By Mark Lamport-Stokes
(Reuters) - As golf's best players converge on Chambers Bay in the Pacific Northwest for next week's U.S. Open, much of the focus will be firmly fixed on the young guns who are likely to dominate in the majors for the foreseeable future.
Masters champion Jordan Spieth and world number one Rory McIlroy, a four-times major winner, are top of that class but in hot pursuit are the likes of Australian Jason Day, American Rickie Fowler and rising Japanese talent Hideki Matsuyama.
"The amazing thing about this group of players is that we've come on tour and we've been ready to win from the start," said McIlroy, a 26-year-old from Northern Ireland.
"Jordan wins his first major at 21. Rickie got his first (PGA Tour) win (at the 2012 Well Fargo Championship) but he really elevated his status with that win (at last month's Players Championship).
"A lot of guys have come out here and it hasn't taken them long how to learn how to win. We don't play maybe with as much fear as some of the rookies used to in the past."
American Spieth was proof of that at the Masters in April when, aged just 21, he claimed his first major title with a record-equaling display at Augusta National.
Brilliant putting, ice-cool composure, careful decision making and the occasional dose of good fortune helped him open with an eight-under 64 and he never relinquished control of the tournament as he completed a wire-to-wire victory by four shots.
Most pundits view Spieth as the likeliest challenger to McIlroy for golfing supremacy over the next decade, but the Texan, who is known for his humility, will not yet agree.
"I still think I have a long way to go to where I could be considered that," said world number two Spieth. "I'm off to a good start. I don't like to think much about it because his success ... I can't compare what I've done to what he's done.
"In order to have a rivalry, we need to be competing against each other consistently at the highest level, and that hasn't happened yet.
"There's a lot of young players that can certainly step up and also take that role, so I have my goal ahead of me. But it would be really, really cool for that to happen."
World number eight Fowler, who tied for 12th at the Masters, became last year only the third player, after Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, to finish in the top five at all four majors in the same season.
Viewed by some as a brilliant talent who should have won many more tournaments, Fowler delivered a perfect riposte with a stunning eagle-birdie-birdie finish before clinching the 2015 Players Championship, the unofficial fifth major, in a playoff.
"The game, I don't think, could really be in a better place," said the 26-year-old Fowler. "There's a lot of great players right now, a lot of young guys playing well.
"Rory ... he's done so well at playing at No. 1 and dealing with everything being the best player in the world. And then Jordan playing well and being No. 2 now.
"Rory has distanced himself a bit from this group of younger guys, but there's going to be a lot of good competition in the years to come. A lot of great young players, and none of us are afraid. We're ready to go to battle and have some fun."
The fun is almost certain to continue next week at Chambers Bay where McIlroy, Spieth, Fowler, the 27-year-old Jason Day and Matsuyama, aged just 23, can all be expected to contend for the title.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)