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Posted March 13, 2015, 12:58 am
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Michaux: Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson are top American golfers now

Before we all become inflicted with that madness of March that fills the last remaining month until the Masters Tournament, here are a few takeaways gleaned from the recent fortnight spent covering the PGA Tour down in sunny South Florida.

1. There are two kings of the hill in American golf, and their names aren’t Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson are head and shoulders the two best American golfers in the world, and that’s not just a reflection of their world ranking of No. 2 and 7, respectively. In terms of power and athleticism, they are the model of the modern golfer even if they might not have the golf sense of their predecessors Woods and Mickelson or potential successors like Jordan Spieth or Brooks Koepka.

Johnson came back from a six-month leave where he “worked on my game and worked on me” and might just be in position to finally fulfill the massive potential his talent has long promised. A victory at Doral, playoff loss at Riviera and T4 at his personal playground Pebble Beach forecasts a massive season.

Watson, meanwhile, keeps becoming more consistently good with his uninhibited swing. He hasn’t finished worse than 30th in 12 starts – with five top-10s including a World Golf Championship win in China – since his PGA Championship tantrum. He’ll be a significant threat to become the fourth repeat winner at Augusta National Golf Club.

2. Golf is undergoing another youth revolution. The undisputed No. 1 player in the world, Rory McIlroy, is only 25. His oldest peer rivals are Rickie Fowler (26) and Jason Day (27). His pending top-20 challengers are Spieth (21), Hideki Matsuyama (23), Patrick Reed (24) and Koepka (24). On the top 100 horizon are rookies Justin Thomas (21) and Daniel Berger (21) in addition to established talents like Russell Henley (25) and Harris English (25).

This is the generation of fearless golfers that Woods inspired. Get used to them, because over the next decade many of them are likely to inscribe their names on major trophies.

3. Mickelson might be past his prime as a golfer, but he has overtaken Woods as the most influential player in golf.

It was Mickelson who prompted the overhaul of the American Ryder Cup program with his vocal criticism in the aftermath of the latest debacle last fall, and it was Mickelson who steered the “task force” into adopting a new points system and captain protocols.

Mickelson’s influence is so absolute, he doesn’t care what anybody thinks, including new captain Davis Love III or PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. He endorsed a points system that excludes the season-opening fall events that includes Love’s tournament at Sea Island, saying “if you count money for those last three or four months, you’re giving the bottom half of the tour a three‑month head start over ultimately the top guys.”

While the tour’s “bottom half” might be offended, Finchem admitted the tour “whiffed” on allowing that crediting oversight and would try to address it. Mickelson only doubled down, calling the wrap-around schedule confusing and suggesting “maybe we should start it in January like we used to.”

4. There are degrees of misbehavior, some classier than others. McIlroy is so good, he even made club throwing look cool.

Purists wailed when the world No. 1 heaved his 3-iron into the lake on Doral’s eighth hole. But the way he handled it after the round with part humor and part chagrin made it more forgivable than other professional tantrums. Golf is a hard game and sometimes it’s intolerable.

“It felt good at the time,” McIlroy confessed of his heave into the drink. But he added, “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do it, especially if there’s kids watching at home.”

5. Donald Trump is the most ubiquitous distraction I’ve ever seen. He turns a World Golf Championship with an all-star cast into something all about him.

When J.B. Holmes shot an other-worldly 62 that was 11 strokes lower than the field average, Trump complained to the PGA Tour’s course setup crew. When McIlroy throws a club in the pond, Trump waits until broadcast hours to send in a frogman to retrieve the club and then returns it personally to McIlroy and holds a press scrum afterwards. When he sends his helicopter to retrieve Arnold Palmer for one of four ribbon-cutting ceremonies during the week, he orders the 85-year-old and visibly injured Palmer to “get up Arnie” at the presentation.

Trump is eagerly investing in golf, which is great. He’s bought and slapped his name on a major venue in Turnberry, coaxed the PGA of America to move its Grand Slam event to his course in Los Angeles and is erecting plush resorts in Scotland, Ireland and New York City. Everywhere you turned last week (even at the opposite event in Puerto Rico), Trump’s name was in a headline. Sadly, Trump’s making the game less rather than more accessible, with green fees to play the brutally tough Blue Monster at $325. Who wants to spend that much money to have a miserable time?

6. Based on the way this season is going, there are many favorites (in order) to win the Masters Tournament: McIlroy, Watson, Adam Scott (with a short putter that was surprisingly deft), Day and Johnson. It should be a lot of fun next month and for the rest of the season.