Updated: April 30, 2014, 1:46 PM ET

Will anyone step up at Quail Hollow?

By Bob Harig | ESPN.com


Front nine
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Perhaps we should have seen this coming. A year ago at Quail Hollow Golf Club, Derek Ernst was the fourth alternate, got into the Wells Fargo field at the last minute, somehow beat Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood down the stretch, and defeated David Lynn in a sudden-death playoff.

Out of nowhere? That's being kind to "nowhere." Ernst was barely on the radar, ranked 1,207th in the world at the time. He had done little before and has done little since, and is actually in the process of re-tooling his game and trying to improve while he has a two-year exemption.

But his surprising success at the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship was another example of the wide range of players capable of winning on the PGA Tour. A week later, Tiger Woods won the Players Championship, his fourth victory of the season, further strengthening his grip on the world's No. 1 ranking.

That standing, however, is now precarious by the week. Woods, who is out indefinitely after March 31 back surgery, could fall from the top spot virtually at any time, based on the success of those pursuing.

Of course, neither No. 2 Adam Scott nor No. 3 Henrik Stenson has managed to post a victory anywhere in the world in 2014, or one of them likely would be No. 1 by now.

But No. 4 Bubba Watson has two wins, including the Masters. At No. 5, Matt Kuchar has barely been out of the top 10 in most tournaments, with a victory two weeks ago at the RBC Heritage. No. 6 Jason Day, who won the WGC-Match Play, might have threatened for the top spot were it not for a nagging thumb problem that has kept him out of all but the Masters.

No. 7 Jordan Spieth made a spirited charge at the Masters, No. 8 Sergio Garcia had a nice run late in 2013 and into 2014, and Mickelson, at No. 9, has been mostly disappointing so far but is poised to make a run at the U.S. Open. And No. 10 Justin Rose just had a good final round at the Zurich Classic.

That leaves McIlroy outside of the top 10 for the first time in more than three years, his slide the result of just one worldwide victory in 16 months.

With Woods out of action -- and his return to competitive golf still very much unclear -- golf's void is wide, with nobody so far willing to step in and take over.

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, there have been seven first-time winners on the PGA Tour. There were also nine players who qualified for the Masters by winning. Other than Watson, the only multiple winners -- Jimmy Walker and Patrick Reed -- had never played in the Masters prior to their rookie appearances this year.

Of the six winners leading up to the Masters -- Russell Henley, Reed, John Senden, Matt Every, Steven Bowditch and Matt Jones -- only Reed was already in the Masters field.

Including South Korea's Seung-Yul Noh, there have been five players age 26 and under who have won in the past two months on the PGA Tour, none named McIlroy, Spieth or Rickie Fowler.

Meanwhile, top-notch players such as Luke Donald, Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley have not won. In consecutive weeks, Donald and Bradley played in the final group with a shot at victory, only to come up short.

Zach Johnson and Dustin Johnson both won earlier this season, but it seems a long time ago. Players such as Graeme McDowell, Steve Stricker, Brandt Snedeker, Ian Poulter -- Ryder Cup players all in 2012 -- have seen their form fall off in 2014.

Is this a sign of parity? Perhaps. It could also be a sign that the best players in the game at the moment are not capable of dominating for extended stretches of time. Other than Woods, the only players to really do so in the past two years have been McIlroy -- who won five times worldwide in 2012 -- and Stenson, who won the FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai but won just three times overall worldwide in 2013.

Meanwhile, Ernst returns to Quail Hollow this week with the good vibes from a rainy time a year ago. He has yet to finish better than 30th since that victory, and he missed the cut at the Masters. Yet he is proof that just about anything can happen.

At the turn
Two years ago at Quail Hollow, Anthony Kim withdrew after a first-round 74 at the Wells Fargo Championship and has not been seen since. At the time, he announced he was taking several months off to deal with tendinitis in his arm, then a few weeks later suffered an Achilles injury while training.

His return to competitive golf is still unclear, although it doesn't sound like it will be soon.

"I'm hopeful it will be in 2014," Clarke Jones, Kim's agent, told GolfChannel.com. But he also added that Kim has not been playing golf.

"He's not living under a bridge, he's not living in a box," Jones said. He also strongly denied that there has been any kind of suspension by the PGA Tour.

Kim, 28, starred on the 2008 U.S. Ryder Cup team and was also part of the 2009 U.S. Presidents Cup team. He won three PGA Tour titles, the last at the 2010 Shell Houston Open, and climbed as high as No. 2 in the world following the Masters that year. He is now ranked 1,529th in the world.

Back nine
Say what you will about Donald Trump, but the man loves golf and he has made a significant investment in the game at a time when there has been far more retracting than expanding.

But if the latest reports come to pass, Trump will perhaps have a stake in a major championship.

The UK's Telegraph reported this week that Trump is set to buy Turnberry on the South Ayrshire coast of Scotland for £35 million. Trump has since confirmed the purchase of the resort, which includes two golf courses, a golf academy and hotel and lodge accommodations. Perhaps most notable, however, is that Turnberry has been home to four Open Championships, the most recent in 2009, when Stewart Cink defeated Tom Watson during a playoff.

Watson had won the first Open ever played at Turnberry in 1977, an epic occasion known as the "Duel in the Sun" as he bested Jack Nicklaus over the final 36 holes, shooting 65-65 to Nicklaus' 65-66.

The Open returned for Greg Norman's victory in 1986, as well as a win by Nick Price in 1994. Transportation and infrastructure issues kept the Open from returning to the somewhat remote location for 15 years. Turnberry is almost assuredly in the plans for another Open sometime in the next 10 years.

The views to the Ailsa Craig, a volcanic island several miles off the course, as well as the quality of the links suggest the Open will return at some point. It is one of nine courses in the rotation, with Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland getting some strong consideration of late to host the Open. At this point, the Open has been awarded through 2016, with the tournament going to Royal Liverpool this year, St. Andrews in 2015 and Royal Troon in 2016.

The Open likely will go to England in 2017 and 2019, so 2018 or 2021 would be the most likely chances for Turnberry.

Bob Harig | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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