PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – You can root for Rory McIlroy, the precocious, big-hitting major champion who currently stands at No. 1 on golf’s world ranking. You can root for Rickie Fowler, the self-taught, brightly dressed trendsetter who claimed his first career PGA Tour win at Quail Hollow last weekend.
Or here’s a novel concept: You can root for both.
Over the first baker’s dozen years of Tiger Woods’ professional career, his prominence dominated the game’s landscape. During the past few seasons, parity has reigned supreme, with no player collecting more than two victories in 2011 and only one with multiple titles so far this year.
Missing from this transitioning of eras is a true rivalry within the game, one which many observers believe could be forged between the ultra-talented 23-year-olds who squared off as part of the Wells Fargo Championship playoff.
Unlike most rivalries – Republican vs. Democrat; Yankees vs. Red Sox; Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote – neither side needs to be chosen over the other, because the end goal is the rivalry itself.
It’s something which has been lacking amongst the highest ranks of elite professional golf for nearly two decades. Oh, sure. Maybe Woods and Phil Mickelson could have been considered a rivalry – or, for different spells, Woods and David Duval or Ernie Els or Vijay Singh – but there hasn’t been a real me-against-you, mano-a-mano, head-to-head rivalry since the days of persimmon woods and balata balls.
McIlroy and Fowler may provide the latest, greatest opportunity for a rivalry within the game, but they hardly offer a slam-dunk, no-doubt-about-it lock for the future. The current field depths have produced more parity than ever, with a bevy of young, talented players all vying for prime position amongst the game’s best.
“There's a lot of really good young players right now, and to count any one of them out of a rivalry would be somewhat unfair to them,” Fowler said Tuesday in advance of The Players Championship. “The game is in a really good state right now with the amount of good, young players that have come out lately, and the guys that are between the ages of 20 and 30 – if I wanted to or had a list, I could go down and name off 10 to 20 guys between Rory and I to Keegan [Bradley] to Dustin [Johnson] to a guy like Jason Day.”
And therein lies a major Catch-22. The game is cultivating so many young stars (a positive result) that it’s nearly impossible to cultivate specific rivalries (a negative result).
Even so, there’s more than a steady groundswell of support for McIlroy and Fowler to break away from the crowd and produce a two-man competitive balance that harkens back to those of previous generations.
“It would be nice if a few people separated themselves from the rest,” McIlroy opined. “Hopefully I will be in that group at one stage. I just think it shows how good the guys are now. But it's the finest of margins – that's what it takes to win out here.”
His friend and fellow competitor mirrors that assessment.
“I definitely think it is good for the game right now with the amount of guys that are bouncing back and forth and the amount of guys that are winning,” Fowler added. “I don't think there's one person in particular that's dominating. Obviously between Luke [Donald] and Rory, they've been playing very well over the last year.
“You're seeing a lot of guys winning, and the kind of fluctuation in rankings. But I definitely think it is beneficial for the game, for guys like Tiger, Phil, Rory, Luke to be playing at their best; and whether that creates a three-, four- or five-person rivalry at the top, or if it comes back to one person dominating, I'm not opposed to either situation.”
With a half-dozen professional victories and a dominant triumph at last year’s U.S. Open, McIlroy still maintains a large advantage over Fowler – or any other would-be rival from the young 20-something set.
That doesn’t mean we can’t root for those rivalries to develop, to be forged on the grandest stages this season and next season and for years to come.
If you don’t want to see it happen, well, there’s at least one main character in this ongoing tale who disagrees with that notion.
“For me,” McIlroy said, “if I was a golf fan, I'd like to see a rivalry.”
He’s not alone. Now we just have to hope it happens.