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With Tiger and Phil fading, U.S. finds new players to love

Jordan Spieth (above) and Rickie Fowler head to Chambers Bay for 115th U.S. Open as the new darlings of American golf.Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Jordan Spieth (above) and Rickie Fowler head to Chambers Bay for 115th U.S. Open as the new darlings of American golf.

Tiger Woods keeps setting standards in the wrong direction. Phil Mickelson keeps searching for his game.

Mickelson may at least have a chance to win the U.S. Open this week because of the creativity that Chambers Bay demands, but few even think Woods will contend coming off his career-worst 85 at the Memorial. Just making the cut is seen as a plus now.

From the final major of ’99 through the first major of 2010, Woods and Mickelson combined for 17 of 42 titles. They were undoubtedly the two most dominant players in the world, let alone America.

But now, with Rory McIlroy the undisputed No. 1, American golf needs new standard bearers. And in Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, it may be finding them.

Spieth, 21, and Fowler, 26, have won the two biggest tournaments of the year so far, the Masters and the Players Championship, Spieth winning his green jacket more like Woods, wearing down the field, and Fowler winning the Players more like Mickelson, with fireworks.

Indeed, they are becoming the new faces of American golf, if they haven’t taken over already.

“American golf is hungry for great young stars who will consistently be promoted, particularly by the networks and the golf companies,” says sports marketing expert Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm. “They need it after Tiger. They really need it.”

“It’s a void,” says commentator Frank Nobilo of NBC Sports Group, noting that it’s easier for young players to break through.

“The fact that we don’t see a competitive Tiger, the fact that Phil, apart from a couple of weeks over the past two years, has disappeared off the front page of the leaderboard. . . . There’s been a demand for someone to stand out, plus they’re getting publicity when they do it,” he says.

The electricity at both of their big wins was palpable as Spieth tied Woods’ Masters scoring record and Fowler made his charge at TPC Sawgrass. Until Fowler made his run, the tournament was a sleepy one. He turned it into one of the best Players ever with a display of daring shotmaking.

“I think it was a huge shot in the arm for golf, for the Tour, especially for Rickie, for the young kids, everything,” says ESPN’s Curtis Strange. “It rained all day long that Sunday here in Carolina. I was fighting a cold. I sat on the couch for six hours and watched it. I haven’t done that in 35 years. And what a day to do it.

“It was just fun,” Strange adds. “I did an outing the next day and the world was talking about Rickie Fowler and how great it is.”

The ratings proved it for both Fowler and Spieth. CBS posted its best ratings since 2011 with a 9.6 overnight, a 23% increase over 2014 when Bubba Watson won. The Players Championship posted golf’s third highest-rated Sunday over the previous year with a 3.9 overnight rating, a 60% increase over 2014 when Martin Kaymer won.

The Watson comparison is instructive because, as impressive as Bubba has been in winning two green jackets, the American golf fan hasn’t fully fallen in love with his somewhat odd personality. His refusal to participate in the long drive contest at last year’s PGA didn’t help him.

It’s similar with the ultra-talented Dustin Johnson. His leave of absence, allegedly for drug rehab though repeatedly denied by himself and the PGA Tour, didn’t adversely affect his relationship with the galleries when he won Doral. Still, while he wows fans with his prodigious length, his aloofness prevents him from connecting.

Fowler was making that connection, especially with young fans, even before he broke into the win column last year. There are kids decked out in his trademark orange, and wearing his distinctive Puma hats everywhere when he plays. Spieth, too, has attracted the young crowd. They’ve been following him wearing his UnderArmor attire.

“Never underestimate the importance of good looks,” Ganis notes. “Michael Jordan? Don’t underestimate that he’s just a great-looking man and how much of an impact that had on him as a marketing person.

Rickie Fowler

Rickie Fowler

“Tiger is good-looking, too, a little older now, a little longer in the tooth,” Ganis went on. “Don’t underestimate how important physical attraction is. These two have it. Fowler’s a little more exotic-looking with his Asian background, and he’s got that girlfriend (model Alexis Randock). He’s edgy. Jordan’s more clean cut.”

