Friday 19 January 2018

Tiger cubs prepare to take over world

Karl MacGinty profiles 13 hugely talented young players who are set to dominate the game for many years to come

Karl McGinty

TIGER WOODS hit golf like a lightning bolt when he won the US Masters in 1997. The young, rampaging Tiger added new electricity and excitement to his sport and kids everywhere sat up and took notice.

Remember that first ad campaign by Nike in which children from all around the globe proclaimed: "I am Tiger Woods?"

So powerful was the message given out by Tiger on the golf course 13 years ago, it's still having a profound impact on the sport today, driving the age profile of the world's professional elite down to unprecedented levels.

For example, a record 30 of the top-100 players in golf's current world rankings are in their 20s or younger ... all of them were still at school when Woods, then 21, romped to victory at Augusta in 1997.

Thirteen of those 30 are aged 25 and under, while three are still in their teens, which would have been unthinkable a few years back in the wrinkly, grey-haired, old world of golf.

Sure, a teenage prodigy like Seve or Sergio occasionally burst onto the world stage ... but to have four, Ryo Ishikawa, Matteo Manassero, Danny Lee and Seung-Yul Noh, all winning on the world's major tours at the same time is phenomenal.

In 2000, there were 17 players under the age of 30 in the world's top 100, but only two, Tiger and Garcia, had yet to celebrate their 25th birthday.

Similarly, in 1990, 15 of golf's leading 100 players were still in their 20s, but of that number, only Jose Maria Olazabal (24), Robert Gamez (22) and Billy Mayfair (24) were under 25.

Indeed, when the official world rankings began in 1986, the 'baby' in the elite top 50 was Ian Baker-Finch, then aged 26, followed by Corey Pavin and Fred Couples, both 27.

Current world No 11 Rory McIlroy was only seven when he watched Woods don the Green Jacket that first time ... yes, golf-mad Rory used stay up and watch the Masters.

Back then, Japanese golfing sensation Ishikawa was just five, while Manassero, Europe's Rookie of the Year in 2010, would celebrate his fourth birthday the following week.

Today, golf needs its baby boomers to fill the vacuum left by Woods over the past 12 months.

As US PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem pointed out last week: "Youth will be our primary promotional focus" in 2011 because it "makes for good theatre.

"I've never in my tenure seen so much buzz and interest about rookies and young players creating exciting performances," he added. "Actually, it has led us to conclude that we really need to focus on that dynamic as we go forward."

Pointedly, of the 13 players aged 25 or under in the world's top 100, just three, Rickie Fowler and Anthony Kim and Aussie Jason Day, are members of the US Tour.

McIlroy (21), who has decided to give up his US Tour card in 2011, probably is the most experienced and accomplished of golf's elite u-25s, especially in the Major championship arena.

He also has the flair to excite galleries on any given Sunday, though McIlroy's short game needs work if he's to do it on a more consistent basis.

Ishikawa (19) has boosted his confidence and honed his ability to finish out tournaments with eight victories on the Japan Tour and he plans to remain a full member of his domestic circuit next year.

Manassero (17) and Noh (19) are two other remarkable young men capable of producing fireworks in 2011, though one must be wary of overburdening such young players with expectation.

The fate of Danny Lee serves as a cautionary tale.

In 2008, Lee succeeded Tiger as the youngest US Amateur champion, following up with a sensational victory at the 2009 Johnnie Walker Classic, which established him, at age 18, as the youngest winner on the European Tour (a record recently broken by Manassero).

Since then, however, the New Zealander has plummeted to 461st in the world after missing the cut in 22 of 45 events. Lee failed to win a PGA Tour card at Q-School last week, but, thankfully, still has one year of his European Tour exemption to run ... he'll be back, in his own good time.

Today we profile the 13 players of 25 and under who have already made it into the world's top 100 confident that several of them, perhaps McIlroy, Ishikawa and Manassero, will keep golf's Tiger economy booming into the future.

Martin Kaymer Germany. Age: 25. World Rank: 3rd.

WORLD No 1 Lee Westwood hit the nail on the head last month when he said of Martin Kaymer, his successor as Race to Dubai winner: "He seems to have that steely Langer, Schumacher, Vettel look about him.

"If you're thinking of German sportsmen, they all have that sort of look that nothing fazes them. So I think he's got a fairly healthy future, as long as he stays off go-karts!"

The US PGA champion may not have the flair of Woods (or McIlroy), but he is as powerful mentally as anyone in the game, as Graeme McDowell discovered when he looked in Kaymer's eyes on the first tee at the recent Dubai World Championship.

He is sublimely efficient from tee to green, while his pitching and chipping has come on a bomb. Kaymer could knock Westwood off the top of the world if he completes his Abu Dhabi hat-trick in January.

Rory McIlroy Northern Ireland. Age: 21. World Rank: 11th.

SO far, Rory McIlroy is the only one of golf's Generation Next to display the X-factor ... an ability, like Tiger, to thrill all-comers.

