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U.S. Open 2017: Sunday should be perfectly fine without most of golf’s superstars

Forget Tiger, Phil, and Rory. Confident, cocky, and marketable, four young American stars will be the center of attention at Erin Hills on Sunday. And we’re in for a show.

U.S. Open - Round Three Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Whatever today’s result at the U.S. Open, we’ll be sure to hear a familiar chorus.

In all likelihood, ratings will be down — again. Someone, somewhere will proclaim golf dead and dying reflexively. Golf’s boring without Tiger. Top three players missed the cut! No Phil! LOOK AT HOW BAD THIS IS.

Context be damned, the continual, tiring referendum on What This Means For Golf’s Future will rage on. Mind not that no one’s watching anything on TV anymore, and that golf remains as safe a bet as any for network TV on the weekend. Replacement-level tour events still outdraw basically everything on TV that isn’t football, playoff basketball, or playoff baseball.

People still watch, and the sport is still plenty viable. That doesn’t mean golf doesn’t have problems. The core demographic is aging, diversity is woefully lacking in the American game, and the sport’s still trying to crack the code on how to market itself to the post-Tiger generation. The USGA’s coming simplification of the rules in 2019 is a step in the right direction, but golf still takes time, money, and greenspace —- something millennials have less access to than prior generations.

Sport in America is driven not by teams, but rather by star power. And perhaps more than all the sport’s logistical issues, that’s the struggle for American golf in the post-Tiger vacuum. There is no one slam-dunk, marketable American hero for the game to rely on as it was able to for nearly two decades. And as long as Tiger Woods is away from professional golf — which could be forever — there won’t be. Trying to find another Tiger would merely be a fool’s task. Replacement by committee, a cavalcade of good players, is the sport’s best route.

When things get underway from Erin Hills on Sunday afternoon, golf won’t need its star major champions, or Tiger, or Phil. A quartet of 20-something, majorless Americans will headline the event, all vying for major championship validation, all battling demons, burdens, expectations — even history.

U.S. Open - Round Three
Rickie Fowler will start Sunday two shots behind leader Brian Harman.
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

First, there’s Rickie Fowler — the golf marketer’s dream, the event’s headliner, the one who’s already a superstar. He perhaps is the one player with the off-course appeal requisite to most fill Woods large shoes. He has the iconic brand; he has the fan support. What he hasn’t had? The major championship wins.

He’s had close calls — in every single major of the 2014 season, for example. But he’s had his Sunday struggles, too. 2016 was marred by them — being unable to close out 54-hole-leads at Quail Hollow and the Barclays. Those losses fuel the critics. He spends too much time on Snapchat, they’ll say

But today at Erin Hills, he’ll have the opportunity to validate his stardom — a stardom that’s well-earned and deserved. And he’ll be able to do it without the pressure of playing in the final pairing.

Then there’s Justin Thomas. He already made history. I was there for it every step of the way. Maybe the greenest of the bunch — the only of this group to miss last year’s Ryder Cup roster. But he’s perhaps the most talented. Affable, likeable, young. In January, I likened him to Steph Curry, the tiny dude with an unbelievable video-game-like talent. He can win majors. Multiple. And he will. If his first walk in a final major group isn’t too much for him, there’s a damn good chance he’ll hold the silverware at the end of the day.

Oh, yeah, and then there’s that Captain America guy. The dude you either love or love to hate. Patrick Reed. For all his Ryder Cup success, showmanship, and fearlessness — did you know he’s never finished inside the top 10 at a major championship? Thanks to a spectacular Saturday round, he’ll start Sunday just four behind Brian Harman. Could you imagine the echoes throughout the golf course if he gets off to a fast start? Can you imagine Patrick Reed, the American Ryder Cup hero, as U.S. Open champion? But we’re talking different worlds of golf here, of course.

“You always can take that fire from Ryder Cup and use it in other events,” Reed said after his round Saturday. “But you're talking polar opposites. You're talking one-on-one competition against 155. And because of that, you can go out and play some great golf, but you have a bunch of guys out there that can play some good golf, as well.

2016 Ryder Cup - Singles Matches
Patrick Reed’s best major finish? 12th at last year’s PGA Championship.
Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

And then how about Brooks Koepka? If that Dustin Johnson vibe interests you, look no further. The big-hitting Florida State grad doesn’t seem to give a much of a damn about anything going on around him, and that’ll help on Sunday afternoon.

Sure, sure. No one here’s gonna be Tiger Woods. Such would be an unfair expectation. But American golf at this point is about a quantity of quality. Despite the lamentations, the talent level at the sport’s never been better. There’s far, far, far more good American players now than ever before, and perhaps that lends to some of the parity that’s robbing us of another dominant Tiger-like star.

On this major championship Sunday, we’ll have a chance to add another major champion to that list. Another rep, another opportunity, another emotional investment in a star who might pan out to be the dominant star American golf has yearned for since Woods departed, at least temporarily departed, the scene 22 months ago.

No matter the outcome, we’ll inevitably litigate the outcome, the impact, the ratings — we’ll all again spend days wondering What This Means For Golf. We’ll wonder if the world’s top three players sent ratings 5 to 7 percent lower than they should’ve after adjusting for markets or demographics or whatever.

But today at Erin Hills? Nobody will care.