As I watched Tiger Woods obliterate the front nine of Augusta National on Sunday at the Masters, I couldn’t help but slide closer and closer to the edge of my couch. It was as if Tiger’s expanding gravitational pull was sucking me in. When he made eagle on No. 8—getting him to five under on his round and squarely in the hunt—I literally fell off the couch.
No other golfer in the world has that effect on me (or anyone else, I suspect). You may not want to admit it, but I’ll bet you were sucked in too. We all were. On the 25th anniversary of Jack’s historic win at the 1986 Masters, we were about to see golf's next great comeback written in stunning fashion. It was fait accompli.
Only then, seemingly out of nowhere, it wasn’t.
Tiger cooled off. He made a bad bogey on No. 12. He didn’t birdie No. 13. He missed a gimme eagle on No. 15. And just like that, his run was over. The 2011 Masters was not the “Return of the King” that I had been expecting.
Few people talked about it, but Tiger would have vaulted all the way up to No. 1 in the world rankings had he won that day.
Now, once again, the jury is fiercely divided on what the future will hold for Mr. Woods. I think he still has great golf ahead of him, but I must concede that I am not so optimistic about his chances of once again reigning supreme over the golf world like a Greek god.
Some of that has to do with the state of his game, but more of it has to do with the young guns on the PGA Tour.
I don’t think there has ever been a time when the under-30 crowd was stronger on the PGA Tour than it is today. These guys don’t just hit it a mile and make birdies; they know how to win too.
And they are not afraid of Tiger one bit.
Let’s rank the young guys who may keep Tiger from getting back to No. 1 in the world.
PGA Tour wins: 1
Talk about potential.
Jhonattan Vegas burst onto the scene in 2011, his first full season on the PGA Tour, by winning his second start at the Bob Hope Classic. He hits the ball a mile and has an arsenal of shots that would make even Tiger (the 2011 version) blush.
His game has cooled off after his hot start, but there is no doubt that Vegas’ star is quickly rising. Going forward, an area of his game that needs attention is putting. He currently ranks 165th on the PGA Tour in putting average at 1.865 putts per GIR. All the great shots in the world won’t save him if he can’t convert birdie chances.
Putting woes have prevented many good players from becoming great, and Vegas will need to spend a lot of time on the putting green in order to take the next step. I almost kept him off this list because of it, but I just can’t deny that his ball-striking ability gives him an advantage over most of the field every time he tees it up.
I think he will tighten up his putting over the next couple of years, and when he does, look for his name to be a staple in the top 10 of the world rankings.
PGA Tour wins: 0
European Tour wins: 2
At the tender age of 18, Matteo Manassero already has the game of a 15-year veteran. Many Americans got their first glimpse of Manassero at this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, where he secured upset victories over Steve Stricker and Charl Schwartzel before falling to eventual champion Luke Donald in the third round.
It may have been our first look, but it surely won’t be our last. Manassero differs from most of the players on this list in that he isn’t a big hitter, averaging a quaint 273 yards off the tee. Instead, his strength lies in his superb shot-making ability.
He hits 70 percent of his fairways and 78 percent of his greens. Combine that with a 1.74 putting average, and that adds up to a lot of mistake-free golf.
Even better than his management of the game, however, is the way he carries himself under pressure. He won last week's European Tour stop in Malaysia, beating back Rory McIlroy in the process. I had the chance to watch much of that final round. He never blinked once.
At 18, that speaks volumes. You can’t coach someone into having ice in his veins come crunch time. Some have it, some don’t. Matteo Manassero has it in spades, and the world will soon come to know the young Italian’s name very well.
PGA Tour wins: 0
The 2010 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year has been the source of a lot of disagreement among those with whom I’ve discussed this list. Some of my former college golf teammates argue that Fowler is one win away from the flood gates opening. Others say that he will be a decent-but-unspectacular professional who never really lives up to the hype.
I think I come down somewhere in the middle.