Quail Hollow went crazy as McIlroy swept to victory with his sensational final-round 62 last May. Golf hadn't seen anything as exciting as this from anyone not called Woods since Sergio Garcia's hop, skip and running jump into second behind Woods at the 1999 US PGA at Medinah.

McIlroy's decision to relinquish membership of the PGA Tour in 2011 and spend more time in Northern Ireland with girlfriend Holly, family and friends is wise, especially if it gives him the opportunity to make full use of the short game facility at his home in Moneyreagh.

A shortcoming in McIlroy's wedge play was exposed at the end of a decent season, which included top-three finishes at the British Open and US PGA championships, while his putting is still a work in progress. Yet Rory's still the real deal!

Rickie Fowler USA. Age: 22. World Rank: 26th.

AMERICA loves Rickie Fowler, the flop-haired California boy, who celebrates his 22nd birthday today, but looks more like a high school kid.

Fowler's a charming young chap. For example, he was the only guy to bring a little gift to the 21st birthday party thrown for Rory McIlroy during Players Championship week at Sawgrass last May.

He's eminently marketable too, signing multi-million dollar endorsement contracts with Titleist, Puma and Rolex within weeks of turning professional after his second taste of the Walker Cup action in 2009.

Since winning his PGA Tour card at Q-School last year, Fowler has settled nicely on the pro circuit.

With three runner-up finishes prominent among a series of impressive performances on the US circuit, he became the first Tour rookie to be given a Ryder Cup wild card, and acquitted himself well at Celtic Manor.

Yet being voted PGA Tour Rookie of the Year ahead of McIlroy has been a matter for heated debate. In classic pop terms, McIlroy's the Beatles and Fowler's The Monkees.

Anthony Kim USA. Age: 25. World Rank: 28th.

BORN in Los Angeles of Korean parents, Anthony Kim was blessed with a glorious golf game, but was short-changed when it came to attitude.

A Q-School graduate in 2006, he had four top-10 finishes in 2007, followed by his maiden PGA Tour success at the Wachovia in 2008. Kim then became the first American player under 25 since Tiger to win twice on Tour in the same season at the AT&T Championship, sealing victory with a splendid final-round 65 at Congressional.

On his Ryder Cup debut at Valhalla, Kim led the rout of Nick Faldo's mob with a comprehensive 5&4 thumping of Garcia in the singles.

In 2009, Kim then set the record for most birdies in one round at the Masters with 11 on Friday. He finished top three at Augusta this year before undergoing the thumb operation that wrecked his season in 2010. Watch out for him at Augusta next April.

Ryo Ishikawa Japan. Age: 19. World Rank: 36th.

THIS guy wins for fun and, in that respect, is the most Tiger-esque of golf's young guns. Already a megastar in Japan, Ishikawa is followed by a massive media troupe wherever he plays.

His dad brought him to the local driving range at age six and it was love at first sight for Isihkawa, who won the first professional event he entered at age 15 years and eight months, a record for the world's premier tours.

Since turning pro in 2008, he has won eight times on the Japan Tour; topping their Order of Merit in 2009. He is the youngest player ever to get into the world's top 100 and the elite top 50.

Last summer, Ishikawa shot the first 58 in elite professional golf as he swept to victory in the Chunichi Crowns, coincidentally this feat came on the same Sunday that McIlroy ran amok at Quail Hollow.

Jason Day Australia. Age 23. World Rank: 37th.

THE first golf club Jason Day owned was salvaged by his dad, Alvin, from the local rubbish tip. Just three, he'd spend hour after hour using that club to smash a tennis ball off the back fence.

When he saw the toddler strike that ball, 'Abby' Day knew his boy was special.

Sadly, 'Abby' wasn't around last May to see Jason clinch victory at the HP Byron Nelson Championship and, at age 22, become the youngest Aussie to win on the US Tour.

Day's dad died when he was 12, sending the grief-stricken youngster off the rails for a spell. He believes golf saved him.

His Filipino mum enrolled Jason as a boarder at an internationally renowned golf school in Australia. Day beat loneliness by hitting golf balls early in the morning, at lunchtime and again in the evening -- inspired in his pursuit of golfing perfection by a book he'd borrowed on the early life of Tiger Woods.

As a teenager, Day won national and regional titles and even broke Jack Nicklaus' course record 64 at Royal Hobart. Upon turning pro in 2006, he then headed for the States, winning on the Nationwide Tour the following year.

Day's tireless efforts to make the grade paid off at the Byron Nelson in May, and in September he finished eighth in the FedEx Cup, earning $3.5m-plus and his place in the world's elite top 50.

Yuta Ikeda Japan. Age: 24. World Rank: 41st.

WITH four tournament victories in each of his last two seasons in Japan, Yuta Ikeda has established himself as one of golf's rising sons in his homeland.

Second on the money list in 2009, only his second season on Tour, Ikeda played all four Majors this season, making the cut at the Masters and US Open.

