Jonathan Heeter: Better days are coming for U.S. golf

jheeter@macon.comApril 6, 2011 

AUGUSTA -- American golf has seen brighter days.

The United States has lost six of the past eight Ryder Cups, including a loss last year in Wales. Three of the four major champions from a year ago came from outside the U.S.

Tiger Woods doesn’t appear to be even close to the golfer he was when he roared through much of the past decade.

Phil Mickelson is playing well, and the four-major champion is a threat to win any tournament he enters. But he’s also prone to making high-risk, high-reward gambles that can pay off -- see the 2010 Masters -- or cost him tournaments.

Outside of Mickelson, the U.S. doesn’t seem to have the same firepower that Europe currently enjoys.

Don’t expect to wait long, however, for the next crop of talented American golfers to take over and push the U.S. back to superpower status.

This new crop of fresh, exciting Americans is led by current PGA Tour standouts like Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Ryan Moore and Nick Watney and several up-and-coming amateurs who have dominated their European counterparts in recent match play competitions.

After bottoming out with just 31 players in the top 100 of the official world golf rankings in 2008, the U.S. has rebounded with 37 currently in the top 100, a high since 2006. That number is trending up, as well, thanks to the emergence of some young stars who fought Europe tough in a one-point loss on hostile soil at the Ryder Cup.

The success by this new group of Americans has been a stark contrast to the struggles of American golf during the past decade, except for Woods and Mickelson.

Since the official world golf rankings started in 1986, the U.S. made up more than half of the top 100 players every year except one until 2001. That streak included a high of 60 Americans in the top 100 in 1991 and a low of 49 in 1993.

But since 2000, the American presence has declined sharply. The number dropped from 49 in 2003 to 41 in 2004 to 34 in 2007.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has continued to land more golfers in the top 100 every year, peaking at 18 in 2010.

The United Kingdom has just 12 golfers in the top 100 currently.

Meanwhile, Johnson was in the mix to win two majors last year before collapsing at the U.S. Open and making a mental error to break a local rule that cost him a spot in a playoff at the PGA Championship. Like a young Mickelson, Johnson is way too talented to be undone by last year’s mishaps, and it’s a matter of when, not if, he wins a major championship. He throttled the world’s No. 1 Martin Kaymer on Sunday at the Ryder Cup last year.

Kuchar, Watson, Mahan and Watney are all extremely steady players -- and all ranked in the top 20 -- who could make their breakthrough this year and perhaps this week.

Kim once appeared to be the future of American golf, before a thumb injury derailed his 2010 season. Like Johnson, it’s a matter of time before he gets rolling, and he has shown to be an unbelievably pesky in match play.

Many of these young guys are confident and brash, something that American golf has missed outside of Woods while the European golfers corned the market on swagger.

Outside of those aforementioned players, amateurs playing this week in Augusta like Oklahoma State’s Peter Uihlein and Stanford’s David Chung have the potential to win tournaments as soon as they turn pro. So does Illinois’ Scott Langley and Macon’s Russell Henley when they leave college later this year.

The U.S. won the last Palmer Cup and the past three Walker Cups -- amateur golf’s version of the Walker Cup -- with many of these players leading the way.

The American college players are the wave of the future, but that other crop of Americans is primed to take over soon. That could happen as soon as this weekend.

Contact Jonathan Heeter at 744-4400 or jheeter@macon.com

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