As Gary Player steps aside new generation takes over

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AUGUSTA, Ga. ' An armada of mowers hummed along the fairways at Augusta National as a frigid breeze whipped through the place, making it feel more like winter than spring in these parts.
 
Workers raked pine straw into neat piles, gathered up any stray limbs and put the finishing touches on a course that will be hosting a Masters for the ages.
 
All ages.
 
From Gary Players farewell to an invasion of fearless teens, none of whom seems to realize that youth is rarely served at Augusta, the generational divide is as large as ever for this Masters.
 
Player, a three-time champion and winner of nine majors overall, announced Monday that his 52nd appearance at Augusta will be his last, the game having long since passed him by even though the 73-year-old South African never lost his passion for staying fit.
 
Im exercising profusely, but its very difficult, Player said. The golf course is so long. It is just so long. I mean, Im hitting a wood to almost every single hole.
 
Length is not a problem for 19-year-old Rory McIlroy. Or 18-year-old Danny Lee. Or 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa. They may be too young to order a beer in the clubhouse, but theyre all eager to take on Augusta for the first time.
 
Its pretty cool to have three teenagers in the field, McIlroy said.
 
The kid from Northern Ireland made a name for himself with an opening-round 68 at the 2007 British Open. This year, he beat a strong field at Dubai for his first major win. Amazingly, hes already climbed to No. 17 in the world rankings.
 
I dont feel like a 19-year-old, McIlroy said. Obviously I am, but I feel like Ive matured very quickly since coming on tour, and Im sure Danny and Ryo will tell you the same thing.
 
Lee replaced Tiger Woods in the record books as the youngest U.S. Amateur champion, and he made more history in February when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic to become the youngest winner in European Tour history.
 
Then theres Ishikawa, who could pass for a rock star in Japan. He won his first Japan Golf Tour event as a 15-year-old amateur and won again last year after turning pro. This week, hes taking time away from high school to play in the Masters.
 
Anthony Kim, all of 23 and a star of Americas Ryder Cup victory, chuckled when someone asked how all those youngsters made him feel.
 
I feel really old, he quipped.
 
Of course, everyone is chasing the man with four green jackets in his collection and plenty of room at home for a few more. Woods won his first at 21 ' the youngest Masters champion ever ' and hes coming off a win at Bay Hill that erased any doubts about the quality of his game after knee surgery.
 
Woods showed up at mid-afternoon Monday, getting in some work on the driving range and putting green while still in his sneakers. Then, after most of the patrons had headed home on an unseasonably cool day, the worlds No. 1 player managed to sneak in six holes on the back nine before giving way to the grounds crew.
 
Still only 32, hes not prepared to give way to the kiddie corps anytime soon.
 
But they already have Woods in their sights.
 
Rory must now say to himself, Look, you must use Tiger as a role model and raise the bar, Player said. The world is at his feet. Same as Ishikawa in Japan. I saw him hitting balls in Japan. Unbelievable. Then I saw Danny Lee this morning. Just beautiful. I mean, great swing. And Kim, he can really play.
 
From Phil Mickelson to Sergio Garcia, those who came along about the same time as Woods often seem a bit overwhelmed when they get into a Tiger staredown.
 
This next generation seems a bit more willing to take him on. Theyve just got to do it on the course. The learning curve at Augusta is mighty steep, but McIlroy can remember just about every stroke from Woods record-breaking Masters victory in 1997.
 
The guys that are playing in Tigers era, Ive seen them do all of these things and play in the same tournaments as him, and maybe they thought this guy is almost unbeatable, McIlroy said. The likes of myself and Danny and Ryo have seen him on TV. You know, we can relate to him in a way, especially that first Masters. He was only 21 and you could sort of relate to someone that age. You were thinking to yourself, Well, hopefully when Im that age, I can do something like that.
 
Player would be a pretty good player to emulate, as well. He won his first Masters in 1961, added another in 74 and captured his last green jacket in 78 ' at age 42.
 
The Man in Black dueled with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, witnessed Woods amazing rise and holds the record for most Masters appearances.
 
No. 52 will be his last. Player will take his final walk down the 18th fairway on Friday in all likelihood, considering he hasnt made the cut since 1998. Hell do his best to hold back the tears as he soaks up all the cheers and the memories.
 
Then itll be time to turn it over to the kids.
 
The game appears to be in good hands.
 
The people Ive met over the years, the battles that I had with Arnold and Jack and others, and now to see all of these young fellows coming along, Player said. Theres a great saying that the Chinese have. They say, Everything shall pass. And thats what we have got to realize.
 

 

 

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