Thu, Dec 01, 2011 - Page 18 News List

Absent Tiger gives young golfers room they need to shine

AP, THOUSAND OAKS, CALIFORNIA

The pool of young talent in golf has never looked deeper.

Rory McIlroy won the US Open at age 22, the second-youngest player to win a major since the Masters began in 1934. Jason Day, the 23-year-old Australian, was a runner-up in two majors this year. Rickie Fowler, 22, won his first pro event in South Korea and is responsible for all those bright orange Puma hats in just about any gallery.

Matteo Manassero won twice on the European Tour before he was 18. Ryo Ishikawa had 10 wins in Japan before he was 19.

The list gets even longer with budding stars in their 20s — Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Anthony Kim.

Attribute that depth to Tiger Woods.

It’s not because he set the bar so high and made everyone try to get better. It’s because he no longer wins so many tournaments. So maybe the pool only looks deeper because it no longer has such a big fish.

For the second straight year, nobody won more than three times on the PGA Tour. And both years, that third win came in their last tournament — Luke Donald last month at Disney, Jim Furyk last year at the Tour Championship.

The five previous years, Woods won at least six times in all but one year. The exception was 2008, when he missed the second half of the year with knee surgery. He won four times in six starts.

It’s one thing to talk about this great parity in golf, particularly on the biggest tour. However, two questions should be asked: Would that perception of parity exist if Woods had not gone away the last two years? Is it possible that just as many great young players were around over the last decade, only to be overlooked by the overwhelming presence of the game’s biggest star?

Sergio Garcia nearly won the PGA Championship at 19 except that he went up against Woods that day in Medinah. Adam Scott was 23 when he won The Players Championship. Justin Leonard was 25 when he won the Open. Phil Mickelson won as an amateur.

“The talk like there’s parity on tour is slightly flawed, because there’s always been parity,” Geoff Ogilvy said in a recent interview. “It’s just that there was one guy who made no one notice. The last 15 years you’ve had Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Duval, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia. You had arguably more proven players — lots of them — over the last 15 years. Now it’s the same.”

Woods has gone two years since his last win, which for so many years seemed unimaginable until his personal life unraveled, until he chose to go through yet another swing change, then effectively went four months without being able to practice because of injury. Through it all, his confidence eroded with each setback.

Thirteen players have won the last 13 majors, dating to Padraig Harrington at the 2008 PGA Championship. There was a time when Woods won seven out of 11 majors early in his career, and six out of 14 majors right before reconstructive knee surgery.

If he had kept winning at the rate he did for 14 years, would anyone have noticed this crop of young players?

“Rory McIlroy would still be up there,” Hunter Mahan said Tuesday.

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