The game of professional golf loves when we saddle it with expectations, because the game of professional golf loves to laugh at us. There is nothing quite like it for defiance in the face of our collective desires, and no elusive woman or capricious man has ever proved so adept at slipping out of commitments—turning up half a world away with a new name, a new hair color, and a frown when asked to remember the anchors of history with which we had naively attempted to weigh it down, and bind it to our will.
If golf were obedient, 2016 would have been the year when Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, and Rory McIlroy did battle at every Major, with maybe a cameo or two from the likes of Rickie Fowler, all of them fighting for dominance as the youthful promise of the last two years came into full fruition.
That was the script we’d written in our minds, and – of course – golf had a nice chuckle at our presumption. It even teased us by feinting down the path we’d scripted at Augusta, as Spieth cruised on Sunday, before pulling an abrupt about-face and veering off in a new, unexpected direction – Danny Willett, Yorkshire terrier, came from nowhere to win the green jacket. Then it was the long-suffering Dustin Johnson, the man we all thought had been cursed to carry his great talent like a burden, stalking through golf’s shadowlands without a Major, ending his heartbreak at the U.S. Open.
And then came one of the most brilliant duels we’ve ever seen at the Open, between two men who had passed their major primes, and their 40th birthdays—bannermen of a bygone generation that wasn’t as bygone as we thought.
The three maiden winners are not who we would have scripted, and anybody who claims to have predicted the sharp left turn of 2016 is lying. Still, it’s been a fascinating season, especially for those fans who learned long ago to enjoy golf as you’d enjoy a promising wave on a surfboard – sometimes you’ll get a thrilling ride, sometimes it will dump you on your head, and sometimes it will refuse to crest, rolling lazily by in maddening anticlimax.
And as we approach another Ryder Cup, some patterns have reasserted themselves. The recurring theme of European dominance, which seemed iffy only a year ago, has now resurfaced inexorably, with all the important names rounding into shape in time for Hazeltine. While players like Willett and Stenson will be coming in with unprecedented confidence, old hands like Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood are peaking at the perfect time, and surprise performers like Rafa Cabrera Bello have emerged from nowhere, as they seem to do for the Europeans every two years like clockwork.
As for the Americans…where is Rickie Fowler? Where is Bubba Watson? Where is Jordan Spieth? Where is Patrick Reed? Where is the young generation that was supposed to rise up as one and redefine the biannual competition after almost 30 years of European dominance?
The only player with any kind of positive history who is at the top of his game is Dustin Johnson, and beyond him, we turn to familiar figures like Phil Mickelson who have spent their entire careers losing. If you close your eyes and let the darkness pour in, you can almost imagine Davis Love III wasting his captain’s picks on Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker again.
But, there’s time! With one last major remaining – this week’s PGA Championship in New Jersey – we could still see a few young Americans notch a huge win and provide a needed burst of momentum heading into a home Ryder Cup. Here are five Yanks with a fighting chance to break through at Baltusrol:
Rickie Fowler 35/1
There was a time, in February and March, when Fowler secured a series of top-5 finishes and seemed to be in fine form heading into the Majors. It looked like his season to break through, but it all went to hell with a first-round 80 at Augusta. Since then, he was cut defending his Players Championship title, cut at the U.S. Open, and only mustered a feeble 46th at Troon. But with a 10th place finish at the Bridgestone and a handful of strong summer results sprinkled in amidst the cuts, there’s still a solid chance that he could salvage the season with a big result at the PGA.
Patrick Reed 45/1
His 12th at Troon was his best Major result yet, and it’s only a matter of time before he has a chance to win one. Reed is having his usual excellent season – ninth in the FedExCup standings, lots of top ten finishes, very few cuts but he hasn’t won in almost two years, and for a young player who prides himself on winning, that’s a long drought. It will end soon, and this may be the week.
Brooks Koepka 50/1
Maybe the most talented of the young crop of Americans, and someone whose driver could do serious damage at Balustrol. If his ankle injury has fully healed, he’s dangerous – and should be a Ryder Cup captain’s pick, if he fails to make the team on merit.
J.B. Holmes 60/1
The best value on the board – with a third at Augusta and a fourth at Troon, Holmes has found his form at Majors. The 34-year-old will make the Ryder Cup team, beyond doubt, and has been one of the best Americans in the world for the past three years. Still, his low-key personality and his lack of a big win means he flies way under the radar – when he finally breaks through, it will be treated as a huge surprise by most of the golf world.
Tony Finau 100/1
Big, young, and powerful, Finau showed his potential by finishing 18th at Troon, and Baltusrol is exactly the kind of course where he could do real damage. Plus, he loves the big events – in just four appearances at Majors, he’s finished inside the top 20 three times, including last year’s 10th at the PGA. He doesn’t quite have the consistency of other young guns like Daniel Berger or Justin Thomas, but he’s capable of more spectacular results on the biggest stage.