Published November 20, 2014
They talk about cars and boats when they're out on the course, not golf. They exchange fist bumps as well as handshakes. Their idea of Masters history is 1997.
Rory McIlroy and Jason Day will be playing together in the final pairing Saturday after rounds that would impress, or scare, any of their elders. Fellow 20-something Rickie Fowler isn't far behind, and his colorful outfits — some might call them tacky — aren't the only reason he won't be overlooked.
They're young, brash and, boy, are they good.
Ready or not, golf's next generation is banging on the door.
"I think the future is in good hands in the game of golf," McIlroy said. "Rickie has just turned 22, I'm 21, Jason is 23. We're in the very early stages of our careers, and to be challenging in major championships already, it's a huge step in the right direction, and hopefully we can only get better."
For years, all the talk in golf centered on Tiger Woods, his pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 majors and whether there was anyone of his generation who could get in his way.
Turns out, all golf had to do was turn the calendar ahead a few years.
"It's good to see these guys out here playing with that much enthusiasm and that much zest for the game," Woods said. "That generation is going to be a fun one to watch and see how it matures over the next 10, 15 years."
McIlroy is clearly the leader of golf's Brat Pack. He turned pro in 2007, earned his European card without going to Q-school and broke into the top 10 in the world all before he turned 21. He tied a major championship record by opening with a 63 at St. Andrews in last year's British Open, and has tied for third at three of the past five majors, including the past two.
He's clearly learned a thing or two since St. Andrews, when he blew up with an 80 in the second round. He went 29 holes before making a bogey at Augusta National, and followed up his 65 on Thursday with a 69 on Friday.
But, as Friday's pairing showed, he's got plenty of company. Day piled up one birdie after another on his way to the round of the day, a bogey-free 64. He played so smoothly that no one realized how good his score was, including him. Fowler ground through his round, a 69 that could easily have been four or five strokes better.
"We had fun out there, chatting it up a bit up the fairways and when we had some downtime," Fowler said. "Other than that, we are trying to hit it inside and make more birdies than the other guy."
That's what makes the kids so much fun to watch.
Phenoms on the course, they're refreshingly normal off it. Fowler and Bubba Watson spent their downtime during the PGA Championship last year at a local ice cream shop. In addition to the traditional handshake on the 18th green, Day grasped McIlroy's fist and pulled him close, a move more often seen at NBA games. McIlroy has been unwinding by tossing an American football with buddies who accompanied him from back home.
And unlike those uneasy pairings of Woods and Mickelson, McIlroy, Day and Fowler are so comfortable with each other they could have been playing a casual round at a muni instead of the second round of a major championship.
Asked after Thursday's first round if the trio talked a lot of golf, McIlroy looked slightly horrified, saying it was "cars, boats — anything but golf, really."
Despite coming from all corners of the world — McIlroy is from Northern Ireland, Day from Australia, Fowler from Anaheim, Calif. — they've gotten to know each other at tournaments these past few years. When they're in Florida at the same time, they'll hang out together.
"We were just out there just having fun, talking about just random stuff," Day said. "We were talking about Florida, talking about jumping on Sea-Doos, jumping on a lot of stuff, and it was just a lot of fun."
Keep playing this way, and there could be more in store for years to come.
"Jason and I were on 18 green there at the end and I was joking with him about his putt and I said, 'You know, this is a pretty cool place to be,'" Fowler said. "We were just sitting there kind of enjoying it, and kind of out looking over the rest of the course. Exactly what I said. It's a pretty cool place to be."