Golf: Who is NEXT?

Patrick Cantlay

If Patrick Cantlay, the world's top-ranked amateur, seems mature for 19, consider that he's been playing with PGA Tour pros since he was a little kid as part of instructor Jamie Mulligan's renowned program at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach, Calif. "Patrick has the maturity level of someone a decade older," says Mulligan. "He's not reacting to outcomes. He's doing the process and loving the game and getting himself comfortable so he can play well regardless of whether it's the U.S. Open or a PGA Tour event or the NCAAs." Cantlay, who as a freshman at UCLA won the 2011 Nicklaus Award for Division I player of the year, is sneaky long and has a pure putting stroke. He's now working to diversify his long game "without a mechanic," in Mulligan's preferred lingo. "At the highest level, [shot-making is] done without thinking, 'my knee is here' or 'my elbow is here.'" The big question is when Cantlay will try to play at the highest level full time. With Mulligan and Cantlay focused on the long term, it may be a while before this can't-miss kid is playing for pay. Pros, after all, don't rush.

Rory McIlroy

TV ratings don't lie: Golf fans miss a dominant, charismatic top dog. They want Tiger back, only without the ickiness or snarl. Cue Rorymania. Rory McIlroy's spectacular triumph at the U.S. Open, fast on the heels of an equally spectacular Sunday back-nine Masters implosion, showed that a second coming is at least plausible. But McIlroy better beware. Post-Open, he acquired a celebrity girlfriend (WTA world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki; the couple dubbed themselves, perhaps ironically, "Wozzilroy"), split with his longtime agent (the seemingly omnipresent Chubby Chandler), engaged in Twitter spats (with sometimes pal Lee Westwood and TV analyst Jay Townsend, to whom the nicest thing he wrote was "Shut up") and risked major injury taking a full swing at a ball lying next to a root (at the PGA Championship). He's won only three official PGA and European Tour events, yet it's hard not to be bullish on the game's most naturally gifted and magnetic player.

Webb Simpson

When Webb Simpson went from promising young American to America's best player in 2011, it was natural for golf fans to question his staying power. After all, Simpson had finished the season with a flurry. In his season's final seven events, he'd netted two wins, a playoff loss and six top-10s, propelling him to second place in season scoring average (69.25). But it was only Simpson's fourth season, and golf has seen its share of career arcs that resemble sine waves. So is Simpson for real or just riding one heck of a hot streak? "Webb should pick up in 2012 right where he left off in 2011," says Golf Channel analyst and former PGA Tour winner Brandel Chamblee. "His shots have an authority and a sound that is the equal of some of the best players I have ever witnessed hit a ball." Throw in a top-notch short game--Simpson ranked No. 1 in the Tour's All-Around Ranking--and you've got a Webb gem who should be making highlights for years to come.

Alexis "Lexi" Thompson

Veteran instructor Jim McLean is trying -- really trying -- to temper expectations for golf's newest one-name star, Lexi. "She's done a lot of things early, but she's still a 16-year-old girl," says McLean, who's worked with Alexis Thompson since she turned 13. "You have to give the girl time." Still, McLean can't help but gush about his pupil's potential. She is, after all, an almost 6-footer with what McLean calls "an unbelievable athlete's body" and a swing speed of 105 mph, equal to a low-end PGA Tour pro. "I'd take Alexis against anyone in the world right now, heads up," McLean says. "It won't be too long before something very special is going to happen." Something special already happened. When Thompson won an LPGA event by five shots in September, she became the latest LPGA It Girl overnight. She's already perhaps the longest hitter in the game and, the coach says, "super-mature" with unquestioned desire and dedication--the things that the last It Girl, Michelle Wie, seemed to lack. "You've got to give Lexi a little time," McLean repeats, before adding, "Nothing that she would do next year would surprise me."

Yani Tseng

Only five active LPGA players have at least two career majors and seven wins. Yani Tseng accomplished that in 2011, with four other international victories to boot. It's been the most dominant year by any golfer since Tiger Woods in his prime. The Taiwanese star bought Annika Sorenstam's house in Orlando and, to paraphrase "Jaws," we think she's gonna need a bigger trophy case. What's next? For one, there was talk in early November that the PGA Tour's Puerto Rico Open would extend Tseng an invitation to compete. Although Tseng's camp has sent signals that she won't accept the offer this year, don't be surprised if she eventually accepts. "It won't be because she wants to beat the men," says Tseng's coach, Gary Gilchrist. "It's all about growing the game and doing something out of her comfort zone, taking things to the next level." From a playing standpoint, small tweaks such as strengthening her right-hand grip helped her reach a higher level in 2011, but no less important was Tseng's continued work on her English, bringing her bright, friendly personality stateside. "Yani loves people," says Gilchrist. "She wants to become a great ambassador for the game of golf and inspire young people."

Evan Rothman is a writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.