Fowler is one of the PGA Tour’s best putters (1.709, third on the PGA Tour), but his driving accuracy (52 percent, 179th) and GIR (61.75 percent, 158th) leave much to be desired. That said, however, Fowler is a guy who just always seems to be on the first few pages of the leaderboard on Sundays.
He’s made it to No. 34 in workmanlike fashion, so expect more of the same as he continues to climb the world rankings. Breaking through with a win will do wonders for his confidence, and I fully expect that to happen this season.
I’ve been trying to think of something more profound to say in closing about Rickie, but all I can think of is: Please, on behalf of every golf fan I know, enough with the clothes already!
PGA Tour wins: 1
Jason Day seemed to take a giant step forward at this year’s Masters. He didn’t take home the green jacket, but he played Sunday with that look in his eye. He wasn’t going to fold. Someone was going to have to beat him.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the greatest trait a golfer can have. More than a game of skill, golf is a mental test like no other in sports. On Sunday at Augusta, Day passed that test (at least in my mind) with flying colors.
Looking at his stats. Nothing immediately pops out at you until you get down to his PGA Tour all-around ranking (14th). His game has few flaws. In going back over his stats, I found that while not in the top 10 in any major statistical category (his best is 12th in putting average at 1.732), he is among the top 30 in almost every category.
Jason Day is the very definition of a player waiting to break out, and after his strong finish at the Masters, he might have gotten himself over the hump. Day is a golfer who will rarely be outside the top 15 in world rankings in the next decade and will very likely be vying for the top spot in short order.
As an aside, I’d also like to give Day a big shout-out for having the hottest wife at this year’s Masters. Well played, sir.
PGA Tour wins: 1
If a computer program existed that allowed you to create the ideal golfer for the modern game, you’d be hard pressed to come up with someone better equipped than Gary Woodland.
Woodland possesses incredible length (300.9-yard driving average, seventh on the PGA Tour), great ball striking (70.5 percent GIR, 15th) and a smooth putting stroke (1.74 putts per GIR, 29th). Now those are some solid stats.
His swing must make guys like David Toms feel like dinosaurs. It’s an amazing combination of power, balance and perfect angles. Think Adam Scott plus about 30 yards.
Woodland might be my favorite player on this list, and I would be shocked if he was outside the top 25 in the world when this season ends. There is no doubt that he has all the tools needed to get to No. 1. All that’s required now is time and a lot of hard work.
PGA Tour wins: 3
When I set out to write this piece, I had to decide what I consider a “young gun.” I settled on only one requirement: that each player had to be less than 30 years old. That was a bit of good fortune for Nick Watney, because he will fit that description for just five more days.
Watney may not be a young gun very much longer, but his game will continue to make the world stand up and take notice for years to come. His win this year at the World Golf Championship-Cadillac Championship served as further evidence that Watney is ready to take the next step into stardom on the PGA Tour.
Watney is another superb putter (1.719, sixth) and leads the PGA Tour in all-around ranking. All that is keeping him from becoming a household name—and perhaps earning the No. 1 ranking—are a few more victories or a major championship.
Winning a major is a tall order for any player, but Watney’s swing is tailor made to hold up under the intense pressure that they bring. He is on my players-to-watch list for this year's U.S. Open at Congressional and should be on yours as well.
PGA Tour wins: 1
European Tour wins: 1
I doubt there is a golf fan in the world that didn’t feel terrible watching McIlroy blow up on Sunday after leading the Masters for three rounds. I know it broke my heart.
That’s why I was particularly interested to see how he would respond to such a shock. Sure enough, there he was at the top of the leaderboard at the European Tour stop in Malaysia the following week. Great, I thought, a win here will go a long way in helping him regain his confidence.
But then, again, he couldn’t finish. Needing a birdie on No. 18 to force a playoff with Matteo Manassero, he hit a poor tee shot and never gave himself a chance. Uh-oh.
On paper, McIlroy has it all. He bombs it off the tee (300.08-yard average on the European Tour), hits a ton of greens (79.6 percent) and is a solid putter (1.77). But there is a limit to what stats can tell you. Golf is still a game that requires total confidence, something Rory clearly doesn’t have right now.
