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New wave of American talent deserves attention at Masters

Tiger? Phil? Put your faith in other American players at the Masters.

The guy sucking up most of the pre-Masters attention has the chipping yips.

The second-most famous man in the field is in superior shape after swearing off gluten and sweets. But he hasn't tasted victory since the 2013 British Open.

Many of us remain fascinated by Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

It's only natural, given their personalities and accomplishments. But it's also ridiculous, given their recent play.

"With Tiger and Phil, what we're looking for now are flashes of brilliance," ESPN analyst Paul Azinger said. "We're looking for reminders of what they used to be, not of who they are now."

The "now" for American golf is a wave of young talent, namely Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed. Jimmy Walker is 36, but it seems foolish to omit a five-time winner on the PGA Tour.

"I think it's a new era in the game," said Jim Nantz, who will call his 30th Masters for CBS.

NBC/Golf Channel analyst Peter Jacobsen termed it a "changing of the guard."

"Forty years ago if (Jack) Nicklaus, (Arnold) Palmer or (Gary) Player didn't play, everybody thought the tour was going to fold its tent and go home," Jacobsen said. "And people said, Who are these young guys by the name of Curtis Strange, Greg Norman, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw?

"You'll hear a rallying cry, people lamenting that Tiger and Phil are not playing as well as these young upstarts. Who is Jordan Spieth? Who is Patrick Reed? These guys are here to stay."

Three weeks ago outside Tampa, Fla., Spieth drained a 30-foot birdie putt in a playoff to outduel Reed and fellow American Sean O'Hair in a can-you-top-this short-game showdown.

"If you can't see the appeal of players like that, you've become a little too cynical," said NBC/Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee, adding: "I don't think we're watching a changing of the guard. I think it's already changed."

Spieth became the fourth man since 1940 to win twice on the PGA Tour before turning 22. The others: Woods, Sergio Garcia and Robert Gamez.

The affable Texan called that a "cool" accomplishment but said, "What I'm really focused on is Rory McIlroy, who is No. 1 in the world. That's who everyone is trying to chase."

McIlroy is the Masters favorite at 11-2 (via Bovada) as he tries to become the just the sixth man, joining Nicklaus, Woods, Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen, to win a career Grand Slam. He is 25. Not even Nicklaus won all four majors by that age. (Woods was 24.)

Nantz said that when he does radio interviews and gets asked whether McIlroy is "ready to take the torch from Tiger," he's at a loss for words.

"He has won four majors since 2011, and we all know Tiger hasn't won one in seven years," Nantz said. "He definitely has taken the torch. He is the man in this sport right now."

Indeed, McIlroy is easily the top-ranked player in the world. People are starting to speculate whether he will be great enough to challenge Woods' 14 majors — or Nicklaus' 18.

"Rory is the best driver of the golf ball," said NBC/Golf Channel's Chris DiMarco, who fell to Woods in a playoff at the 2005 Masters. "He can dominate majors just with his driver."

Chamblee is not so sure, saying, "Rory has holes in his game. He hits wild shots. He's not as good with his mid-irons. He's not a great chipper, he's not a great putter. Tiger was incomprehensibly good at all those things, and Jack was unbelievably good at every single part of the game with the exception of maybe hitting great pitch shots."

Nicklaus' record, Chamblee said, will not fall: "It is a lock."

Woods' short game is in shambles, with Golf Digest counting 19 mis-hits in his six full PGA Tour rounds this season.

Mickelson had a rough start to the year, missing the cut in Phoenix and San Diego, then failing to break 70 in his eight rounds at Doral and the Texas Open. But he chipped beautifully in Houston on Thursday, firing an ego-boosting 66 that, he said, provides "good momentum" for the Masters.

He'll need that and more to hold off the new guard at Augusta National.

tgreenstein@tribpub.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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