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Rory and Rickie: Golf's next big rivalry?
Updated 5/8/2012 8:41 PM ET
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla — Golf's future first faced each other in the 2007 Walker Cup, the historic biennial matches between the top amateurs of the U.S. against those from Great Britain and Ireland.

Separated by the Atlantic Ocean and divergent pathways to careers in golf, the highly regarded can't-miss kids lost touch before reconnecting on the PGA Tour in 2010. As instant fan favorites for the style of their play and their connections with fans, parallels were quickly drawn.

On Sunday, Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy— fellow 23-year-olds separated at birth by five months — met up again in a playoff for the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C.

MORE: Tiger hopes to hang around this time SCHEDULE: This week in golf, at a glance

And just as soon as Fowler sank a short putt to win his first PGA Tour title by defeating McIlroy — and 35-year-old D.A. Points — rivalry talk erupted. Such chatter wasn't surprising, of course, and is a welcomed conversation for the Tour heading into its flagship event this week, The Players Championship on the Players Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

The prospect of a decade's full of duels similar to the Sunday showdown at Quail Hollow is intriguing and tantalizing. Both Fowler and McIlroy are young, hip, rich and quick with a smile — or an autograph . They've each played in the Ryder Cup. They're both are on the cover of the EA Sports Tiger Woods video game after winning online popularity contests. And they appeal to the younger demographic the Tour has eagerly pursued to expand its fan base beyond those who only follow Tiger Woods.

"I think you're going to see that a lot," CBS and Golf Channel analyst Nick Faldo says about future Fowler-McIlroy duels. "Those two guys have got good mutual respect for each other, but they are young and they recognize that it's an era that they're in that opens up opportunities. These guys are going to start looking at each other and think, 'wow, who is going to start dividing up all the majors, who is going to start taking them all?'

"Phil (Mickelson) and Tiger obviously are all getting older, so these youngsters must start thinking, well, we've got 10 years or more, might be 15 to 20 of competitive golf against each other. … It's a great opportunity to go and build an incredible career."

Rivalries are no sure thing

But rivalries in golf are tough to come by, no matter how much the fans yearn for one and the media tries to hype one. The game has been without a true rivalry for some time because of Woods, whose dominating ways allowed for only brief one-on-one struggles with the likes of Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and David Duval.

For instance, Mickelson is this generation's second best player, but trails Woods 4-14 in major titles and 40-72 in Tour titles.

The last 14 majors have been won by 14 different players. McIlroy and Luke Donald have traded places atop the official world golf rankings five times since March, with McIlroy currently No. 1. And this year, parity is a major player as Hunter Mahan is the only multiple winner through the Tour's first 20 events.

McIlroy is currently the more accomplished player among the two, with six worldwide official wins, including a blowout victory in the 2011 U.S. Open, and was a serious threat to win in three other majors. Fowler had four runner-up finishes before snapping his 0-for-67 streak in Charlotte. He did beat McIlroy by six shots, however, to win the obscure Kolon Korean Open last October, a tournament on the OneAsia Tour.

Even McIlroy and Fowler think regular Sunday face-offs are not in the offing.

"Hopefully it's not the only time we go head-to-head … but there are so many different guys winning out here now," McIlroy says. "I still expect Tiger to come back and do some great things. I mean, he's won this year, so he's definitely on the right track.

"As a fan growing up watching golf, I loved that Tiger was dominant and I loved that Phil would come and challenge him for a while and then Ernie and then Vijay and then Duval. I sort of liked that as a story line.

"But I think it was great for the game of golf that Rickie won. It's great to have characters like that that are playing well, and he engages with the fans really well, and he's a really popular player out here."

Fowler says the two, at the moment, have a friendly rivalry.

"I respect his game. I feel like he respects mine. We enjoy playing together and against each other," Fowler says. "I know he wants to beat me just as bad as I want to beat him. But I think we'd have to kind of run away and play really well just for it to be a rivalry between the two of us. There are a lot of really good young players right now, and to count any of them out of a rivalry would be somewhat unfair to them."

What about Tiger and Phil?

Then there are Mickelson and Woods. Mickelson, who won earlier this year in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, says he thinks his best five years are ahead of him despite being inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday. And Woods, who won earlier this year in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, isn't going away. Coming off two consecutive poor performances — a tie for 40th in the Masters and a missed cut last week — Woods says he's been fighting old habits with his new golf swing after a third overhaul.

"I've done this before. I've been through this," Woods says. "I've gone through periods where I wasn't quite where I wanted to be. I had pretty good runs after that, and this is no different. … It takes a little bit of time, and I keep building, and things eventually come around."

Woods, and to a lesser extent Mickelson, for years have been the only two who can reliably move the TV ratings needle. And while Woods' likability ratings have dropped in recent years, he's still a good bet to make final-round TV ratings pop as much as 50% — providing he's playing well enough to be in contention and show up on TV.

PGA Tour TV carriers CBS, NBC and NBC's Golf Channel obviously hope for now that Woods and Mickelson keep drawing viewers. But with network contracts running through the 2021 season, they need new stars in development. A rivalry between Fowler and McIlroy would seem telegenic. The drawing power of that potential rivalry was tested Sunday. Final-round coverage produced a 2.4 overnight rating, translating to 2.4% of households in the 56 urban markets measured. That's not huge — but it was up 14% from last year's comparable coverage.

"I don't know if we are crazy about any particular rivalry, but we like the juxtaposition of McIlroy and Fowler against the veterans," PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem told USA TODAY Sports. "But rivalries develop. We can't write the script. They are two great, charismatic young players.

"As long as those two are playing well, we are in great shape."

Posted 5/8/2012 8:08 PM ET
Updated 5/8/2012 8:41 PM ET
Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler dueled Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship, won by Fowler in a playoff, he start of what would make a pretty compelling rivalry.
Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images
Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler dueled Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship, won by Fowler in a playoff, he start of what would make a pretty compelling rivalry.

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