The 2013 season started with a European as the top ranked player in the world, with four classic major championship venues on the schedule, and the promise of the deepest class of talent in the history of the game providing new and more accomplished superstars. And yet, the season winds down with the two most popular, decorated players of the past two decades right back at No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, while several of their American challengers cash more winner's and top ten checks but no single one emerges in the same class.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson each gave a press conference on Tuesday at Oak Hill and spent much of their time answering questions about the other. Tiger has reiterated all year that the game is deeper than it's ever been, with wins harder to come by due to all the talent and coaching/prep work each player receives from their "teams." European players Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer, and Rory McIlroy have all ascended to No. 1 in the world in recent years, but no American outside the two veterans has really come close.
Tiger is back comfortably in control, well ahead of Phil, but it's clear they have distanced themselves again from everyone else. Woods is 37 and Mickelson is 43, so they could each conceivably stay at or near the top for another decade (Phil may have closer to five years). Hal Sutton recently said that the reason America has struggled in the Ryder Cup is not because Tiger and Phil have pedestrian records and haven't done enough, but that they have to do too much and are relied upon too heavily. They have been around a long time now, and it's a best-case scenario to have them both in form coming into this week. But it is disappointing that there's been so little movement from the next generation trying to join them.
It's exciting that we're back to the Tiger vs. Phil showdown going beyond just popularity based on past accomplishments -- they're the indisputable 1-2. It's hard to understand why no one has joined the fray, particularly on the American side where several players have demonstrated talent to win at the majors regularly. As we begin a final stretch that features the season's final major (at one the America's greatest courses) followed by the FedExCup and the Presidents Cup, let's look at and rank the rest of the USA hopefuls trying to take a step up.
Thanks to Phil and Tiger's dominance, some of these may not even be names you know.
A Second Tier
1. Matt Kuchar -- Outside of the big two, it's hard to find a more accomplished American golfer over the past two years. Kuchar continues to rake in cash, consistently finishing on the first page of the leaderboard. He rose all the way to No. 4 in the world after the win at Memorial, but has dropped back down to No. 6, passed over by Justin Rose and Mickelson. It's Rose and Mickelson who claimed what Kuchar still needs, a career-defining major championship. After the win at Muirfieild Village, he was a trendy pick at both the U.S. Open and British Open.
Kuchar was once considered the next great American prodigy after he won the 1997 U.S. Amateur, earned top collegiate honors, and then finished as low amateur in both The Masters and U.S. Open in 1998 (inside the top 25 at both). But he then wandered, unable to put his game together as a pro and trying to work things out on the Nationwide Tour. The full-time emergence came in 2010, where he started placing in the top 10 on almost a weekly basis before finally cashing a winner's check at The Barclays, and eventually winning the money title. He's added a Players Championship and WGC-Match Play title since, but still no major despite five top 10 major finishes since 2010.
Kuchar did not really factor at either Merion or Muirfield, so this is a huge final month to the season. After a strong showing in Canada last month, he was one of the favorites at Firestone and is again at Oak Hill. The conventional thinking has always been that the Georgia Tech product would get his first major at Augusta, but this year's PGA would be a perfect spot for that breakthrough win. There are other candidates, but given his consistency, he's currently America's top player outside of Tiger and Phil.
2. Brandt Snedeker -- He's in the same boat with Kuchar -- America's most consistent earner, but still without a major despite several recent weekend contentions. Snedeker is known as one of the best putters in the world, but he's put the entire form together over the past three seasons to match Kuchar. He now has five wins in the last three seasons, and the victory in Canada two weeks ago ensured his second straight multi-win season on Tour.
Snedeker sealed up the biggest purse in golf last fall, winning the grand prize $10 million in Atlanta at the end of the FedExCup. Before this recent run, he had been largely known as the guy who made a charge at the 2007 Masters and then broke down crying multiple times in his post-round press conference. After the FedExCup title, Snedeker had an up-and-down showing at the Ryder Cup and then tumbled off the leaderboard playing in Sunday's final group at this year's Masters.
Before Tiger started lighting it up, Snedeker was probably playing better golf than anyone in the world through the first two months of the season. He got as high as No. 4, but is now settled at No. 7 even after the latest win in Canada. He has yet to win a WGC event and has missed the cut in three of the last four PGAs, but he still started the month of August alongside Kuchar as the two players who have separated themselves as the second tier of American golf. It's a huge month for both. If "Sneds" wins this week, we'll get some use out of this:
3. Hunter Mahan -- Yet another major-less American who has put it back together this summer after receding during a disappointing 2012. Mahan won his fourth event in three seasons last April when he captured the Shell Houston Open, but it was a downward spiral the rest of the summer and he even missed out on the American Ryder Cup -- something that seemed inconceivable, and an omission Tom Watson repeatedly cited as a reason to change the qualifying rules for 2014.
