by Jeff Skinner
As soon as Dustin Johnson walked of the green after winning The Barclays last week the talk started again. You know, that talk, the “he’s the best young American” talk. With Tiger Woods failing to fill his role as the dominating force in golf, we are left with much debate as to who the best young American golfer is.
Johnson is definitely in the discussion but it’s a broad discussion. He has five PGA Tour wins and he should have a major or two. Remember he melted down in the final round at The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He was done in by a camouflaged bunker at The PGA and he just finished second at The Open Championship. A wayward two iron stopped his charge and gave Darren Clarke his unlikely victory. Johnson is one talented golfer but he is one of a group of young Americans that seem to have supplanted the once dominant Mr. Woods.
Tiger and Phil Mickelson aren’t tallying up the wins like they used to so that opens the door for all the talented young Americans trying to make their mark on tour. It seems each time an American twentysomething wins we are quick to ordain him as the next big thing. Well at least we has stopped using the phrase, “the next Tiger” (for many reasons).
Currently in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings there are 21 U.S. players. Six of them are Tiger’s age, 35 or older: Stricker, Mickelson, Furyk, Toms Van Pelt and Woods. Ten of them are 30 or under and five are younger than Tiger but over 30 (31-35). The twentysomethings make up an impressive group: Dustin Johnson (27) is ranked 4th and has 5 wins. Nick Watney (30) is 11th with 4 wins. Hunter Mahan (29) is 21st with 3 wins. Webb Simpson (25) is ranked 27th with 1 win. Rickie Fowler (22) ranked 28th is still winless. Keegan Bradley (25) is ranked 29th has 2 wins. Gary Woodland (27) is 37th with one win. Brandt Snedeker (30) 39th has 2 wins. Bill Haas (29) 44th has 2 wins. Ryan Moore (28) ranked 46th has 1 win. That’s an impressive group of players that total 21 wins between them but only Bradley can claim a major win.
The 31-34 year old group is even more impressive: Matt Kuchar (33) 7th in the ranking has 3 wins. Bubba Watson (32) 15th has 3 wins. Zach Johnson (35, 3 months younger than Tiger) is 32nd but leads both groups with 7 wins. Jason Dufner (34) 42nd has 2 wins. And Jonathan Byrd (33) 48th has 5 wins. That’s 20 wins between them but also, just one major: Johnson’s Masters.
So depending on your definition of young, there looks to be an abundance of young talented Americans. Each week it falls upon another one of these golfers to step up and prove that they will remain elite golfers. But we shouldn’t rush to label a particular golfer one thing or another. It’s easy to call a talented kid the next big thing but it can be a burden as well as a blessing. When Sean O’Hair won his third tournament in 2009 he was christened the best young American. It took him two years to win again.
What we have now isn’t one dominant golfer. We watched Tiger win at a mind-boggling clip for a long time. What had become the norm was really an anomaly. Today’s tour, with many players in contention each week is the norm. Yes, Nicklaus dominated in his day so did Palmer, Hogan and many of the greats but not to the extent of Woods. Tiger’s fall has changed the face of the PGA Tour.
It’s a different tour now. The field is full of dozens of young golfers that have a great chance to win each week. We don’t need to label each winner as anything yet. We now have a group of the “best young Americans.” They’ll win more and more often and soon enough they’ll figure out how to claim a few majors or two. This is a new era in American Golf.