Pittsford — The story has been the same for nearly two decades.
Tiger Woods burst on the scene in 1996, and since that time, he and Phil Mickelson have been the standard-bearers for American professional golf.
They have the massive endorsement deals. They drive TV ratings. They are on a first-name basis in the country’s sporting landscape.
They are, also, at least starting the back nine of their careers, which begs the question: Who’s the next great American player?
“Tiger and Phil have been the guys to beat since I started watching golf when I was 11,” said 24-year-old Russell Henley. “Every time you turned on the TV, there they were. I’ve learned so much just from listening to them talk about the game and observing how they practice and prepare. … It seems like everyone is waiting for the next guy to step up.”
Judging by this season, the top two won’t be stepping aside for a while. Woods has five wins, Mickelson three (one on the European Tour).
“I’ve played with both of them and hung out with both of them, and they are just so different in every way,” said Hunter Mahan, one of the players hoping to take his place alongside them. “I don’t know of a common thing other than they love to compete when they play golf. How they go about it is so different, but they both get it done. … Every tournament, they are a threat to win. It’s pretty impressive to see that their longevity is continuing.”
Woods and Mickelson hold the first and second spots, respectively, in the Official World Golf Ranking. There are three more American players inside the top 10 – Matt Kuchar at No. 6, Brandt Snedeker at No. 7 and Keegan Bradley at No. 10.
A comparison of resumes shows how wide the divide is between the top two and the rest of the field. The 37-year-old Woods owns 79 career PGA Tour wins after Sunday’s dominance in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, with 14 major victories. Mickelson has 42 Tour wins at age 43 and five majors, the last of which came just last month in the Open Championship.
Kuchar, 35, has just six Tour victories, and has yet to win a major. The same is true of Snedeker, who at 32 also has six Tour wins. They get their next chance starting Thursday, when they tee it up in the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in suburban Rochester.
The missing piece
Snedeker knows perhaps better than anyone how difficult it can be to break through in the Woods-Mickelson era. In late January and early February, he finished second in consecutive weeks, to Woods at the Farmers Insurance Open, and then to Mickelson at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. The following week, he claimed victory in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, making him the hottest golfer on Tour early in the year.
Asked what he wanted to be known as after that win, Snedeker said: “I would love to be known as the best American golfer. I’ve got a long way to go do that, but this is a great start to the year. I couldn’t have scripted much of a better one, except for maybe winning the last two weeks if the guys hadn’t played. Playing great but running into two Hall of Famers really motivated me. This is what I’m capable of, so I’m looking forward to putting more on display the rest of the year.”
Despite a rib injury that sidelined him for three weeks after Pebble Beach, Snedeker has had a year to remember. He added another win two weeks ago in the RBC Canadian Open, and hasn’t finished worse than 17th in any of the season’s first three majors.
Kuchar also has won twice, at the Memorial Tournament and the prestigious WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Having a multiple-win season on Tour was one of his main goals coming into this year. The other should be obvious.
“I’d love it if I could show up and play good enough golf to win a major,” he said. “It’s something that’s up there, No. 1 on the list. I want to do it and feel like I’m ready to do it. For me, the majors certainly are more special and mean more. I try to treat it as another golf tournament, another golf shot, but I know it’s difficult.”
A major championship is exactly how Snedeker and Kuchar need to “step up,” as Henley says, to solidify themselves as the third-best American player behind Woods and Mickelson. There is, after all, plenty of competition for that spot.
How tightly bunched are the American players in search of their first career major? Mahan is 25th in the Official World Golf Ranking, one spot behind 31-year-old Bill Haas, who in turn is one spot behind 29-year-old Dustin Johnson.
“There’s just so much young talent,” Woods said. “We have a lot of good players coming up.”
For years, Johnson has tantalized with his scary length off the tee. When both Woods and Mickelson were asked whom they thought could follow in their footsteps as the face of American golf, both mentioned Johnson.
“I think we have already seen some great performances out of Dustin Johnson. He’s got the ability to overpower golf courses with his strength,” Mickelson said.
But despite playing in the final group in a major three times in his career, Johnson hasn’t found a way to break through. While he, Mahan, Kuchar and Snedeker are searching for their first career major, another group of young American players are seeking their second.
Bradley (2011 PGA), Bubba Watson (2012 Masters) and Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open) are all ranked in the top 22 in the world, and could rapidly ascend with a win this week.
“We have a number of players that can really create a lot of interest in this final major championship,” Mickelson said.
