After eight weeks filled with too much dark news, the West Coast Swing ended with bright and shiny promise.
With Hunter Mahan outplaying Rickie Fowler down the stretch of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, golf’s youth movement continued to build momentum.
The game could use a youthful injection, and we seem to be getting just that.
Last year closed and this year opened with a run of momentous birthdays that was depressing.
Arnold Palmer had turned 80, Jack Nicklaus 70, Tom Watson 60, Fred Couples 50, Ernie Els 40 and Sergio Garcia 30.
The aging of many of the game’s biggest names was enough to make your bones creak.
It didn’t help when Trevor Immelman turned 30 on Dec. 16, leaving the sport with no major championship winners under 30.
That may be changing.
For all the talk about how this might have been the year Tiger Woods won the Grand Slam, there’s great opportunity available for golf’s emerging talent with Woods’ return uncertain. How about a Twentysomething Slam? It's far-fetched but worth pondering with youthful talent beginning to blossom.
Johnson (25), Mahan (27), Anthony Kim (24), Sean O’Hair (27), Camilo Villegas (27), Rory McIlroy (20), Martin Kaymer (25), Justin Rose (29) and Andres Romero (28) are among the twentysomething talent who have already contended in majors or shown promise that they’re ready to break through.
The promise is even more evident on the European Tour, where six of this season’s nine events have been won by players under 30.
Charl Schwartzel, the 25-year-old South African, has won twice. Germany’s Kaymer, Spain’s Pablo Martin (23), Scotland’s Richie Ramsay (26) and Australia’s Andrew Dodt have already won 2010 European Tour events.
Fowler may need some seasoning before he contends in majors, but he's on the right track. Adam Scott has yet to hit 30 but leads the youthful brigade with six PGA Tour titles.
Who are the best players under 30?
Here’s how this reporter ranks them:
1. Dustin Johnson
His victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am three weeks ago vaulted him to the top of this list. You don’t win back-to-back years there without being a special talent. He joined Sam Snead (1937-38), Cary Middlecoff (1955-56), Jack Nicklaus (1972-73), Tom Watson (1977-78) and Mark O’Meara (1989-90) as the only players to repeat as champs at Pebble Beach. Johnson is showing he’s more than a big hitter. There’s something about his unflappable temperament that makes him appear well suited to the pressure that comes in the biggest events.
2. Rory McIlroy
McIlroy is knocking on the door consistently despite his youth. He has finished sixth or better in five of his last six starts. His showings in the majors last year were impressive. He tied for 20th at the Masters, tied for 10th at the U.S. Open and tied for third at the PGA Championship. He also made the cut at the British Open, tying for 47th.
3. Anthony Kim
Kim’s immense talent caught the eye of Tiger Woods, which pretty much tells you everything. Woods knows what it takes and sees “it” in Kim. Of course, Kim must be sick of hearing that he isn’t getting the most out of his talent and appears eager to change those assessments. His record 11 birdies in the second round of last year’s Masters show what spectacular possibilities he possesses.
4. Camilo Villegas
The back-to-back FedEx Cup victories two seasons ago spoke to his potential. While he didn’t follow up meaningfully last year, he looks as if he’s finding his mojo again this season. He made it to the semifinals of the Accenture Match Play, knocking off Johnson along the way. He tied for ninth against a strong field at Qatar and tied for eighth against a quality field Sunday in Phoenix. His swing and putting stroke may not dazzle you, but he possesses a toughness that matters more.
5. Hunter Mahan
With his ball-striking skills, his Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup resume, it was perplexing why he had won just once coming into this season. He has been seventh or better in total driving on the PGA Tour three of the last four seasons. He was sixth in scoring last season and seventh in greens in regulation the year before that. The guy’s a gifted ball striker, but he’s never been among the Tour’s best putters. With his victory Sunday in Phoenix, he served notice. He’s figuring it out.
6. Charl Schwartzel
Back-to-back European Tour victories to start the season didn’t overwhelm you when you saw the fields, but he has four European Tour titles overall. He showed American audiences something beating Mahan and Jim Furyk to advance to the quarterfinals of the Accenture Match Play two weeks ago.
7. Sean O’Hair
O'Hair's three PGA Tour titles equals Johnson and trails only Scott among the twentysomethings. He was 10th on the PGA Tour in scoring last season while ranking 113th in putting per greens in regulation. He’s never finished among the top 100 in putting in his five seasons on Tour.
8. Martin Kaymer
With a victory at Abu Dhabi and a tie for fourth at Dubai, Kaymer made a strong statement at the start of the new season. His tie for sixth at the PGA Championship last August shows he's learning his way quickly in the world's biggest events.
9. Ross Fisher
Three European titles and strong showings in last year’s majors get him on this list. He finished fifth at the 2009 U.S. Open.
10. Ryo Ishikawa
At 18, he’s already won six Japan Tour events and played in the Presidents Cup.