Luckily, he is only 21 and has many years to regain it. He is simply too good to not win a major, and I have no doubt that he will put this year's Masters debacle behind him and have a great second half of the season in 2011.
At No. 7 in the world, he is already knock-knock knocking at Woods’ door. If McIlroy can successfully shake off his recent troubles, he is a player who will get to No. 1 in the world.
PGA Tour wins: 1
European Tour wins: 7
I must admit, I didn’t give Schwartzel much of a chance heading into Sunday at the Masters. I just figured that he would end up as an also-ran. Boy was I wrong.
All he did was weather an epic early run from Tiger Woods and birdie his last four holes to beat back late surges from Adam Scott and Jason Day. Wow.
That is a champion. And at 26, he might just be scratching the surface. A well-known player in Europe, most casual golf fans had no idea who the South African was until he was done putting on a performance reminiscent of Jack Nicklaus in 1986.
He seems content thus far to remain a full-time European Tour player, but don’t allow yourself to forget about him. His game is rock-solid from tee to green, and with another big year in Europe, he could be looking down from the top of the world rankings.
He is that good.
PGA Tour wins: 1
European Tour wins: 9
I know what you’re thinking. How can the current No. 1 player in the world not be first on a list of players most likely to keep Tiger from getting to No. 1?
It’s a perfectly valid question. The answer is simple: I just don’t believe that he is really the best in the world. The broader question this list is asking is who are the players that will be fighting off Tiger for the next 10 years? Kaymer is certainly among those players, but I don’t believe that he will be leading the charge.
He has undoubtedly the best résumé on this list: a major championship (2010 PGA Championship), nine European Tour wins and a second-place finish at this year's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
But did you see him at the Masters? Whoa. I know some courses don’t fit a player’s eye, but Kaymer folded faster than a cheap lawn chair. He looked like he couldn’t wait to sign his scorecard and get the hell out of Dodge on Friday.
I know this might be a controversial selection, but I just have to go with my heart here. You might notice a lack of statistics on Kaymer; this was intentional (I didn’t just get lazy). This is a gut-check call.
I look forward to someone trying to convince me that I’m wrong and that Kaymer is truly the best player in the world and heir to Tiger’s throne.
It won’t be easy.
PGA Tour wins: 4
Dustin Johnson is the future of golf.
I always like to imagine that when Johnson steps on the practice tee to warm up, golfers like Mike Weir, Scott Verplank and Jeff Maggert say a little prayer of thanks that they were born into the golfing era ahead of him—an era when shorter hitters could finesse their way into the winner’s circle.
That era is quickly coming to a close.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Short hitters who always find the fairway and make everything on the green will always have success in small doses on the PGA Tour. From week to week, anyone can get hot and ride that wave to victory. But the days of the best players in the world being a few (maybe more, ahem, Craig Stadler) pounds overweight and bunting the ball around the course are over.
In their place stand players like Johnson (as well as others on this list, like Gary Woodland and Jason Day), who are built like world-class athletes and routinely turn par fives into par fours.
Johnson has everything the modern game of golf requires: insane length off the tee (307.6-yard average, fourth on the PGA Tour), accurate iron play (69.8-percent GIR, 20th), solid touch on the green (1.756, 39th) and the ability to make a ton of birdies (4.68 per 18 holes, first).
He has proven that he can win playing against some of the strongest fields in golf (2009 and 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, 2010 BMW Championship), and all that remains unchecked on Johnson’s résumé are a major championship and the No. 1 world ranking.
Here is the golf world’s safest prediction: He will check both off before his career is finished. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson wins upwards of five major championships and holds the No. 1 ranking for months (if not years) at a time.
A new era in golf is unfolding, with Dustin Johnson at the forefront. If I were Tiger, I’d be hitting the range right about now.
For more of my thoughts on sports and life, follow me on Twitter @InspectorKrum.