American trio emerge from Tiger Woods’ shadow to challenge Rory McIlroy

There was a commonly held theory last year relating to Rickie Fowler’s arrival as the man best placed to challenge Rory McIlroy.

The fact this represented something of a cross-Atlantic battle merely added to the accepted, exciting narrative. There is, however, one difference between them. It is a crucial one, relating to the ability to turn promise and consistency into tangible reward at the top level. Statistics highlight a Rory and Rickie rivalry as a false one. McIlroy has won 16 times as a professional, including four major championships. Fowler has two professional successes to his name, one on the PGA Tour – and that arrived almost three years ago.

If this appears a harsh critique, it points towards the one motivation Fowler should have this year and starting on such a prominent platform as the Masters from Thursday week. Every other aspect of his game has improved since work begin with the renowned coach Butch Harmon and Fowler has battled fiercely with McIlroy on the big stage. Last year, remarkably, Fowler’s worst position in a major – the Masters – was a tie for fifth.

Even a snapshot glimpse of the crowds following the extrovert, instantly likeable Fowler during the recent Bay Hill Invitational showed he has succeeded in capturing the hearts and minds of the United States spectators. Whisper it, but almost in a way Tiger Woods once did. As Fowler well knows, substance has to override style at some point.

The danger to Fowler is the appearance of two countrymen, let alone McIlroy, on cue to upstage him. Jordan Spieth’s playoff victory at the Valspar Championship this month endorsed his status as, at 21, the coming man. Patrick Reed, one of the players Spieth swatted aside in that sudden-death format, has three PGA Tour titles and a World Golf Championship to his name. Reed, like Spieth, has tasted victory this season.

Spieth may head to Augusta of a mind to right a wrong. He was tied with the 54-hole leader, Bubba Watson, after three rounds of last year’s Masters. As the left-hander kicked on to claim a second Green Jacket in three outings, Spieth found himself unable to keep pace. A tie for second and $792,000 was certainly not a disastrous return on his Masters debut and he hardly collapsed but there is an in-built determination in this Texan which automatically points towards a desire to go one better.

“I feel better going in to the Masters than I did last year,” Spieth said. “Last year at this point I’d actually had a really good season. I had a couple of chances to close tournaments out early in the year, and even a World Golf Championship because I was playing really well at the match play, and didn’t quite get there. But this year I feel a little better having closed that tournament out.

“I also missed the cut in Houston last year, so I went in with some questions, I guess, right off of an early finish. My swing feels better and my putting stroke is getting there. So all‑in‑all, I’m very confident about where I’m at going in.”

In the aftermath of that fourth round, Spieth – already a grown adult masked by boyish looks – matured once more. He had received criticism over his on-course conduct, which had markedly improved before the end of the year. There was also Spieth’s stunning triumph at the Australian Open in late November. McIlroy admitted that, even given 100 attempts, he would not have matched Spieth’s closing round of 63 in Melbourne.

Make no mistake, four months on Spieth has McIlroy in his sights. And more. “I’d like to at some point be the No1 ranked player in the world,” Spieth said in San Antonio, where he is competing in the Texas Valero Open. “I’d like to win at least one major championship and I will try to get one before we look forward from there. But ultimately I’d like to be one of the best players to ever play the game. I don’t think that’s a conceited statement, it’s just something that I’ve always wanted to be since I was a kid and I’m really lucky that I do have a chance to do it.”

Discussion around Reed recently has been overshadowed by allegations about his conduct when playing at college, allegations he denies. This is unfortunate: situations such as these trigger scepticism as to how precisely a player was afforded a pathway into the professional game. It also has to be recognised that Reed has proven himself perfectly able to compete with the best players. What has to improve, far more markedly than Fowler, is his performance in majors.

“Any time you go up and play against the top player in the world, you’d better be comfortable,” said Reed of McIlroy. “You don’t really have to be comfortable playing with him in general as in just being comfortable playing your own game. If I feel comfortable playing my own game and I feel like I’m playing well, then everything will all sort out.”

Between this trio, American golf is in the midst of emerging from Tiger’s long shadow. It also, even if just through strength in numbers, provides a very live threat to McIlroy at Augusta National.

Powered by article was written by Ewan Murray, for The Observer on Saturday 28th March 2015 22.00 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010