Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Waking Up in 2010: Is It Possible For Young Guys to Win Majors?

1997. That was the year that Tiger Woods went from "incredible amateur talent" to "holy shit this guy is going to dominate golf like nothing we've seen since Jack," and it happened because he did it at a major championship.

Winning random PGA Tour events is nice. Winning majors makes you a player. A very, very special player.

Since Tiger dominated the Masters that year, 28 people have claimed a major. Ernie Els (2), Justin Leonard, Davis Love III, Mark O'Meara (2), Lee Janzen, Vijay Singh (2), Jose Maria Olazabal, Payne Stewart, Paul Lawrie, Retief Goosen (2), David Duval, David Toms, Rich Beem, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Ben Curtis, Shaun Micheel, Phil Mickelson (3), Todd Hamilton, Michael Campbell, Geoff Ogilvy, Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera (2), Padraig Harrington (3), Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Y.E. Yang.

Of those 28, only Leonard, Curtis, Immelman, and Glover were in their 20s, with most in their late 20s. This brings up an interesting question -- is winning major championships a game for the eldest?

Think about it ... in 2009, a 48-year-old Kenny Perry lost to a 39-year-old Angel Cabrera at the Masters, with a 34-year-old Chad Campbell in the mix.

At the U.S. Open, a 29-year-old Lucas Glover was able to hold off 39-year-old Phil Mickelson and 37-year-old David Duval.

The British Open had a, *clears throat*, 59-year-old Tom Watson one up-and-down away from claiming the Claret Jug, only to see a 36-year-old Stewart Cink snag his first major, and the PGA Championship was won by a 37-year-old Y.E. Yang.

So, is winning a major learned in time? Does it take a certain mental state to be able to compete all four rounds of a major, and pull it out at the end? Sergio Garcia has been our closest young gun, competing in tons of majors only to fall short, but it appears that there is that one little thing that can't get the younger professional golfers over the hump.

They might be there for 68 holes. They might stick around for 71 holes. But there is always that one moment when you know it isn't going to happen, and the trophy will be going to a veteran. I asked ESPN's Jason Sobel what he thought of the young-guns drought, and he offered up this.

"There's no doubt that younger players haven't exactly been racking up major titles recently, but this has less to do with age than experience. In my opinion, the most important virtue for a contender at one of the big four is patience -- which of course isn't something that can be practiced on the driving range. There is plenty of talent amongst the newest generation of professionals. Anthony Kim posted a record-breaking 11 birdies in one round at Augusta National, but failed to seriously contend on Sunday afternoon.

It will happen, though. The younger players will earn more experience, learn how to navigate their way around major courses, and we'll be discussing why guys who are even younger can't claim the hardware. It's a never-ending cycle. The list of players who have won majors at a young age is very short and for good reason. Remember: Before winning three majors in two years, Padraig Harrington was known as a perpetual runner-up throughout his career. After those victories, though, he credited just having been in the mix as one of the biggest reasons for finding the winner's circle. The same thing will happen for this younger generation of players. In due time, experience will spawn major titles, as long as the talent is there."

So, with that out there, here is a list, in order, of who looks to be the most likely to do so soon.

1. Rory McIlroy, 20 -- The Northern Ireland flopster played his first full slate of majors in 2009, and finished in the top-10 twice, including a t-3 at the PGA Championship, making the cut in all four. He already won a marquee event at the Dubai Desert Classic, and seems to have the swagger needed to sneak away with a major.

2. Ryo Ishikawa, 18 -- If you think he isn't ready for the spotlight, understand this -- in the first round of the '09 British Open, Ishikawa was paired with Tiger Woods, and beat him, shooting a 68 to Tiger's 71. Sure, he followed that up with a 78 in nasty conditions on Friday, but he rose to the occasion like few have before against the best in the world. He made his first major cut at the PGA Championship, and with a year of majors under his belt, will probably be uncomfortably comfortable at them this year.

3. Anthony Kim, 24 -- Why don't we just file 2009 away for Mr. Kim and be done with it. Two wins in '08, a top-10 at the British and only one missed major cut in his career, Kim absolutely has the game to bring one home. The thing is, can he avoid staying out until 4 AM if he has the lead on Saturday?

4. Rickie Fowler, 21 -- Who cares if he doesn't have much experience (played in two U.S. Opens, made one cut), the guy defines "rise to the occasion." He nearly earned his tour card by playing in just three tournaments as a pro, finishing t-7, t-2 and t-40, and probably would have made it if not for a cancelation at the Vikings Classic. At Q-School, he calmly shot 11-under over six rounds, earned his card, and will be a force in 2010.

5. Chris Wood, 22 -- There might be only one British Open per year, but it appears to be Wood's favorite weekend. He has played in two, and has finished t-5 as an amateur and t-3 this year. Hell, Wood was a 72nd hole bogey away from sneaking in the Watson-Cink playoff, and who knows what would have happened then (36 year difference between competitors would have been fun).

Can one of them do it? Who knows, but I'd say the talent pool is as deep at a young age as it has ever been.

Warren Little, Getty Images


Maroussia said...

It will be great to watch US Open Golf Championship - First Round, i have bought tickets from looking forward to it.

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