Be it the inherent dangers of unrealistic expectations, the misguided failings of the American college system or the traditionally languid pace of player development from potential to bona fide player, the emergence of a true American prospect has been largely an exercise in diminishing returns in recent years.
Dustin Johnson has victories in his first seven years on the PGA Tour and a collection of major near-misses, but at 29 the bomber has moved beyond the “project” phase of his career and firmly into the circuit’s established core.
But thanks to Jordan Spieth’s historic zero-to-60 run into the big leagues and Peter Uihlein’s trailblazing season on the European Tour, not to mention Harris English’s second Tour tilt last week in Mexico, the landscape now includes a growing collection of accomplished American’s who are under 25.
Talent spotting is more art than science and the mini-tours are littered with can’t-miss kids who did, but with so much potential perched on the doorstep to stardom your scribe polled a collection of industry insiders to create a “top 5 under 25” list of American talent.
In no particular order (while most observers agreed on the primary candidates, building a consensus as to how they compare to each other is as byzantine as the Country Music Awards), here is a look at the U.S.A.’s best and brightest:
Spieth. His only misstep in 2013 was skipping the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, an understandable omission and proof no one is perfect.
The 20-year-old played his way onto the Tour with top-10 finishes in Puerto Rico and Tampa, went 1-for-2 in playoffs to win the John Deere Classic and finish runner-up at the Wyndham Championship and became the first player since Tiger Woods in 1997 to play his way into the Tour Championship.
“I have confidence in myself and my support team definitely believed in me to get the job done,” Spieth said in September. “Just the way the year ran the way it happened, I feel very fortunate, very blessed. A lot of luck involved.”
Uihlein. Although not nearly as well-documented in the United States as Spieth’s climb, the 24-year-old won the Madeira Island Open on the European Tour and was 14th on the final Race to Dubai list.
At 64th in the World Golf Ranking it’s likely U.S. audiences will see more of Uihlein in 2014 as he brings a surprisingly complete game back across the pond.
Rickie Fowler. Critics will point to the 24-year-old’s single Tour victory (2012 Wells Fargo Championship) as a reason to exclude him from this list, but such are the pitfalls of runaway expectations and early success.
At 40th in the world Fowler is the second-highest ranked player on this list, behind Spieth at No. 21, and despite his relatively lonely trophy case he’s proven himself surprisingly consistent over his short career.
He has the same number of career top-10 finishes as he does missed cuts (23) and earlier this month he finished runner-up to Adam Scott at the Australian PGA Championship to cap his season.
English. The 24-year-old won with the savvy of a veteran on Sunday at the OHL Classic, lapping the field by four strokes, and has quietly emerged as one of the Tour’s hidden gems.
In two-plus years on Tour he’s played 57 events, missed just 10 cuts and narrowly failed to advance to East Lake when he finished 31st on this year’s FedEx Cup points list.
“I guess it started when I was younger about being calm on the golf course. I used to get pretty mad when I was younger, and my mom used to get onto me how I need to stay calm and act like she doesn't know if I'm shooting 85 or 65,” English said on Sunday. “I've watched guys like Freddy Couples, Davis Love, Phil Mickelson, all these guys growing up, how they acted on the golf course.”
The final spot on our “top 5 under 25” list was not as clear as the first four.
“I’m lost for a fifth,” said one insider when polled. “(Russell) Henley is too slow, (Patrick) Cantlay too young, (Bud) Cauley too short, (Jamie) Lovemark too hurt.”
John Peterson. Although there were plenty of candidates for the final spot, the 24-year-old ultimately separated himself with a torrid finish to his 2013 campaign on the Web.com Tour.
In his last five events, Peterson didn’t finish outside the top 5 and was runner-up at the finale at TPC Sawgrass to wrest the Finals Series money title from Seung-Yul Noh and secure full status for the 2013-14 Tour season. Peterson has a refreshingly complete game, finishing 2013 first in greens in regulation, scoring, ballstriking and 39th in ballstriking on the secondary tour.
As is normally the case, someone will consider their absence from this list a slight, which demands an honorable mention section. Tour rookie Hudson Swafford highlights that list, followed by Cauley, Cantlay, Brooks Koepka, Luke Guthrie, Morgan Hoffman, Andrew Loupe and Andrew Putnam.
Of course, the fact that America finally has a collection of young talent with enough tools to be considered potential stars is a testament to golf in the Lower 48, which has curiously been criticized in recent decades for not producing the “next Tiger Woods.”
As unrealistic as that title is, only time will tell if any of the post-1988 crew climb that high, but it’s nice to be able to have the conversation.