been building for years continued to gather steam at Augusta. It’s the story of the transformation of men’s professional golf by a group of young players not yet 30 who come from the large swaths of the globe that are not the United States or Europe, and would fall under the “International” umbrella as defined by the Presidents Cup. For convenience, let’s call it the “Green Wave,” after their uniforms in Australia last December. The Green Wave encompasses budding talents like Sungjae Im and Abraham Ancer, both of whom made the final group with DJ at Augusta National; Cameron Smith, who became Johnson’s biggest challenger on Sunday; and Sebastian Munoz, Hideki Matsuyama and C.T. Pan, all of whom hung around near the top of the leader board with varying degrees of success in the final round.
What five of those six players have in common (all but Munoz) is that they played together at the 2019 Presidents Cup, an event that looks likely to grow in significance historically as a turning point for things to come. At Royal Melbourne, the out-gunned Internationals, armed with a woeful record over the history of the matches and a massive deficit in World Rankings, stunned the jet-lagged Americans during the first three sessions before Tiger and his charges found their feet on the brink of elimination and squeaked out a 16-14 win. Despite the eventual American victory, there was some degree of shock at the close outcome, and the fearlessness of the youngest Internationals. Im and Ancer each went 3-1-1, Pan finished 2-1, Matsuyama 2-1-1 and Smith, though the only one of the Masters Five to finish at .500, won a critical late singles match against undefeated American star Justin Thomas that could have proved decisive.
It was a statement, but maybe not exactly the kind of statement we thought. At the time, it seemed like it might be a harbinger of tighter matches to come in the Presidents Cup. In light of the Masters, though, and a handful of results that preceded it, the events of that weekend now look like the coming-out party of a specific youthful demographic that hasn’t been covered nearly as much as the Americans and Europeans emerging alongside them.
When we think of the young stars of golf, we think of Jon Rahm, Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland. Rightly so—they’ve all had tremendous success, and Morikawa is a major champion. They’re also, generally, younger than their international counterparts. Sungjae Im, at 22, can stand alongside them, and so can Chile’s Joaquin Niemann, but players like Ancer, Smith, Munoz, Pan and Matsuyama are now in their late 20s. At the moment, most of them also lack the résumé of their American counterparts. All but Ancer have won on the PGA Tour, but most of them just once (aside from Matsuyama, whose star has slightly faded in recent years). In the World Ranking, 40 of the top 50 golfers are still from the “Ryder Cup countries.” None of the Internationals have won majors, and in fact the last non-American, non-European player to do so was Jason Day in 2015 (at the WGCs, it was Matsuyama in 2017).
Ancer struggled some on Sunday while playing in the final threesome in his Masters debut, but still recorded a top-15 finish.
Clearly, there is a long way to go before this global youth revolution manifests as anything more than a brief flash. At the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, unlike the Masters, the names of the young internationals were largely missing from the top of the leader board. It would be easy to overstate the significance of the “Green Wave” before they’ve won the world’s biggest events.
Still, it’s massive that so many of them came so close at Augusta. It seems to prove that we’re seeing the results of golf taking hold in regions of the world outside of the traditional hotspots. Sure, Australia and South Africa have longer traditions, so players like Cam Smith aren’t quite as novel, but from South Korea to Mexico to South America to Taiwan to China, the seeds that have been sown by former stars, by the PGA Tour, and by general investment on the national and private level, are bearing fruit in the Green Wave. We’re still in the early days, but that group is beginning to issue tentative challenges to the longstanding U.S./Europe duopoly. And while it’s remarkable that it has already produced such a cadre of talent that a half dozen could compete for the Masters title in 2020, the broader significance is that it foreshadows an even more diverse future at the top levels of professional golf. Once a process like this is set in motion, it’s not going to stop.
Im got an first-hand look at how Dustin Johnson went about winning a major, and experience that is bound to help the emerging Korean golfer down the road.
It goes without saying that the U.S. and Europe won’t be resting on their laurels either, and wresting control of the sport from the traditional powers will not happen anytime soon. But the effects of the Green Wave will continue to be felt, there will be greater breakthroughs, and one of the happier side effects—at least for fans like me—is that we’re going to be seeing a lot more Presidents Cups like 2019 than all the lopsided drubbings that came before.