PONTE VEDRA BEACH - Barely a month after the year’s opening major was billed as a two-horse race between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, there is now the prospect of a very different rivalry at the top of international golf.
Rickie Fowler captured his first PGA Tour victory with a win at the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday at Quail Hollow where he beat McIlroy - who reclaimed the world number one ranking this week - and D.A. Points in a playoff to finally confirm his status as the bright young hope of American golf.
Fowler and Northern Ireland’s McIlroy, who compete this week at the Players Championship, are both 23 years old and appeal to a younger demographic that the PGA Tour has been keen to capture to broaden its base of support.
While the decline of Woods, who tied for 40th at last month’s Masters, has allowed for a wide range of winners on the tour in recent years, McIlroy believes an elite group battling it out regularly against each other would appeal to fans.
“As a fan growing up watching golf, I loved that Tiger was dominant and I loved that there might be Phil Mickelson who would come and challenge him for a while and then Ernie Els and then Vijay Singh and then David Duval,” McIlroy told reporters on Tuesday.
“I sort of liked that as a story line. So it would be nice if a few people separated themselves from the rest ... I think for me if I was a golf fan, I’d like to see a rivalry.”
Whether Fowler is part of any rivalry depends on whether he can find the consistency that has allowed McIlroy and Englishman Luke Donald to duel atop the world rankings but it is clear that he would be a welcome figure among the new elite.
McIlroy’s disappointment on Sunday at missing out on a second PGA Tour win this year was tempered slightly by losing out to someone he has known and liked since their teens.
“We’ve known each other since playing some amateur golf together. I developed a really good relationship with him at the Walker Cup in 2007. I felt like he was the best player on that team at the time, and he was also the nicest guy,” said McIlroy.
“So I got on with him really well then and met his family and stuff. It took him an extra couple of years to turn pro. I didn’t really have much contact with him for those couple years, but since then, since he’s been out on tour, I feel like it’s been a good relationship.
“I always thought it was just a matter of time before he won ... He’s a great player, and it’s good to see that he’s broken through.”
McIlroy, however, has too much respect for Woods to join in any talk of a ‘post-Tiger’ era.
Woods, 36, was the Northern Irishman’s boyhood hero and McIlroy said meeting him as a 15 year old was more nerve-wrecking than being introduced to President Barack Obama at the White House as the 2011 U.S. Open champion.
The 14-times major winner struggled at the Masters and missed the cut at Quail Hollow but McIlroy, noting Woods’s win at Bay Hill in March, believes there is plenty more to come from the man who once dominated the sport.
“I still expect Tiger to come back and do some great things. I mean, he’s won this year, so he’s definitely on the right track,” said McIlroy.
“But I think it was great for the game of golf that Rickie won. It’s great to have characters like that that are playing well, and he engages with the fans really well, and he’s a really popular player out here.”
THIS WEEK IN GOLF
PGA TOUR: THE PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP
COURSE: TPC Sawgrass, Players Stadium Course (7,215 yards, par 72).
TELEVISION: Golf Channel (Thursday-Friday, 1-7 p.m., 9 p.m.-midnight) and NBC (Saturday-Sunday, 2-7 p.m.).
OH CANADA: Graham DeLaet, David Hearn
NOTES: Tiger Woods, the 2001 winner, has struggled after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational for his first PGA Tour title since September 2009. He tied for 40th in the Masters - his worst performance as a pro at Augusta National - and missed the cut last week in North Carolina. Woods has posted just one top-10 at the Players since 2001 - a solo eighth in 2009. He has withdrawn in each of the past two years. ... Phil Mickelson, the 2007 champion, won at Pebble Beach in February for his 40th PGA Tour title. ... Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood are in the field after skipping the event last year. Westwood was the 54-hole leader in 2010 before tying for fourth. ...Steve Stricker enters the Players Championship with longest cut streak on the PGA Tour at 49. No player has reached 50 since Tiger Woods' streak of 142 in a row ended in 2005. Stricker has the most victories on tour since the start of the 2010 season with five. ... Masters champion Bubba Watson is skipping the tournament to spend time with wife Angie and their adopted infant son. ... Jack Nicklaus is the only three-time champion, winning in 1974 at Atlanta Country Club, 1976 at Inverrary and 1978 at Sawgrass Country Club.
EUROPEAN TOUR/EUROPEAN CHALLENGE TOUR: MADEIRA ISLANDS OPEN
COURSE: Santo da Serra Golf Club (6,825 yards, par 72).
OH CANADA: Andrew Parr
NOTES: Parr will be making his fourth European Tour start of the year. He has made two of three cuts including a sixth place result at the Sicilian Open and a 13th place finish on Johannesburg. He's also played in two Challenge Tour events, missing the cut in one while finishing 54th in another. ...This event is considered the equivalent of a golf major thanks to its €675,000 purse and the fact that a victory would give the champion exemption on The European Tour until the end of 2013. ... Ireland's Des Smyth won in 2001 at 48 years, 34 days to become the oldest winner in European Tour history.
EUROPEAN SENIOR TOUR: MALLORCA OPEN SENIOR
COURSE: Pula Golf Club (6,169 yards, par 71)
OH CANADA: Rick Gibson, Dave Wettlaufer (Ken Tarling, Alternate)
NOTES: Opening event of the 2012 European Senior Tour. ...Peter Fowler looks to become the first player since 2006 to successfully defend the John Jacobs Trophy
CANADIAN TOUR: Qualifying School
COURSE: The Country Club at Soboba Springs (7,204 Yards and par 72) and Oak Valley Golf Club (7,100 Yards par 72)
OH CANADA: 38 Canadians are in the field, among the notables, Mitch Evanecz (two-time winner of the prestigious Glencoe Invitational), Wilson Bateman (2011 CN Future Links Pacific and Ontario Champion; 2011 Alberta Junior Boys Champion); Mitchell Fox (2005 Canadian Junior Champion and Canadian Tour member in 2008 & 2009); Tyler Mancini (2009 Manitoba Match Play Champion and Mid-Amateur Champion)
NOTES: 150 players will tee it up this week with the top 60 players earning Canadian Tour status for 2012 season. ...Notables in the field include Angel Cabrera II, the son of 2007 US Open and 2009 Masters champion Angel Cabrera; Chan Song, a three-time All-American at Georgia Tech whose sisters are LPGA Tour players Aree and Naree Song; Kota Kagasaki, 15-year-old Australian who is the youngest player in the field. Lost by one stroke to Tiger Woods in a 2009 nine-hole exhibition match as a 13-year old;
SUNCOAST LADIES SERIES: Grande Pines Resort
OH CANADA: Victoria Thompson, Nicole Forshner, Christina Foster