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American Golf Is Alive And Well

Johnie Freatman |
August 24, 2011 | 4:19 p.m. PDT

Associate Sports Editor

Emerging young golfer Rickie Fowler has the kind of star power that propelled Tiger to the top. (Wikimedia Commons)
Emerging young golfer Rickie Fowler has the kind of star power that propelled Tiger to the top. (Wikimedia Commons)
Ever since Tiger Woods’ fateful fire hydrant run-in and subsequent on and off-course malaise, many have attempted to identify the future of American golf. Though this has proven elusive for many and some have resorted to doomsday predictions of American decline, the recent wins by Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson have illuminated one thing above all else: though golf is undergoing a rapidly changing landscape, the Yanks aren’t leaving the stage anytime soon.

As with all things golf, the future can only be understood when evaluated in the same context as the "Tiger Effect" of the past. For years, American golf fans were spoiled by the most dominant individual run the game has ever seen. Between 1999 and 2006, Woods won 11 majors. Only one man has ever won more majors in his entire career.

Thus, it’s predictable that fans would become antsy with the drought of Americans winning majors, which was snapped by Bradley after six straight international wins. After all, in that same eight-year gap when Woods was at his peak, 23 of the 32 majors contested were won by Americans. Not only has Woods declined sharply, his adversary Phil Mickelson has been more hot-and-cold than the Midwest climate.

Corresponding with the swoon of Woods and Mickelson is the development of perhaps the most international parity the game has ever seen. Due to the aforementioned “Tiger Effect” and golf’s corresponding popularity worldwide, not only are mega-talents like Rory McIlroy and Luke Donald materializing from countries without proven golf track records, so are precocious youngsters like Italy’s Matteo Manassero and Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa.

As a result, golf has acquired tremendous depth. Gone are the days that a major winner could be predicted based on the world rankings. Not only were the last 13 majors all won by different players, but “dark horses” like Darren Clarke and Bradley have come from outside the top 100. It’s telling that the top two players in the world ranking are without a major triumph.

Combine this with 12 first-time winners on the PGA Tour this year, and it’s clear that the week-to-week golf forecast is murky. Though many are quick to anoint each week’s winner as “the next Tiger” in the search for a game-changing star, nobody has yet taken that mantle and shown a prolonged stretch of dominance.

This unpredictability is a pivotal reason that Americans went so long without winning a major. For all the emphasis placed on the four most important weeks in golf, the reality is they’re more of a crapshoot than ever and don’t offer a complete view of the game as a whole. After all, does anybody expect Darren Clarke to parlay his late-career British Open win into a prolonged stretch of major success?

Didn’t think so.

Tiger Woods. (Wikimedia Commons)
Tiger Woods. (Wikimedia Commons)
What Americans can be encouraged by is the stable of young players who have put themselves in position to have a week like Bradley’s at the PGA Championship and become established as perennial threats in golf’s future. Though a headliner may be lacking, the quantity and variety is plentiful.

Consider the fact that seven of the top 20 players in the world hail from the US. The highest-ranked of the under-40 set is Dustin Johnson, who, if not for a couple costly meltdowns, would own multiple majors already. Joining him in the Top 10 is Nick Watney, who has won two tournaments this year and seems poised for a major breakthrough.

This ragtag group includes some players, like Rickie Fowler, who not only have prodigious talent but possess the flair to galvanize the country like Woods once did on a seemingly weekly basis. Fowler’s eclectic attire and massive galleries are matched by a raw talent that simply needs to be harnessed during the most important stages of a tournament. 

Anthony Kim’s swashbuckling ways led him to early success and if he can recover from a recent myriad of injuries and inconsistency, he figures to be a pillar of the future.

Then, of course, there is Bubba Watson, a long-driving, straight-talking cult hero who is known to wear his emotions on his sleeve. If he were to win a major, the unofficial record for tears shed after a victory would likely be surpassed.

Hunter Mahan and Sean O’Hair are part of this stable too and have shown an ability to win, O’Hair bagging four titles thus far in his career and Mahan three.

The aforementioned Webb Simpson was a relative unknown before this year and has shown incredible resolve in coming back from two heartbreaking second-place finishes before finally breaking through on Sunday. Bill Haas has begun to emerge out of his father’s shadow.

For all the players who have already had success on the PGA Tour, the greatest impact may come from those who are still amateurs. Just this year, Jordan Spieth contended in a PGA Tour event as a senior in high school. Patrick Cantlay, the 19-year-old sensation from UCLA, turned heads by finishing in the top-25 in his first four PGA starts.

Similar to the current state of golf, there is a little bit of almost everything to be found. Though a singular talent of Woods’ entity may not surface for a while, if ever again, the stars and stripes will be represented atop many leaderboards, fire hydrants be damned.


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