BY THE MIDNIGHT MAN
When the United States lost to Team Europe in the 2010 Ryder Cup, golf analysts simultaneously proclaimed the end of American dominance in golf and the rise of the European player. And for most of the 2011 season, this prediction rang true. Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke (both from Northern Ireland) won the U.S. and British Opens, respectively. Martin Kaymer (Germany) and Lee Westwood (England) each rose to be the No. 1 player in the world. Luke Donald (England), in addition to ending the season ranked as the No. 1 player in the world, won the PGA Tour Player of the Year award and finished atop the tour’s money list. Despite the rise of a number of young American golfers throughout the season, European players had effectively taken over the sport and seemed poised to strengthen their grip this year.
But after the first two months of the 2012 season, it’s become apparent that any declarations that U.S. golf is dead were premature. Though McIlroy is clearly playing the best golf on tour and Justin Rose (South Africa/England) captured this past week’s World Golf Championship event at Doral, American golf is back and may be headed for a potential revival that could last for decades. With 12 PGA Tour-sanctioned events completed, American players have captured 10 victories, providing proof that an American golf revival is currently underway. Led by the “Lefty” that needs no description, expect a big season from American players, culminating in what promises to be a heated Ryder Cup this fall at the Medinah Country Club in Illinois.
Here are nine other American players to watch for during the 2012 season:
Bill Haas – The son of former PGA player Jay Haas, Bill rose to stardom during the 2011 season, winning at the season-ending Tour Championship as well as capturing the 2011 FedEx Cup Championship and the $10 million prize that accompanies it. Haas has already been victorious this season, winning the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in a playoff over Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley. With his big game and steady demeanor, look for Haas to win at least one more time and to contend in all four majors this year.
Hunter Mahan – A four-time winner on the PGA Tour, Mahan has started the 2012 season strong, defeating McIlroy in the final of the World Golf Championship – Accenture Match Play Championship. Known for his strong iron play and solid putting stroke, 2012 promises to be a big year for the 10th-ranked player in the world. Watch for Mahan to compete well all year, especially at the U.S. Open at San Francisco’s beautiful Olympic Club.
Keegan Bradley – A St. John’s University product and nephew of LPGA legend Pat Bradley, Keegan took the PGA Tour by storm as a rookie, claiming Rookie of the Year honors after winning at the Byron Nelson Championship and the PGA Championship last year. Since the start of the 2012 season, he has been a fixture on the Sunday leader board, finishing in a T-2 at the Northern Trust Open and T-8 at this past week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship. With a big game and steady putter, Bradley likely will contend at all four majors this year and add a few more victories to his resume.
Webb Simpson – Perhaps the hottest player on tour last season, Simpson hopes to continue his strong play this year after rising to sixth in the world. Seemingly in contention every week in 2011, Simpson finished the season with victories at the Wyndham Championship and the Deutsche Bank Championship, leading him to second place finish on the 2011 money list. While he has started 2012 slowly, expect the clutch Simpson to add at least two more titles to his career total and enter the discussion as America’s top golfer by season’s end.
Johnson Wagner – A relative unknown to those outside the golf world, Wagner is probably more famous for his 70’s porn star mustache than his actual game. However, with a victory at this season’s first full field event, the Sony Open, Wagner has started his 2012 golf campaign well. Look for this Texan to compete well throughout the year and enter into the Top 50 worldwide by the summer.
Steve Stricker – The veteran from Madison, Wisconsin, Stricker is known as being one of the best putters in the world, if not the best. A twelve-time winner on the PGA Tour, Stricker is the highest ranked American player at fifth in the world. Always solid tee to green, Stricker has already won once this year at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Watch for Stricker to finally capture a major this year, with his best shot coming at this year’s PGA Championship played at Kiawah Island’s majestic Ocean Course.
Bubba Watson – Perhaps golf’s longest hitter (he uses a PINK DRIVER!), Watson may be the PGA Tour’s most eccentric golfer. A firm believer in his own ability, Watson – unlike many of his fellow professionals – does not employ a coach of any sort, choosing instead to coach himself. Though unique, this strategy seems to work well: Watson has won three times on tour, including twice in 2011 (at the Farmers Insurance Open and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans). He’s also started 2012 strong, as witnessed by his second place finish in this past week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship. He’ll likely hoist his fair share of trophies this year, but his unpredictability makes a major victory difficult to envision.
Rickie Fowler – Long believed to be America’s answer to Europe’s McIlroy, crowd favorite Fowler has yet to take the leap from good to great. Blessed with a powerful swing and smooth short game, the debatably well-dressed Fowler (who wears an all orange outfit on Sundays) hopes to make 2012 his official coming-out party. After claiming his first professional win in October’s Kolon Korea Open, the 23-year-old seems ready to assume the throne of best young golfer in America.
Tiger Woods – There isn’t much to say about the world’s most famous golfer. The only question as the 2012 heats up is whether Tiger will add to his 14 majors and be one step closer to breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors. Until his withdrawal for Achilles tightness during Sunday’s WGC-Cadillac Championship, Tiger had been playing well, even finishing second (to McIlroy) at the Honda Classic. If the injury is minor, expect Tiger to re-enter the winner’s circle at least twice this year. However, if the injury lingers, the much anticipated “return” of Tiger may have to wait one more season.
*Notable Omissions – Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Nick Watney, Zack Johnson and Brandt Snedeker.