Mahan enters the tournament after a two-week hiatus to spend time with his wife and newborn daughter. He left the RBC Canadian Open in the 36-hole lead as his wife went into labor. Mahan is another earner, a week-to-week bet to be there and someone who you can pencil in for at least one win at the start of the season. This year, he's come close at the majors, playing in the final group on Sunday at both the U.S. Open and the British Open. But despite that position, he never really made a push over the final 18 holes and was simply a Sunday bystander. There will be a weekend where he finally clinches a major, and his play at the last two Opens pushes him ahead of some of his American contemporaries.
Inconsistent In 2013
4. Dustin Johnson -- Outside of Tiger and Phil, Dustin Johnson is probably the most talented American golfer on the planet. When asked about the next wave of golfers at his press conference on Tuesday, Mickelson immediately named DJ at the top. He's one of the few, and maybe only, golfers who are actually athletes that could potentially play other sports. Before he ever won a tournament, golf media raved about his athleticism, always quick to note that he can dunk a basketball.
Johnson's talent is overwhelming, and he's more than just a bomber -- although his tee shots are incredible to watch. The season started so well for Johnson. He arrived early in Maui for extra practice, making proclamations of a big year ahead. But injuries have led to multiple WDs and what could be characterized as a lost summer.
At this point, there's not a ton left to accomplish for Johnson except taking that step up at the game's four biggest events. He's been in contention before, of course, but some questionable decisions at Pebble Beach, Royal St. George's, and Whistling Straits led to regrettable Sunday collapses. Most recently at the Canadian Open, he hit two shots that no one else can make, getting close in two at the par-5 16th hole; but then he hit it almost 100 yards off the fairway and out-of-bounds on the next tee to end his chances and settle for second. It was a classic Dustin sequence. If he keeps it together mentally, he'll jump ahead of everyone on the list and win more than one major.
5. Jason Dufner -- It was at the PGA Championship two years ago where Dufner's name become well-known, as he gave away a five-stroke lead with four holes to play and then lost to Keegan Bradley in a playoff. Two (and nearly three) wins last year pushed him to the top of American golf, as the Auburn alum got hot through the Summer months and cashed out big. He was steady at the Ryder Cup, one of America's best players alongside Zach Johnson.
Dufner barely has a pulse when he's on the course, but thanks largely to Twitter, his profile has increased exponentially as he's typecast as the goof with a big lip full of tobacco. The different commercials, "Dufnering", and his Twitter jabs at all his colleagues have pushed his exposure up a level to the point where the Tour created a spot just to promote Dufner and his personality.
All these opportunities, however, were built on his world-class play last season, which he has been unable to keep up weekly this year. There have been blow-up holes and sloppiness on the green, leading to several middling finishes where he's not a part of the Sunday broadcast. But he's one of the best players in the world at running off birdie streaks, which he did both at the U.S. Open and last week at Firestone for T4 finishes. There were also some promising stretches at Muirfield, so it appears Duf has brought it back a little bit here in the second half of the summer. At 21st in the world, he's one of America's best.
Former Major Winners, Always Around
6. Keegan Bradley -- Bradley battled with Dufner two years ago, emerging with a major in his rookie season on Tour by winning the PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club. He's one of the anchored putter poster boys, and that drama has added some tumult over the past 12 months. Including the major, Bradley has three total Tour wins, and a playoff loss at Riviera so he's fully established as someone who will be in America's first class for the next decade. The majors haven't been very kind to Keegan this year though, as he was near last on the weekend at Augusta and missed the cut at Merion. The WGC win at Firestone last year only reinforced that he wasn't a one-hit wonder, and he was solid again last week at Firestone. It's been a pretty good month for him so he could be set for a top 10 at Oak Hill and a big push in the FedExCup.
