TURNBERRY, Scotland Monday night after the U.S. Open at Bethpage last month, Ross Fisher was tucking into a pile of nachos at the bar in the departure lounge at New York's JFK airport. He looked and sounded shattered after the extended monsoon week.
He had just finished tied for fifth and was the low European finisher, but the joy of his best finish in a major was tinged with disappointment because he knew, like Phil Mickelson and David Duval, that he had a real chance to win.
"They haven't shown a single shot of mine," he complained with a smile, watching the highlights on the TV in the bar. That's because no one in the U.S. knows him yet or cares much about what he does. All that may be about to change.
Europe already knows what he can do. The rest of the world is beginning to take notice. The 28-year-old Englishman is 21st in the World Rankings, and, along with Ireland's Rory McIlroy, Germany's Martin Kaymer and Spain's Alvaro Quiros, he is emerging as a leading player in the next generation of Europeans. This group should be challenging for majors for years and will form the nucleus of a new-look European Ryder Cup team, starting next year at Celtic Manor in Wales.
Playing in the third round with 49-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, the 1989 Open champ, the contrast in style and physique could not have been more pronounced. These are two players from different eras and different planets. On Friday, Calcavecchia revealed his post-round routine: "Four pints. Seems like a nice round number."
The 6-foot-3 Englishman is the picture of the modern gym-rat generation of golfers. While Calcavecchia played percentages, trying to knock down irons under the wind to the middle of greens, Fisher made his intentions clear from the first hole. He fired straight at the flag but missed the putt. Par. Solid start.
His aggressive tactics were rewarded with a curling 15-footer for birdie at the third on the way to a front nine 35 that was blighted only by a bogey at the fifth, where his nerves surfaced on a missed two-footer for par.
Two further bogeys on the back nine countered by birdies at 16 and 17 gave him an even par round to add to a 69 and 68. He is three under, just one shot off the lead held by Tom Watson.
On Sunday, Fisher will have another chance to challenge for that elusive first major, but there is one question mark. His wife, Jo, is expecting their first child this week, and Fisher has a jet on standby should she go into labor. What if he gets the call when he's holding a lead on the 72nd hole?
"I'd have to drive off and start running after my ball to hit the second shot and keep running all the way to the green, collect the claret jug and fly home," Fisher said, grinning.
"If she goes into labor, hopefully, she's not going to have it very quickly," he added. Wishing for one's wife to have a long and drawn-out labor is probably something he had better hope Mrs. Fisher never gets to read.
This is only Fisher's fourth year on tour, but he has been on a steep learning curve. He already has two victories (2007 KLM Open and 2008 European Open), and this year he lost to Paul Casey in the semifinal of the WGC Match Play and runner up in the BMW PGA Championship, the flagship event on the European Tour.
He finished last season sixth in the European Order of Merit and is currently fourth in the new Race to Dubai. Fisher has come a long way from joining Wentworth Golf Club as a 13-year-old after being offered a scholarship by Bernard Gallacher, the club's former touring professional and Ryder Cup captain.
"Without Bernard seeing me hit balls and telling the academy committee that I had great potential, I might not be where I am today," Fisher said. "Hopefully I will now be part of the next wave of European golfers. I have only played a few tournaments in the States, so they don't know much about me over there yet. But if I, and the others, go over there and get some top 10s and hopefully win something, then they are going to find out soon who we are."
Fisher is so confident that those who don't know him could mistake him for arrogant. But he is polite, approachable and easy going. Still, if confidence and determination were enough to make it to the top, he would already be a world-beater. He's not going to seek the advice of a sports psychologist anytime soon.
"I never really felt the need for any help from one," he said. "I just seem to be able to handle things myself. I am a positive guy. I think I've got the potential to go all the way. I have played with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, so I know what to expect."
At the start of this season, Fisher spoke about whether it was too soon for him to win a major.
"Winning majors is what it's all about," he said. "Can I win one this year?" He barely paused to ponder the significance of what he was thinking. "Yeah, why not? I'd love to."
How's that for the confidence of youth?
Now that he is, once again, in prime position to make his bold prediction come true, there are perhaps only two people who can stop him. One is a 59-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., who already has five claret jugs. The other is his wife.
"Hopefully Jo won't get too excited watching me and can hang on for another day," Fisher said, smiling. "I hope I can, too."