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Rising Americans can still learn from fading Woods

Alex Dimond July 27, 2011
Dustin Johnson has an impressive major record - albeit without a win © Getty Images
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For Tiger Woods it's just the latest unwanted milestone, with seemingly many more still to come.

This week the 35-year-old fell out of the top 20 in golf's world rankings for the first time in over 14 years. His decline down the rankings has gathered pace ever since the scandal that forced him to take an extended break from the game back in 2009, finding an extra gear since the complicated knee injury sustained at The Masters this year that has subsequently seen him miss all but nine ill-advised holes at the Players Championship.

A return at next week's WGC-Bridgestone Invitational has been mooted, indicating a halt to the slide into the long-forgotten reaches of the world's top 50 could be about to end. But nevertheless, it is further proof - if any were needed - that Tiger's time as the main major hope of American golf is at end.

While Phil Mickelson's Sunday charge at the Open Championship indicated that he still has some life at the top of such leaderboards, the fact remains that, thanks in part to Darren Clarke's final round resilience, golf in the US is still desperately searching for the next poster boy. Of course there are candidates - even if, with the possible exception of Rickie Fowler, few have the commercial and public appeal of European hopes like Rory McIlroy and Matteo Manassero, or even emerging talents from around the globe like Jason Day and Ryo Ishikawa.

Those players, almost without fail, grew up with Woods as the world No. 1 and picked up any number of tips about how to approach the game from watching him play. That's evident in McIlroy's arrogant swagger on the course, or Manassero's meticulous course management, or Jason Day's bulletproof putting stroke. But what's interesting is that perhaps the two prime American candidates - Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson - are both a number of years older than those names, and also share few similarities with the man they would love to emulate.

They both hit the ball prodigious distances - and that's about it. Like Woods when he first emerged on the scene, Watson and Johnson regularly top the long driving statistics and wow galleries around the world with the yardage they can get with any club in the bag.

But that's about it. While Woods will forever be famous for his unwavering mental strength (and infamous for many other things), both Watson and Johnson have faced serious questions about their own ability under pressure.

Johnson has been widely characterised as 'dumb' after his Whistling Straits meltdown that cost him a playoff for the USPGA Championship, while Watson - who actually made that play-off, eventually won by the unfazed Martin Kaymer - has openly admitted to frailties that Woods would never dream of displaying in public.

"The fact is that I'm afraid of the dark, I'm afraid of big crowds and the event in Paris just threw me in a few different ways and I made a lot of mistakes," Watson said recently, by way of explanation for some unpopular comments and actions at the French Open. "I can't help being afraid of things, I guess. Some people aren't afraid of those things, but I am.

"That doesn't mean they're better than me, it just means that they're afraid of something that I'm not. I've learned from it."

While that might make Bubba (real name: Gerry) more likeable in many quarters, it only heightens questions about his ability to win majors. But he has challenged for them before (and was vaguely in the hunt at this year's Masters heading into the final round), which gives hope he might do so again.

Johnson, meanwhile, is arguably one of the few players who genuinely has a chance to approach Woods' tally of major wins - were he able to sort out his major Sunday 'difficulties'. After all, he's not just had good chances to win majors, he's had great ones - and in three different championships at that.

He's only played in 12 majors in his professional career, yet he's grabbed top ten finishes in 25 per cent of them. He's led going into the final round both the US Open and USPGA, while at Royal St George's he played in the final round - an impressive indication of his ability to play on all courses and in all conditions.

Bubba Watson's 'goofy' charm perhaps masks the lack of a killer instinct © Getty Images
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While he is yet to truly challenge at Augusta National, he has made the cut on all three appearances. Put simply, if Johnson had a Sunday killing instinct he could well be three quarters of the way to a career grand slam - and he's only 27.

Nevertheless, an American player hasn't won a major since Mickelson at the Masters at the start of 2010. Johnson has repeatedly been the closest to breaking that streak, yet he seems proud of coming close rather than bummed at failing to close the deal.

"If another four years go by and we haven't won one, it might be something that we need to worry about," he said at the Open Championship, after being beaten out by Clarke.

"Obviously, like I say all the time, the more I put myself in this situation, the better, the more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens in this situation. But you know, I think I did a pretty good job. It was very tough."

Woods would never have taken defeat with such a lack of concern. That was part of what made (makes?) him great. Johnson could do with trying to absorb that trait, even if it is something that can never truly be learned.

Watson, meanwhile, is a different case. He has actually been closer than even Johnson to actually winning a major, yet the 32-year-old has not exactly made major leaderboards a second home.

Watson's biggest problem - aside from his ill-advised comments while playing abroad - may be his distance off the tee. It masks a comparatively woeful short game, yet at least he doesn't seem transfixed by hitting the ball further than anyone else like Woods was around the turn of the millennium.

"I know I had the driving distance title for the first few years on Tour and I've lost it the last few, but otherwise I haven't really paid much attention to it," he revealed recently. "I would rather win golf tournaments and be the shortest hitter in the world than be the longest hitter and not win."

His actions underline that sentiment. Like Johnson, Watson has shown a very un-American willingness to play across the globe - becoming a semi-regular presence at European Tour events. Indeed, both finished inside the top ten at the recent Nordea Masters in Sweden (a tournament on a tough course in occasionally brutal conditions), the sort of experience that will likely stand them in very good stead for the future.

Of course, Woods was also a player who never shied away from playing outside the confines of his home country (even if, from very early in his career, that had a lot to do with the appearance fees that came with it).

And that's perhaps what it comes back to. Woods may or may not be the spent force of American golf. But, nevertheless, you feel the two current pretenders to that vacant throne will need to adopt some of his traits if they are to truly take that next step.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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Alex Dimond is an assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk