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O'Neill: Golf's Big Three? Watson, Fowler make it Big Five

By Dan O'Neill
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ST. LOUIS -- There is quite a battle going on in the upper reaches of professional golf, and the number of combatants keeps changing.

A decade or so ago, the golf media promoted a "Big Five," which was largely an effort to suggest there was more than one dominant player. In truth, there was Tiger Woods and a few honorable mentions. With major championships galore, with a slew of records and viral highlights, with an unprecedented cross-cultural presence, Woods was clearly the sovereign monarch.

But among some other credits, the rest of the "Five" had managed to win at least two majors. So the proposed class of prominent names included Woods, Phil Mickelson, Retief Goosen, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh.

For those with memories that extend farther back, that was a poor man's assembly. A golf category of prime figures at one time might have included Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Tom Watson. Before that it could have had names like Palmer, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Billy Casper and Carey Middlecoff. Before that, Jones, Nelson, Sarazen ... you get the point.

Times change. So when the current year started, respondent to last year, talk centered on a "Big Three," or Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day. It certainly seems legitimate where Spieth and McIlroy are concerned. Both have multiple majors, both have had the No. 1 ranking.

True, the appointment comes fast and furious where the 22-year old Spieth is concerned. Given his 2015 performance, there is no denying it. If anything, the inclusion of Day is a bit of a stretch. But with a win in the last major, a near-miss at the British Open, a story at the U.S. Open, two FedExCup wins, he has a body of work to make the case.

Now we are two months into the new year and, in terms of press clippings and cachet, the number has grown. Rickie Fowler was courtside when the things began, based in large part on his stirring win at the Players Championship last spring. Fowler has moved up, beating a star-sprinkled field at Dubai and finishing a playoff second at Phoenix.

He climbed as high as No. 4 in the world rankings and has become an essential pick to ponder when the Masters arrives. Although the 27-year old Fowler is still without a major and is quick make that distinction, the "Big Three " made room for a fourth.

"A major is my main goal right now going forward," Fowler told the press in Phoenix. "I mean, you can keep going down the list and say there is a 'Big 5,' or a 'Big 10.' There is a lot of guys playing well. I know with what Rory, Jordan, and Jason have done, they have definitely distanced themselves."

And yet, a week later, the number has swelled once more. In Phoenix, Bubba Watson made headlines with politically incorrect comments about the golf course. In Los Angeles, when he wasn't filming a cameo appearance for "Girl Meets World," he made bank. Watson came from two shots behind with four to play, birdied two of his last three and captured the Northern Trust Open.

With the performance, he jumped from No. 6 in the rankings to No. 4 and bumped his friend Fowler back a notch.

"I sent him this beautiful text, sentimental text about how great he is as a person and that's what I admire most, after he won over in the other desert (Dubai) ...," Watson explained. "And so he sent me back when he landed, he said, 'Hey, passed you in the World Rankings.'

"And so I think I just heard that I passed him again. So maybe I need to send him a text real fast next week before he passes me again."

So it is right now at the top of the heap in golf -- a traffic jam. Many worried what might become of the game without Woods, its No. 1 attraction. What has happened is fresh names stepping up, a competition taking place, a "Big Five" emerging.

The world rankings now list, in descending order, Spieth, Day, McIlroy, Watson and Fowler. And the list is fluid.

Watson is the oddball of the group in some ways. He is the only lefthander, the only one in his 30s (turns 38 this year), the only one to say he will retire if he ever rises to No. 1.

"Yes, I would definitely consider it," Watson reiterated Sunday. "Probably can answer it about 99 percent sure what I would do. ... Not that I want to retire. I'm always going to be at Augusta. They are going to have to kick me off Augusta. I'm going to be 80 struggling down the fairway.

"So when I say 'retirement,' it's just, I'm still going to travel around the world and play in golf tournaments. It won't be 15 (events) on the PGA Tour, if that ever happened. I'm not good enough yet to make that happen."

Maybe, but with two majors and nine PGA Tour wins, Watson definitely belongs in a "Big Five" discussion. Part of the impact of Woods' absence is that goals are being reached prematurely.

There remains no timetable for Woods, no way to know if he can approach his previous form after additional back surgery, or if he can return at all.

Woods has not broached the topic since early December. Recently reached by ESPN, Woods' agent Mark Steinberg said there was nothing to update.

In the meantime, a group of new stars has emerged. For now, the individuals lack the credentials of some of their predecessors. But as a competition, the new "Big Five" is legit.

This article was written by Dan O'Neill from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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