“I think it’s somewhat a resurgence of some young players. They all look like really quality players that hit the ball well, they putt the ball well, they fade the course well,” said ESPN golf analyst Curtis Strange, who won his second of back-to-back U.S. Open titles at Oak Hill in 1989. “Now, when you get anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen players like this, what separates yourself? That’s what I find fascinating. What separates one player from the rest? What separates Tiger Woods from the rest? It could be any number of things. But something will separate one of these guys in the future.”
Fellow ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said identifying that intangible is a mystery.
“The players are trying to figure out what makes one guy able to pull it off and another guy not able to pull it off,” he said. “One guy can get on Tour, and another guy can’t; one guy can win on Tour and another guy can’t; one guy can win a major and another guy can’t.
“If you can identify the intangible, that’s when you can sell that; bottle it up and sell it. But that’s why we watch sports.”
Mahan is knocking loudest on the major door. The 31-year-old Texan has played in the final group in the last two majors, but faded by shooting 75 in both the U.S. Open and the Open Championship.
“It’s important. It’s different than another event. It’s not different from playing golf. You have to go out there and do it,” he said. “But putting yourself out there and how you respond is important. Dealing with adrenaline and excitement, it’s good to be there because every time you get back there again, you feel a little bit more calm. You know it’s still golf. And it’s still about hitting good shots.”
If karma will play any role this week, Mahan should have that on his side. He left the last tournament he was in, the RBC Canadian two weeks ago, after the second round – with the lead – to return home for the birth of his daughter, Zoe Olivia.
A willing leader
Mahan played the final round of the U.S. Open with Mickelson.
“He’s a great leader, and being in golf you don’t hear that word very often as a leader,” Mahan said. “He takes his time out to talk to the young guys. He did it with myself at the Presidents Cup. He really relishes that role and enjoys it. He’s a great guy to admire. He plays golf the right way, the right way you want your kids to play, and that’s by having fun and acting right on the golf course.”
Mickelson has a tendency to play his practice rounds with younger players. He’s famously played high-stakes rounds with the likes of Johnson, Bradley and Jason Dufner.
Tuesday was no different, as he played with 24-year-old Rickie Fowler and a pair of 23-year-olds in Peter Uihlein and Brooks Koepka, who are taking a road less traveled as Americans in professional golf.
Both Uihlein and Koepka play on the Challenge Tour, the European Tour’s equivalent to the Web.com Tour here. Koepka has won three times on the Challenge Tour this season, while Uihlein won the European Tour’s Madeira Islands Open in Portugal in May.
Might they make a run at the unofficial title of third-best American? Mickelson’s not ruling it out.
“I think it’s that type of mentality of winning and not being happy with a top 10, but taking on that extra risk, trying to create those shot to make birdies to win. I think those are some players that you’ll see in the coming years, because at their early age, when they are just turning pro, they are learning how to win and play aggressively and confidently. I think there’s no substitute for that.”
Mickelson’s reasoning for taking young players under his wing is two-fold.
“One, I feel an obligation to help young players the way players ahead of me helped me and gave me the opportunity to play the PGA Tour and gave me knowledge on how to handle certain situations,” he said. “But a lot of it is selfish, too, because I get a lot out of playing with these young guys. I see how they are and it motivates me. I see how they look at the Tour with such appreciation for all the amenities that we have and the quality of life and the ability to do what we do.”
Those practice rounds, Mickelson says, give him a youthful energy and make him appreciate what he’s been doing for the past 20 years.
“I see it through younger people’s eyes, and it makes me continue to appreciate what I have,” he said.
The young guns
Young American players like Henley – who won his first professional start on the PGA tour in January at the Sony Open in Hawaii – and 26-year-old Billy Horschel also have promising futures. Horschel collected his first Tour win earlier this season in New Orleans, and has moved up to 38th in the world rankings and sixth on the Tour money list with more than $3 million earned.
He also doesn’t lack for confidence, as his octopus pants during the final round of the U.S. Open showed.
Another young gun is 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who was just 19 last month when he won his first PGA Tour event, the John Deere Classic. He was the first teenager to win on Tour in 82 years and was younger than Mickelson, Woods or Rory McIlory were when they claimed their first Tour victories as 20-year-olds.
“I don’t think of my age as my age. I just think of playing and competing with these guys as my peers,” Spieth said. “The guys in this event, each week, week to week, I don’t think of myself as younger than them.”
Spieth started the year with no professional status, but has rocketed to 53rd in the world. Holding the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday would send him even higher.
“I have confidence in myself,” he said. “The generation that I’m in is extremely talented. Those that are still in school, my peers that are my age that will be out here really soon, you guys will see, will make a pretty easy transition on the PGA Tour.
“The game is getting younger and the game is getting better. It has to do with Tiger and Phil largely, inspiring everybody and bringing a lot more youth into the game of golf.”