By Julian Linden
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The thick fog that had blanketed the final round of the U.S. Open in San Francisco lifted on Monday, giving way to brilliant blue skies and dazzling sunshine.
Only golf's increasingly unpredictable pecking order remained cloudy, no clearer to being unraveled after Webb Simpson had won the championship by a single stroke.
The 26-year-old American is one of the rising stars on the PGA Tour, finishing second on last season's money list, but he was still a surprise champion.
Before Sunday's win, Simpson had played in just four majors, and never finished better than 14th. He only won his first PGA Tour title 10 months ago.
"I believed in myself I could win a major, but maybe not so soon," he said.
Simpson's win continued an extraordinary sequence of new winners in the majors since Tiger Woods lost his grip on the sport's blue riband events.
Each of the last 15 majors has been won by different players and each of the last nine has been won by a first-timer.
And there has been a steady rise of younger players winning the big events. Of the nine first-time major winners, six have been aged in their 20s.
"I think the game's changing," said Simpson.
"I think the Tiger effect, of inspiring people to play at a younger age, and the access to golf has gotten so much bigger.
"I think the game will continue to evolve like that. I'm lucky because I feel like we're playing at a time where golf is at its best."
Woods won an astonishing 14 majors between the 1997 Masters and the 2008 U.S. Open, leaving slim pickings for his rivals.
Only fellow American Phil Mickelson and Fiji's Vijay Singh challenged his domination, each winning three majors in the same period but that is no longer the case.
Woods, more than any other player, inspired this new generation of whiz-kid golfers. The more he won, the more popular golf became and the more kids around the world starting heading to the practice range.
His well-publicized decline has coincided with the arrival of a fearless new crop he not only inspired but instilled with the self-belief that anything was possible.
In 2010, Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open with a staggering total of 16-under-par 272.
In 2011, his fellow South African Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to win the Masters and Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy romped to an eight-stroke victory at the U.S. Open, breaking a stack of scoring records which Woods had set.
At last year's PGA Championship, American Keegan Bradley won the title in his first appearance at a major, giving Simpson and his young peers all the proof they needed that they too could achieve great things.
"I think the prime age of golf, 10, 15 years ago, was mid‑30s. Now it's moving closer to the mid‑20s or late 20s," Simpson said.
"All these guys that won before me, I played with these guys all my life. I want to win a tournament.
"They're great players, but I want to do what they're doing. Everybody is so competitive in this world that we just kind of feed off of each other."
While Woods may no longer be able to dominate the game, the increased competition he helped create will ultimately elevate his achievements to an even greater level.
"I don't know how Tiger has won 14 of these things," Simpson said after his own nerve-racking victory. "There was so much pressure. I couldn't even feel my legs on the back nine so my respect for Tiger grew all the more."
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)