Wednesday, January 07, 2009

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Tiger Woods sometimes will glance over his shoulder on his highway to history, not worried about anyone on his bumper but curious to see what the traffic looks like behind him.

He noticed Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas when they effectively were still learning to drive.

Villegas was still a raw but talented rookie when he livened up the Miami crowd and finished second to Woods three years ago at Doral. Kim joined the tour a year later, mostly making news with his mouth, but showing enough game to get the attention of golf's best player.

Woods had a clear view of their potential while recovering from two knee surgeries last year.

Kim broke Woods' scoring record at the Wachovia Championship with a five-shot victory, then won Woods' tournament with a 65 at Congressional in the AT&T National. He was sixth on the PGA Tour money list and moved up 63 spots to No. 12 in the world ranking.

Villegas took baby steps until bursting through with victories in the BMW Championship and Tour Championship - both won by Woods the previous year - to finish second in the FedEx Cup and move up 49 spots to No. 7 in the world.

"You knew that was coming, their talent," Woods said last month. "That was just a matter of time before they broke through and won events. To see the young guys playing better only is going to make it ... more difficult to win events."

The question is whether their time is now.

Kim and Villegas, two players who emerged during Woods' absence, will be paired together in the second-to-last group when the 2009 season gets under way Thursday at the Mercedes-Benz Championship, a winners-only field of 33 players missing the top four from the world ranking.

"I've been looking forward to this tournament for a long time," said the 23-year-old Kim. "I feel like I've come a long way with my game and my attitude. And hopefully, if I can just stay on this roll, I feel like I've turned a corner. And if I can just keep my head down and stay focused, I'm going to be in good shape for this year."

Villegas, the Colombian who turned 27 on Wednesday, will be going for his third straight PGA Tour victory while trying to forget the enormous success he had at the end of last year.

"It was a great finish to the year," he said. "But on Thursday, we start from zero."

Woods is still recovering from knee surgery and won't play for at least another two months, perhaps enough time to lose his No. 1 ranking to Sergio Garcia, who turns 29 this week and arguably played better than anyone over the last nine months. Garcia is skipping Kapalua because he is home in Spain and is playing next week in Abu Dhabi.

Also missing is British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington, who is taking his winter break; and Phil Mickelson, who stopped coming to Kapalua in 2002.

But there are plenty of new faces at the Plantation Course - only six players were in the field a year ago, and 13 newcomers to the event include Andres Romero of Argentina, the PGA Tour rookie of the year and another young star who gets overlooked.

Defending champion Daniel Chopra will play with FedEx Cup champion Vijay Singh.

Even so, the focus is on youth.

Zach Johnson, the former Masters champion, was talking about Kim as a young player who is "up and coming" until he stopped himself in mid-sentence and smiled.

"I shouldn't say 'up-and-coming.' He's here," Johnson said. "He's established himself. But he's one of those kids that could really take golf to another level."

Along with his two victories on two of the better golf courses, Kim really made a name for himself at the Ryder Cup with his fearless play, boundless energy and 5-and-4 thumping of Garcia in the leadoff singles match.

"He's got the swagger, he's got all the tools," Woods said. "It's just a matter of him working hard and continuing to improve."

Kim promises to follow the advice.

Born in Los Angeles of Korean heritage, he brought the smack of LA streets to the genteel sport of golf, and rubbed plenty of people the wrong way with his brash talk. But he was lacking the work ethic until watching Woods late in the 2007 season, and getting some stern advice from Mark O'Meara.

Since then, Kim tries to keep it simple and keep it quiet. And even as he appears on the cover of more magazines, he appears grounded.

"It's hard not to notice, but at the same time, it doesn't affect me in the last bit," Kim said of the attention. "And the reason is, I've always thought that I was able to achieve some pretty high, lofty goals. I never thought it would be any other way. I thought one day it was going to happen, and it happens to be now.

"Hopefully, if I just stay on the right path, I'll have a pretty bright future."

Villegas found the difference between working hard and working long hours, making sure he didn't spend time on the range unless he was making small improvements. He feels like the same player before his consecutive victories, except for that invaluable confidence.

"There's a little fear that's not there anymore. There's no doubt," he said. "Before you win a golf tournament, you know you're good enough, but you haven't done it. And you ask yourself, 'When is it going to happen?' But after you do it, it's just like, 'You know what? I did it before, why can't I do it again?"'

But the key is to sustain that success, not only this year but when Woods returns.

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