Youth on the Rise in World Ranking

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MARANA, Ariz. -- The latest world golf ranking published Monday shows eight players among the top 15 who are younger than Tiger Woods, which can only lead to one conclusion.
 
Woods must be getting older.
 
Youth, which at this moment is defined as anyone younger than the 31-year-old Woods, showed some promise over the last two weeks. Charles Howell III (27) shot 65 in the final round and beat Phil Mickelson in a playoff at Riviera, then Henrik Stenson (30) continued his torrid stretch by winning the Accenture Match Play Championship for his third victory in the last six months.
 
Stenson climbed to No. 5 in the world, tops among Europeans and the highest position ever by a Swede.
 
That caused consternation in some quarters, for Stenson does not seem like he belongs in any conversation about the ``Big Five.''
 
At least not yet.
 
Stenson isn't sure himself, especially when he listened to the names ahead of him and behind him - Woods, Jim Furyk, Mickelson, Adam Scott, Stenson, Ernie Els, Geoff Ogilvy, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh.
 
His name doesn't stand out as glaringly as the lineup of major venues in 2000 (Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and Valhalla), but he was asked nonetheless if he felt as though he belonged.
 
``I think I've just established myself within the top 20, and then just recently moved into the top 10,'' Stenson said. ``I mean, I can't say that I go straight out and say, 'I should be No. 5 or No. 6 in the world.' But obviously, that's where I am at the moment.''
 
And that wasn't a fluke.
 
Stenson might not be a household name in the United States (Memo to Americans: Golf is played in other parts of the world), but his record might be second only to Woods since September, with three victories and eight top-10s in his last 10 tournaments.
 
He won the BMW International Open in Germany to finish atop the European Ryder Cup standings. Three weeks ago, he went head-to-head with Els over four rounds at the Dubai Desert Classic to beat him by one stroke, with Woods another shot behind. And last week north of Tucson, he played 120 holes in five days to win his first World Golf Championship.
 
Stenson hit perhaps the most sensational shot of the tournament when his wedge from the hard pan (after taking a penalty drop from a cactus) spun back to 2 feet for par that enabled him to get through the quarterfinals. He showed his power on the decisive hole in the championship match against Ogilvy when he reached the 600-yard 17th hole in two shots, despite a slight breeze in his face.
 
So why is it so hard to wrap your arms around Stenson being No. 5?
 
For the same reason that Scott (26) seems slightly out of place at No. 4.
 
Stenson said as much when he was asked what to expect next. He didn't talk about No. 1 - that's not even in range for Furyk or Mickelson - but rather the four biggest weeks in golf's summer calendar.
 
``I wouldn't mind being the first Swede to win a major championship,'' he said. ``That's the two childhood dreams that I had - playing in the Ryder Cup and winning the British Open.''
 
He played in his first Ryder Cup last September, went 1-1-1 and got the distinction of holing the putt that clinched victory for Europe.
 
Winning a major might be a tad tougher.
 
``We've got the world's best out there for the majors, and we know a few of them sort of put subscriptions on the tournaments,'' he said with a smile. ``It's not obviously big chances that you're going to win, but you can just try and put yourself in position coming Sunday.''
 
The ``Big Five'' from two years ago consisted of Woods, Singh, Mickelson, Els and Goosen, all multiple major champions.
 
While this collection of youth from all corners of the globe is getting better, the real measure is majors. And of the eight players younger than Woods in the top 15, Ogilvy is the only one who has captured a Grand Slam event. Only two others, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, have even contended in the final round of a major.
 
Garcia (27) played in the final group twice in a major, most recently in the British Open last year at Hoylake. Donald (29) was tied for the lead with Woods at the PGA Championship last year and finished five shots behind.
 
Scott closed with a 67 last year at Medinah to tie for third, his best finish in a major, even though he was six shots behind. Stenson has only played in seven majors, and his best was a tie for 14th last year at the PGA Championship.
 
Trevor Immelman (27), No. 12 in the world, tied for fifth in the '05 Masters (eight shots behind Woods). Paul Casey (29) is No. 14 in the world whose best major moment was a tie for sixth in the 2004 Masters. He started that final round two shots out of the lead and closed with a 74.
 
Howell moved up to No. 15 in the world. He has never finished higher than a tie for 15th in the majors. His goal at the start of the year was to simply get into the Masters, his hometown event. He has yet to show any mettle in the four biggest events in golf, although his game has never looked better.
 
Howell and Lucas Glover are the only Americans under 30 who are among the top 50 in the world, and while that might sound troubling, it's time to stop looking at golf from a nationalistic perspective.
 
It is not the United States against Europe (except for a wonderful exhibition held every two years), nor is it the Americans against the rest of the world. Golf is a global game, and has been the past several years.
 
What every player of every age and of every nationality has in common is the pursuit of Tiger Woods.
 
Right now, no one is winning that race.
 
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