PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Florida - Barely a month after the year's opening major was billed as a two-horse race between Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, there is now the prospect of a very different rivalry at the top of international golf.
Rickie Fowler captured his first PGA Tour victory with a win at the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday at Quail Hollow where he beat McIlroy - who reclaimed the world number one ranking this week - and D.A. Points in a playoff to finally confirm his status as the bright young hope of American golf.
Fowler and Northern Ireland's McIlroy, who compete this week at the Players Championship, are both 23 years old and appeal to a younger demographic that the PGA Tour has been keen to capture to broaden its base of support.
While the decline of Woods, who tied for 40th at last month's Masters, has allowed for a wide range of winners on the tour in recent years, McIlroy believes an elite group battling it out regularly against each other would appeal to fans.
"As a fan growing up watching golf, I loved that Tiger was dominant and I loved that there might be Phil Mickelson who would come and challenge him for a while and then Ernie Els and then Vijay Singh and then David Duval," McIlroy told reporters on Tuesday.
"I sort of liked that as a story line. So it would be nice if a few people separated themselves from the rest ... I think for me if I was a golf fan, I'd like to see a rivalry."
Whether Fowler is part of any rivalry depends on whether he can find the consistency that has allowed McIlroy and Englishman Luke Donald to duel atop the world rankings but it is clear that he would be a welcome figure among the new elite.
McIlroy's disappointment on Sunday at missing out on a second PGA Tour win this year was tempered slightly by losing out to someone he has known and liked since their teens.
"We've known each other since playing some amateur golf together. I developed a really good relationship with him at the Walker Cup in 2007. I felt like he was the best player on that team at the time, and he was also the nicest guy," said McIlroy.
"So I got on with him really well then and met his family and stuff. It took him an extra couple of years to turn pro. I didn't really have much contact with him for those couple years, but since then, since he's been out on tour, I feel like it's been a good relationship.
"I always thought it was just a matter of time before he won ... He's a great player, and it's good to see that he's broken through."
McIlroy, however, has too much respect for Woods to join in any talk of a 'post-Tiger' era.
Woods, 36, was the Northern Irishman's boyhood hero and McIlroy said meeting him as a 15 year old was more nerve-wrecking than being introduced to President Barack Obama at the White House as the 2011 U.S. Open champion.
The 14-times major winner struggled at the Masters and missed the cut at Quail Hollow but McIlroy, noting Woods's win at Bay Hill in March, believes there is plenty more to come from the man who once dominated the sport.
"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," said McIlroy.
"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."
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Frank Pingue)