Here’s one that will tie your brain in knots:
Best American golfer. Right now. Not ever. Not in perpetuity. Not best swing or best personality or most entertaining.
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Not one with the most potential down the road.
Best at this point in time.
Right now, they’re fifth and sixth in the world rankings and sinking. Every week, it seems, another European leapfrogs one or both. And the big news is Phil has narrowed the gap to .10 of a point in the rankings.
Wasn’t that long ago we longed to see that. Only at the top of the rankings. Not slip-sliding down the ladder.
They’re still America’s superstars. The game’s superstars, for that matter. They step onto the property — let alone the course — and they’re news. They enter a field, it’s pure gold. They’re in contention, they drive broadcast numbers.
They win? Oh, that’s been a while, hasn’t it?
With Tiger battling yet another swing change and trying to put past life issues behind him and Phil continuing to adjust to his psoriatic arthritis and the family’s battles with breast cancer, they’re no longer — or at least right now — America’s go-to guys.
Will they be back? Absolutely. Don’t ever doubt that. When they’re at their best, they ARE the top two players in the world. They’ll win more majors, lead more Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. They’re locks for the Hall of Fame.
But right now? What we’d give to see Tiger focus on playing one of those mind-boggling shots instead of his latest swing plane. You dance with what brung you, to borrow a phrase from Darrell Royal, and, in Tiger’s case, that’s a powerful, seriously close to natural swing and an imagination and belief beyond compare. And Phil? He’s fearless and his short game is beyond compare. Hitting fairways? Pfft. Close is good enough for him. Heck, we saw what he could do off pine straw.
Tweaking is part of the game. But wholesale changes too often? Look at Padraig Harrington, the king of tinkering. He made 14 changes in the off-season and they’re just starting to take hold. When he’s on, he’s at the top — think three majors. Right now, he’s 36th in the rankings.
Get back to those things and, well, they’ll be battling back up the ladder.
But until then? Well, America is in a bit of a kerfuffle. Every where you turn, you see talent. And a but …
• Bubba Watson may have the best attitude and natural swing of the bunch — and a win at the Farmers Insurance Open — but he needs to pick up the pace. He’s outgoing, he’s fun. And he’s moving up the rankings.
• Rickie Fowler — you have to follow Bubba with his BFF — has one of the best swings and best games out there. He’s a bonafide superstar who’s comfy-cozy in the spotlight and delivers under match play pressure. The but? He hasn’t won … Yet. It’s coming.
• Dustin Johnson. So long off the tee. So close to two majors. He’s the aloof one. Isn’t really at ease with the attention that comes with being at the top. He needs to take a page from, say, Brit Luke Donald who’s quiet, but can chirp away with the best when the time comes (like right now, coming off his win at the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play). And there’s that rules thing.
• Matt Kuchar. It’s been a longer-than-anyone-thought rise, but he’s risen to 10th in the world. He is a former champion at this week’s Honda, and he did beat Watson in the consolation finals of the Match Play and he’s solid. Piled up three other top-10s this year, but just three wins in his career. But hard to say he’s the best.
• Anthony Kim. He’s got the game and the confidence and a pretty decent start to the year. He was pretty amazing before wrist surgery last year — a playoff win at the Shell Houston Open, a third at the Masters and a second at Honda — but he’s struggled a bit coming back.
• Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk. Strick’s ninth in the world, Furyk’s 11th. Two veteran leaders with all-around strong games. Must-haves on every U.S. team. Both won twice last year, with Furyk winning the FedEx Cup. Strick started the season with two top-10s, Furyk with one. The Florida swing/run-up to Augusta will tell us a lot.
• Hunter Mahan. The newlywed with a strong game. Not afraid of competition or showing emotion. But needs more wins.
And then there are guys like Mark Wilson, the only two-time winner out there. He’s on the way up, which just makes the American outlook stronger. And Zach Johnson and Stewart Cink? You want them on your side, right?
We wanted a global game and we have it. Four Europeans in the top four spots in the world. A group of international stars like Donald, Jhonattan Vegas, Paul Casey, Camilo Villegas, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell who spend part — if not all — of the time living in the U.S. Sometimes you almost think of them as U.S. guys. Almost.
The bottom line? It’s hard to pick the best American right now. If we really, really, really had to? We’d go with Phil, who was runner-up Bubba in San Diego and got a top-10 at the AT&T.
But honestly, let’s give it a month, say five weeks to untangle those knots. For Tiger and Phil to straighten a few things out or for someone to step up.
Heading into Augusta we figure the answer has to simpler. Doesn’t it?
Melanie Hauser is a columnist for PGATOUR.COM and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR. Follow her on Twitter @melaniehauser.