Things are looking up for American golf. Matt Kuchar’s victory in the Players Championship last weekend made him the first American to win the PGA Tour’s flagship event since 2007. Bubba Watson’s victory in the Masters was the second straight major for a U.S. player after a string of six in a row without one. If you limit the time frame to the last couple of weeks, Rickie Fowler is the hottest young player in the game (though I don’t think Rory McIlroy is going away). Heck, even Tiger Woods has won a tournament this year.
It’s all probably a coincidence, but it’s a happy coincidence for American fans and bodes well in a Ryder Cup year. Add Phil Mickelson and Hunter Mahan—the only double winner on the PGA Tour this year—and that’s a pretty strong core six.
It’s not like the big wins by Watson and Kuchar were random bolts from the blue. They’ve been in the upper echelon of the game over the last couple of years, so their victories were more like validations. In a way, the same is true of Fowler. While the Wells Fargo Championship marked his first PGA Tour victory, he’s been on the verge ever since he hit the Tour in the fall of 2009.
So we shouldn’t expect any of them to fade away. Of the three, Watson probably has the biggest upside (though a case could be made for Fowler) but the least predictable future. His game is mercurial and the same could be said of his personality.
Watson followed up his Masters win with a well received tour of the TV talk circuit that made him an even bigger figure. While embracing the spotlight in the aftermath of winning the green jacket, he suddenly seemed to withdraw from it when, after defending his title in New Orleans, he decided to take the month of May off.
Granted, as the new father of an adopted baby boy, family time is important. But skipping the Players, not all that far from his Orlando home, was an odd decision. He could still have taken off the week before the Players and two or three weeks after it. Now who knows where his game—or his head—will be when he returns.
Kuchar’s game is very different than Watson’s. Lacking Bubba’s length off the tee, not to mention his creativity (who doesn’t?), Kuchar traffics in the steady rather than the spectacular. Over the past two-and-a-half years he’s had 25 top-10 finishes, with just two victories. They’ve both been big ones, though, a FedExCup win at The Barclays and the Players, so he doesn’t shrink from the big occasion. It must be encouraging to Kuchar that Luke Donald took a similar path prior to his breakout year in 2011, so the game in the current era doesn’t belong exclusively to the long.
Through it all, expect Kuchar to keep smiling, no matter what the situation. Pair him with Woods in his comeback event from scandal in 2010? No problem. End up in the final twosome with slow-playing Kevin Na, admittedly in the throes of a can’t-pull-the-trigger problem, in the fourth round of the Players? That’s fine.
The “what, me worry?” attitude and ever-present grin serve Kuchar well in big situations. And if friends and family are to be believed, he is a feisty competitor underneath the friendly exterior. I’ve never been a believer in the “too nice to win” theory anyway. If Kuchar hasn’t won more, it’s probably more due to his style of play.
Fowler continued to impress when he followed up his Wells Fargo victory with a tie for second at the Players. It’s tempting to say the floodgates are now open, but perhaps it’s best to give it some time. Just as it was foolish to say Rickie was all style and no substance because he hadn’t yet won a tournament, it’s going too far the other way to say that he’s suddenly one of the best players in the game just because he’s won one. It is fair to say he could be one of the best players in the game. And a look at his gallery dotted with youngsters sporting similar caps and attire is an indication that a rise to preeminence by Rickie would be good for the growth and popularity of the game, especially among young people—a very important area for the future of the game.
In the long run, the ultra-talented McIlroy is still a better bet to be No. 1. But he won’t necessarily have a stranglehold on the position the way Woods did for so long. If the top spot is going to be up for grabs, Watson, Kuchar, and, in the longer run, Fowler, each have a chance to make a run at it.