He made sure of fourth place on the Japan Tour in 2010 with an impressive win at last month's Dunlop Phoenix, leaving Europe's Robert Karlsson and Edoardo Molinari five strokes behind in a tie for fourth. Ikeda celebrates his 25th birthday on December 22.

Matteo Manassero Italy. Age: 17. World Rank: 61st.

AT the tender age of 17 years and 188 days, Matteo Manassero became the youngest winner on the European Tour at October's Castello Masters, leading McIlroy to observe: "He's making me feel old."

Fittingly, the tournament Manassero won is hosted by Garcia, though the gifted young Italian's swing is more orthodox than El Nino's and his temperament is more even.

Manassero's introduction to golf resulted from an early reluctance to eat.

His parents then discovered the toddler would devour everything in sight when golf was on TV.

So, they began recording tournaments and playing them at meal times. Soon he'd become as deft with woods and irons as with a knife and fork.

At 16, Manassero became the youngest winner of the British Amateur Championship, then tied 13th at last year's British Open at Turnberry, claiming the amateur medal.

In April, he became the youngest player to make the cut at the Masters, beating by two years the record held by Bobby Cole since 1967.

He turned pro on May 3; won in Castellon and finished second to Ian Poulter in Hong Kong, establishing himself as Europe's undisputed Rookie of the Year in 2010.

Seung Yul-Noh Korea. Age: 19. World Rank: 65th.

THERE could be no greater endorsement of Seung Yul-Noh's ability than victory over his boyhood idol KJ Choi in this year's Maybank Malaysian Open, which is co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours.

Noh, winner of the 2010 Asian Order of Merit, hit his first golf shots at age seven.

With his family home in Seoul backing onto the sea, he'd knock balls along the sand with a child's set of clubs.

"During summer, I'd hit balls on the beach from 4.30 to 6.30 in the morning before school and, when classes were over, I'd rush to the driving range."

Noh was 14 when he won the Korean Boys' and Men's Amateur in the same summer. He turned pro at 17 in 2008, winning that year's Midea China Classic, the first of his two victories as a pro.

Rhys Davies Wales. Age: 25. World Rank: 71st.

BORN in Scotland, but reared a Welshman, Rhys Davies was invited by Colin Montgomerie to be his official buggy driver during September's Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor. At Medinah in 2012, however, the only thing Davies wants to drive is his own golf ball.

He's good enough to make it. Davies is one of the hottest putters in Europe and underlined his class by beating Louis Oosthuizen (of St Andrews British Open fame) by two strokes last March to crown his first full season on the European Tour with a victory in the King Hassan II Trophy.

A two-time Walker Cup player, who teamed up with McIlroy, Danny Willett and David Horsey at the 2007 match at Royal Co Down, Davies shot a stunning final-round 62 at Celtic Manor to finish second behind McDowell at June's Welsh Open.

Davies, who went through the US golf scholarship system at East Tennessee, earned his European Tour card by winning twice on the Challenge Tour in 2009 and finished 18th in the 2010 Race to Dubai.

Danny Willett England. Age: 23. World Rank: 76th.

THE son of a Church of England vicar from Sheffield, Danny Willett has placed his faith in his golf game and it shouldn't be long before he wins and joins the European Tour hierarchy.

A gifted amateur, he was an ebullient team-mate of McIlroy, Horsey, and Davies at the 2007 Walker Cup and progressed to No 1 in the world amateur rankings before turning pro in 2008, earning his Tour card at Q-School that year.

Fifth at the flagship BMW PGA Championship and a runner-up finish at the Dunhill Links were prominent among Willett's seven top-10s this year as he finished 22nd in the Race to Dubai.

David Horsey England. Age: 25. World Rank: 92nd.

IRISH golf fans first noticed David Horsey when he took defending champion McIlroy, then 17, to the third tie hole before succumbing in the semi-final of the 2006 West of Ireland Amateur Championship.

This rugged young man from Stockport, Lancashire, was a true grinder, a future pro if ever there was one. He and McIlroy featured with Willett and Davies on the 2007 Walker Cup team and both turned pro that autumn.

Horsey wasn't as fast out of the stalls as McIlroy. He played the Challenge Tour in 2008, getting into the winner's enclosure twice as he earned a European Tour card for 2009.

He hung onto his credentials for 2010 and then beat Ross Fisher by a short head with a superb final-round 67 at June's BMW International Open. Horsey is a genuine stayer.

Shunsuke Sonoda Japan. Age: 21. World Rank: 93rd.

IT'S a measure of Shunsuke Sonoda's golf game that Ishikawa nicknamed him 'King' after he swept all the junior events when they played on the same high school team.

Isihkawa and Sonoda first met in elementary school and renewed their friendship when the latter returned to Tokyo after a couple of years in high school in Gold Coast, Australia.

In his sophomore year at University, Sonoda qualified for his Japan Tour card and began playing on the professional circuit in 2010, winning June's Mizuno Open Yomiuri Classic.

He finished 10th on the Japan Tour money list in his first year, registering three second places and two other top-10s along with his win.

Irish Independent

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