SAN FRANCISCO -- Golf's best-case scenario: Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler grapple again this weekend at the Players Championship, or next month in the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.
Or, better yet, on both grand stages.
McIlroy and Fowler might not become the equivalent of Jack/Arnie and Tiger/Phil -- though Rory/Rickie brings a nice, alliterative ring -- but they are the faces of the next generation. They're each 23, stylish, likable, charismatic, powerful, poised and popular.
That's not a bad jump-start to the post-Tiger Woods era. It's premature and foolish to suggest Woods is done as an elite player, but Sunday's final round and playoff at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., showed golf will survive -- and even thrive -- when Woods eventually fades from the scene.
Woods stirs the masses, but his is a tortured march from tee to green. McIlroy and Fowler play with unfettered joy, as evident in their grinning, exuberant exchange on the practice green before they joined D.A. "Third Wheel" Points in a memorable playoff. Take away Points (nothing personal, D.A.) and that one extra hole might have offered a tantalizing preview of the next 15 years on the PGA Tour.
"Hopefully, it's not the last time we'll go head to head like that," McIlroy said.
The game is so deep now, so full of skilled 20-something players, it will be difficult for McIlroy and Fowler to distance themselves from the pack. They might have company, in the person of Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley or Jason Day. Masters champion Bubba Watson or Hunter Mahan might emerge from the early-30s crowd (Mahan turns 30 next week).
McIlroy seems the most equipped for long-term stardom, given his youth, picturesque swing and perpetual contention. He has finished outside the top five only once in seven worldwide starts this year -- and that's the best way to reach fans, by living on the leaderboard on the weekend.
Fowler is not yet at McIlroy's level, with only three top-10s in 12 starts. Still, he brings the game and people skills to become the next generation's version of Arnold Palmer or Phil Mickelson -- maybe not the No. 1 player, but a regular threat in marquee tournaments.
"As a fan growing up, I loved that Tiger was dominant and I loved that Phil would come and challenge him for a while and then Ernie (Els) and Vijay (Singh) and (David) Duval," McIlroy said Tuesday in his news conference at the Players. "I sort of liked that as a story line. So it would be nice if a few people separated themselves from the rest. Hopefully, I will be in that group at one stage."
McIlroy connects with the younger crowd, but not to the extent Fowler does. My 12-year-old son offered a vivid reminder of this upon learning Fowler won Sunday. "Yeah! Rickie!" he exclaimed. Asked why he likes Fowler so much, my son replied, "He's short, he has long hair and he wears cool clothes."
What else matters?