Americans reign atop PGA, for now

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Don't look now, but the leaderboard is filled with a rare sight at major championships -- American flags. And lots of them.

In what has become a source of snickering on the other side of the pond, and grudging consternation over here, Americans are in the midst of their longest drought in major championships dating to the start of the Masters.

Brendan Steele and Jason Dufner -- the 54-hole leaders at the 93rd PGA Championship, will try to change that Sunday. So will Keegan Bradley, Scott Verplank and Steve Stricker.

Not exactly golf's version of Murderer's Row, but the five players atop the PGA Championship all carry U.S. passports and are in excellent position to claim the year's fourth and final major.

In truth, most players don't lay awake at night agonizing over the lack of American success recently. Golf is an individual game, one that has gone global. It's not as if Americans are getting waxed by one nation, but rather the rest of the world.

Still, the topic has had many in the game questioning the developmental system in American golf or wondering if other countries are doing something not being done here. U.S. players dominated golf for so long, it is a bit jarring these days -- especially when you consider just two Americans were in the top 10 at the U.S. Open.

"We don't sit around and talk about it over lunch, but I've thought about it," Stricker said. "What has happened in the last six majors fuels the fire of the Americans to try and get better."

Only one other time -- in 1994 -- had Americans gone four straight majors without a victory dating to Bobby Jones' first Augusta National Invitation Tournament in 1934.

Now at Atlanta Athletic Club, another place with Jones' imprint, Americans have a chance to break that annoying streak. And to some who wave the red, white and blue, that would come as a welcome relief. The last American to win a major was Phil Mickelson at the 2010 Masters.

But aside from Stricker, who is the highest-ranked American in the world at No. 5, the other top contenders would not have been on too many short lists of tournament favorites.

Steele is playing in his first major championship. So is Bradley, who is a shot back.

If either wins, they'd become the first player since Ben Curtis at the 2003 British Open to win a major in their first attempt. And how rare is the feat? Curtis was the first to do so in 90 years -- since Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open in a playoff over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray during a time when Americans were not expected to win majors.

Steele, who won earlier this year at the Valero Texas Open, is 121st in the world rankings. Bradley, who won in a playoff at the HP Byron Nelson Championship in May, is 108th.

Dufner, 34, came into the PGA having missed four straight cuts. Ranked 80th, he's never won on the PGA Tour and is playing in just his 10th major, with a tie for fifth at last year's PGA his best finish. He looks like a heavier version of Rory McIlroy and says fans often get him confused. One fan this week addressed him as Rory and thanked him for an autograph.

Then there is Verplank, 47, who in 62 previous major appearances has never finished in the top five. Verplank won the Western Open when he was an amateur and he'd become the second-oldest major winner in history, behind only Julius Boros, who was 48 when he captured the 1968 PGA. Verplank is ranked 87th.

"I hope that I can turn back the clock a little bit, and go back to when I was about 21 when I won everything I played in," Verplank said. "Maybe that will happen overnight."

Stricker would seem to have the most guile and experience of the five, but finds himself three strokes behind Steele and Dufner after a 1-under-par 69. Then again, given the closing holes at Atlanta Athletic Club, especially the brutal par-4 18th, no lead is safe.

"You can make up six shots in the last four holes, so yeah, I think you can make up six shots in the last round," said Adam Scott, who is five strokes back.

There are just two major championship winners -- David Toms and Charl Shwartzel -- in the top 12, where seven Americans also reside.

U.S. players seemingly have a bunch of potential, but that doesn't put your name on a trophy.

Mickelson is ranked sixth in the world and contended at the British Open last month but has been maddeningly inconsistent and dropped seven strokes back with a three-putt bogey at the 18th. Dustin Johnson, ranked eighth, missed the cut here, while Nick Watney is tied for 13th having won twice this year, but last month he missed the cut at the British Open.

Matt Kuchar (11th), Bubba Watson (18th) and Toms (19th) round out the seven American players among the top 20.

"It's sad that we keep putting these flags on everybody," Watson said. "I'm 15th [actually 18th] in the world rankings. There are 14 guys ahead of me, and I'm trying to make it to No.‚ÄČ1 in the world. So who cares where they are from or what language they speak?

"The language they speak is they are beating me at golf. At the Ryder Cup, yeah, you get upset when they beat you. I hope, in Chicago next year, that we beat them. But when it comes to individual golf, I don't care. They are just better than us right now.

"Most of them have a house in the U.S., anyway."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.