Spieth, has the higher world ranking now. He’s No. 2 behind McIlroy. Fowler is No. 8. But that’s also a reflection of their playing styles.

“You can see that in their swings,” says Strange. “(Fowler) is aggressive and (Spieth) is a plodder.

“You can’t have two similar style players as rivals,” Nobilo notes. “If you think Rickie’s in your face because you think he’s too branded and all that, then you’ve got Jordan. It’s a bit like Phil and Tiger. If you didn’t like Tiger you like Phil. You’ve got to like one of the two.”

Strange calls Spieth “the cream of the (American) crop” right now.

“And I haven’t figured out exactly why,” Strange adds. “He strikes the ball well but we have had many 21-year-olds who have struck the ball well. He putted extraordinarily well at the Masters but whenever you win, you putt well and we have had plenty of 21-year-olds who have putted well. He’s such a good kid, but we’re making it out to be as though he’s the only one who’s ever been a good kid. I think the one thing that stands out right now is his poise on the stage,” Strange adds. “When I say that, I think of the poise where he doesn’t come off as a cocky arrogant kid who likes the stage. You know, an Ian Poulter type. I’m not being disrespectful to Ian Poulter but there’s no doubting he loves the stage.

“You know. (Spieth’s) got a little temper. I love that. He gets on himself. He gets mad. You can’t be any good if you don’t, but he seems to deliver.”

Spieth has won four times in his first three seasons. He has played his last 12 rounds in par or better. He’s one of those guys who just seems to know how to get the ball in the hole.

“I enjoy working at something that is impossible to conquer,” he says. “I enjoy that challenge because each time you get closer and closer to conquer it, you get those rounds that you’re in the zone and you’re firing on all cylinders and in contention, and you feel your blood going like you’re skydiving. I live for the thrill of it.”

Fowler, a thrill seeker off the course, has played twice since the Players where he was motivated by a players’ poll that named him one of the two most overrated players on the PGA Tour. He placed 30th at the Irish Open and missed the cut at the Memorial. But he says he has a good feeling about Chambers Bay, where he will play his first two rounds paired with Woods.

“I’m very comfortable with where my game is right now and my swing,” he says. “I’m definitely not going to back down. I’m going to play to win. That’s what I did at the Players. It should be a fun run.”

Of course, there is no question who the dominant player in golf is. When McIlroy brings his ‘A’ Game it’s game, set and match. But while Americans like Rory, they haven’t embraced him.

“Same thing happens in tennis,” Ganis observes. “We will appreciate a Roger Federer but we will not embrace him like he’s John McEnroe. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

And Woods? Has his time passed?

“Until he starts winning again, yeah,” Ganis said. “The problem isn’t Tiger as a personality, the problem isn’t his off-the-course activity, the problem is he’s just not winning.”

Ganis also said he’s not ready to bestow superstar status on Spieth and Fowler just yet.

Chambers Bay plays host to the world's best golfers as the U.S. Open starts Thursday.

Chambers Bay plays host to the world’s best golfers as the U.S. Open starts Thursday.

“They’re not there yet, but they’re up and comers,” he said. “You’ve got to win more than one big tournament to be a superstar. You’ve got to consistently end up in a meaningful pairing on Saturday and Sunday.”

No one is saying that Spieth and Fowler are Woods and Mickelson or ever will be. But for now, they’re the best candidates out there.

* * *

THE FALL

U.S. players have won 80 of last 98 U.S. Opens, including 35 straght from 1926-1964, but over the past 10 years they’ve managed to win just three (or 30%).

2005 – Michael Campbell (N. Zealand)

2006 – Geoff Ogilvy (Australia)

2007 – Angel Cabrera (Argentina)

2008 – Tiger Woods (U.S.)

2009 – Lucas Glover (U.S.)

2010 – Graham McDowell (N. Ireland)

2011 – Rory McIlroy (N. Ireland)

2012 – Webb Simpson (U.S.)

2013 – Justin Rose (England)

2014 – Martin Kaymer (Germany)

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