Kerr is America's best hope at Oakmont; PGA Tour big guns head to Scotland

Kerr is America’s best hope at Oakmont; PGA Tour big guns head to Scotland

Cristie Kerr is coming off a 12-shot win two weeks ago at the LPGA Championship.
Mike Ehrmann/SI

When Cristie Kerr won the LPGA Championship by 12 strokes two weeks ago, she figured it was a big deal for all kinds of reasons.

The biggest may have been that she is American.

"It's especially big for American golf for us to do well in these kinds of tournaments, because there are so many little girls out here that we see in the practice rounds," Kerr said Tuesday at bunker-laden Oakmont Country Club, where she was practicing for this week's U.S. Women's Open. "And if you can touch a couple of them, maybe they'll turn into great players in 20 years and be out here. That's the way that I got involved, and I'd imagine that's why those fathers are bringing those daughters here."

Oakmont will feature two potentially driveable par-4s at the second and 17th holes, but also the fastest, most undulating greens the women's tour will see all year. It also will feature a camera-ready favorite, Kerr.

"There's a little pressure on her," Erik Stevens, Kerr's husband, told the New York Times in a story earlier this week. "The LPGA needs its stars right now."

Concurrent to the Women's Open in steamy Pennsylvania, the PGA Tour will feature the quintessentially American John Deere Classic in Illinois. The Deere will be a low-key affair, with just three of the top 20 players in the world in the field.

Stars like Phil Mickelson are already across the pond for the Barclays Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, also starting Thursday, as golfers and fans alike already have begun to contemplate next week's British Open and all of its worldly flavors.

The globalization of golf has long been a topic of conversation, but it's only recently that the trend has kicked into overdrive in both the men's and women's game. Americans have won just two of the last six U.S. Women's Opens, Kerr in '07 and Meg Mallon in '04, but on the women's side, at least, things are looking up.

With her blowout victory, Kerr became the first American to hit the top spot in the Rolex Rankings since they began in 2006, after two distinct eras (Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa) and a burst of Asian dominance in 2010 (Jiyai Shin, Ai Miyazato).

Alexis Thompson, 15 and considered by some to be among the most talented Americans to come out of the junior ranks in years, will make her second professional start at Oakmont. Michelle Wie, also in the field, won't focus entirely on golf until she finishes two more years at Stanford, but she's already won on the LPGA.

Men's golf is perhaps a different story. Surveying top American players like 40-year-old Jim Furyk, one PGA Tour veteran asks, "How long do we rely on our 'old' guys?" Tiger Woods has been No. 1 for the last 265 weeks, 607 weeks overall, but in the wake of his marital infidelities he has not won in 2010. His best golf may be behind him.

Typical of his erratic play, he shot 79-69 at the J.P. McManus Invitational Pro-Am in Ireland on Monday and Tuesday, although he presumably played his first round on little sleep after flying all night from the AT&T National (T46) in Philadelphia.

Phil Mickelson would claim the top spot with a win or a solo second at his usual pre-Open haunt, the Barclays at Loch Lomond. He will play the first two rounds in a rock-star threesome that also will include Japanese teen idol Ryo Ishikawa and Columbian Camilo Villegas, yet another reminder of the deep roster of global talent ready to take over when Woods, 34, and Mickelson, 40, fade away.

Of the World Ranking's top 20 players, just six are Americans, and at least half of those six are most likely on the downside of their careers.

Steve Stricker, who briefly held the No. 3 ranking before a shoulder injury set him back in the spring, will defend his title at this week's John Deere. He tied the course record with a second-round 61 last year, won again at the Deutsche Bank in Boston and then again at the Northern Trust in L.A. early this season. But at 43, he is at an age when many golfers before him have begun to show their age.

Who will replace Furyk, Stricker, Mickelson and Woods? That's where things become unclear, at best. There is no shortage of promising candidates in Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan and Sean O'Hair, but none have truly arrived.

For Europe the arrivals began with England's Paul Casey at the Houston Open last year, continued with England's Ian Poulter at the WGC-Accenture in February (he beat Casey in the final), and kept right on coming.

Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell was the only player left standing at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, while Frenchman Gregory Havret picked up style points in second place, a shot back. Both will be in action at Loch Lomond this week.

"I desperately wanted to be on this Ryder Cup team in October," McDowell said at the U.S. Open. "I realized it was going to be an unbelievably good team, with so many young, talented players coming through Europe right now. This is going to be a seriously, heavily contested team. I firmly believe we've got the team to win the trophy back."

And that was before England's Justin Rose won the Memorial, gave away the Travelers and won the AT&T National in a span of three weeks.

England's Lee Westwood, 37, is third in the world and coming off a victory at the Tour's St. Jude Classic. He's racked up eight top-10s in the majors, most recently a second at the Masters and T3s at the 2009 British Open and PGA Championship.

Of world Nos. 7-10, Luke Donald (England), Poulter, Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland) and Casey, each except Donald has won on the PGA Tour in the last 15 months. Germany's Martin Kaymer, 25, the defending champion at Loch Lomond this week, is already a five-time winner on the Euro tour and ranked 12th in the world. Rose, formerly the Tour's king of the 18- and 36-hole lead, has risen to 16th.

What's more the Euros aren't the only ones breaking through, with South African Tim Clark, 34, and Australian Jason Day, 22, also claiming their first Tour titles this year.

Meanwhile, America is a question mark.

There's no telling how much psychological damage Johnson, 26, did to himself with his final-round 82 at Pebble Beach — maybe none, maybe a lot.

Fowler, 21, fumbled at the goal line at the last season, and the Waste Management (Phoenix) and Memorial this year, but looks like a bona fide star who could energize the Tour with younger demographics.

Kim, 25, is perhaps America's best young player, but has lost much of this summer to an injured thumb that required surgery. He missed the U.S. Open and this week pulled out of the British, a tournament he said all along he would probably miss.

With Europeans accounting for nine of the top 16 players, Woods in limbo and Mickelson seemingly averse to Open golf, the odds would seem to favor a continuation of the shift in the balance of power next week. Then again, maybe it's time for last year's runner-up to make his moment. Maybe the future of American golf is Tom Watson.

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