7. Zach Johnson -- At 37, he's a bit older than the rest in this group and has nine Tour wins on the resume, including that 2007 Masters. But for the past two years, Johnson has probably been the most consistent player on Tour, earning more top five finishes and two wins. He's always near the bottom of the tee sheet on Sunday, and if not for a ridiculous chip-in by Jordan Spieth, he'd have another win. Like his partner Dufner, he was one of America's steadier Ryder Cup performers. In his last three tournaments, he's finished second in a playoff, finished sixth, and finished fourth. So this major and the playoffs set up nicely for him and he should be right back in the team event this year, the Presidents Cup in October.
8. Webb Simpson -- Like Bubba Watson, he has not won a tournament since his major victory last year. Also like Bubba, he has of course been in contention on Tour -- they're both too talented to disappear. Fellow U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell knocked him out in a playoff at Harbour Town in April, and he has not made much noise since. He was cut at the Masters, and finished outside the top 30 at the Opens. Simpson has not made the cut in his only two PGA appearances, but the anchored putter looked solid last week at the WGC so he'll always be a threat to win here and in the FedExCup.
9. Bubba Watson -- After the big two, he's the most well-known American player to casual fans. But Bubba has not won since the breakout victory at the Masters, struggling in full-field events this year and at the majors. He's finished T50, T32, and T32 at this year's majors. He's played noticeably better at the PGA so maybe this week is where he re-emerges as a contender, but it still seems to be in cruise control since the career win last April.
The Best Of The Rest
10. Bill Haas, 11. Rickie Fowler, 12. Nick Watney, 13. Ryan Moore, 14. Bo Van Pelt, 15. Billy Horschel
These players have all won on the PGA Tour and are inside the top 45 in the world, but based on results and form this season, they're below the major winners and guys who are lighting it up more regularly in recent years. Aside from Van Pelt, they're all in their 20s or early 30s and can quickly, in one season, jump up to the top of the list. Haas, a former FedExCup champion, is almost a lock for the Presidents Cup. Fowler is in more commercials and gets the most publicity of anyone in these entire rankings, but he has just one PGA Tour win so far and has not been great at the majors. Even though it seems like he's been around for several years, I suppose we should remember that he's still only 24.
Tiger, Phil contemporaries
Steve Stricker -- Tiger's putting teacher and playing partner at the team events continues to land on the leaderboards in his first season of semi-retirement. He said before the year that he was throttling down, opting to do wildlife things up in Wisconsin and hang out with the family on top of the stacks of money he's made since turning 40 years old. He's played in nine events this year, and finished inside the top 25 seven times. He's only played in four events since April, and even passed on The Open to stay home with the family. For this exercise, Stricker remains off in a class of his own -- the old guy who's a top 10 player and keeps rolling in birdies with that putter for big checks. The sentimental favorite, he's running out of chances to win a first carer major but given how he's reinvented himself, the semi-retirement may last well into his 50s.
Jim Furyk -- At 43, Furyk is still inside the top 30 players in the world but has not won on Tour since 2010. He had a rebound season last year, but the quality play was wiped out by the lasting impressions made by late giveaways at the U.S. Open, Firestone, and a flop at the Ryder Cup as a captain's choice. Unfortunately for the Furyk, that may be the last time he's among the top 12 Americans participating in one of the team events.
Jordan Spieth, Harris English
These are two players who could pass everyone on this list in the next 12 to 18 months. It's pretty clear that none of the above names are the "next Tiger" or even "next Phil", but Spieth has the ability to get to Phil status. Much like Mickelson, he's more of a feel player and not all physics and mechanics. The teenager locked up his card in July with the win at TPC Deere Run, becoming the first teen in 82 years to win on the Tour. It wasn't necessarily a surprise, given that he finished 16th in a PGA Tour event at age 16, earned low amateur honors with a T21 finish at last year's U.S. Open, and had won collegiate player of the year to go along with a host of amateur awards. Spieth backed up his win at the Deere with an amazing showing at the Open, where he contended until the middle of his round on Sunday. Now in his third career major and back at an American parklands course, expect Spieth to make noise again, even after his curious decision to abstain from last week's WGC.
Harris English is not as decorated as Spieth, but the Georgia native did also get his first Tour win this summer in Memphis. He's been hyped for a couple years now, and big things are expected after making 22 of 27 cuts as a rookie and quickly getting a win in his second year on the circuit. This is his first ever major on American soil, however, so he's not yet acclimated to the challenges faced by everyone else on the list and it could be struggle. Give it time.
So that's where we're at as we enter what some are debating as "the most anticipated PGA Championship ever." There's lots of American talent, but it's the same as it ever was: Tiger, then Phil, and then everybody else.