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20 in their 20's

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

Trevor Immelman.

Adam Scott had just won the EDS Byron Nelson Championship in late April when he was asked to assess the progress of the current group of 20-something golfers.

"I think everyone is living up to potential," Scott said. "You've got to be careful not to get potential distorted with achievements of Tiger in his 20s, and I think everyone can easily do that, including ourselves. You know, when I turned pro, I thought, yeah, I'll just go out and challenge Tiger (laughter), and it just doesn't happen, unfortunately. You've got to keep it in perspective a little bit."

Woods won 46 times, including 10 majors, in his 20s. He was the first player to put up such audacious numbers so early in his career, and odds are he'll be the last.

Here's a progress report on the game's young guys, mortals division.

Already won a major

Trevor Immelman, 28
After battling a myriad of health problems — a stomach bug at the 2007 Masters, followed by a benign tumor later that year — Immelman came up huge at Augusta this year, surprising many. His putting has always taken a backseat to his overall ball-striking, but he more or less tamed the slickest greens in the game with a W at the year's first major in April. Fun fact: Immelman, who comes from a musical family, is pals with Bon Jovi drummer Tico Torres.

Already sniffed a major

Sergio Garcia, 28
He won the 2008 Players Championship, a near major, for his seventh PGA Tour victory. He's recorded 10 international tournament victories, and his career Ryder Cup record is a ridiculously good 14-4-2. If Garcia's putt on the 72nd hole at the British Open at Carnoustie last summer had dropped, he'd be listed up there with Immelman. Still, despite streaky putting, Garcia is undeniably one of the most lavishly talented and accomplished golfers of his generation. It seems like only a matter of time before he wins a major. Royal Birkdale?

Major potential

Adam Scott, 27
Like his friend Garcia, Scott's been around seemingly forever, has won the Players (and six other tournaments on the PGA Tour), but has never really peaked at quite the right time. Unlike Garcia, Scott's been called the Best Player Never to Come Close to Winning a Major. His best finish is a T3 at the 2006 PGA, when he never threatened the winner, Woods. Scott has three other top-10s in 28 major championship starts overall, which is hard to take for a guy whose swing has been compared to Tiger's, circa 2000.

Best of the rest

Andres Romero, 27
He gave fans a thrill at the British Open last summer, when he led by two shots after a birdie at the 16th hole but finished double-bogey, bogey. The Argentine's dizzying final round included 10 birdies, four pars, two bogeys and two doubles, but Romero didn't rest after finishing a shot out of the playoff between Garcia and Padraig Harrington. He won the Deutsche Bank Players' Championship of Europe the next week, and further enhanced his reputation as a massive talent when he won the PGA Tour's Zurich Classic of New Orleans in late March.

J.B. Holmes, 26
After taking down Phil Mickelson in a sudden-death playoff to win his second FBR Open in three years, Holmes nearly sent Tiger Woods home early in the first round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship three weeks later. Holmes, a Kentucky native, is the second longest hitter on Tour, backs down to no one and will strut off the tee after a particularly massive drive. He is almost a lock to be part of the U.S. Ryder Cup team this fall, either on points or simply because captain Paul Azinger digs his feisty 'tude and will want Kentucky natives on his side at Valhalla in Louisville.

Brandt Snedeker, 27
He won the 2007 Wyndham Championship and challenged Immelman on the weekend at Augusta this year before finishing tied for third place. A longtime fan of Tom Watson, Snedeker met his idol during a practice round at Augusta, and received a consoling telephone call from the legend after the final round. A true fan favorite, Snedeker honed his silky putting stroke and steely determination in fierce matches with his older brother.

Sean O'Hair, 25
He turned pro after his junior year of high school in 1999, and after a long slog through the mini-tours got through PGA Tour Q school (all three stages) in 2004. That was the hard part. The 6-foot-2, angular, sweet-swinging rookie proved he belonged when he won the 2005 John Deere Classic, and he picked up his second Tour victory at the PODS Championship in Tampa in early March. After playing in Sunday's final group at the 2007 Players, and drowning his hopes on 17, O'Hair said, "I think I'm going to win here. I don't think it's an if."

D.J. Trahan, 27
This Clemson graduate's two wins, at the Southern Farm Bureau Classic (2006) and THE Bob Hope Chrysler Classic (2007), came at two relatively under-the-radar events. "Probably 75% of the time I walk into a clubhouse on Tour, people are like, 'Who are you?' And I'm like, 'Damn, I really gotta get on TV more often,'" Trahan says. A pure ball-striker with a temperamental putter, he could make headlines if he has an "on" week during a major or the Players.

Hunter Mahan, 26
This former Oklahoma State star fired three rounds of 62, two of which tied course records, in 2007. He won the Travelers Championship in Hartford, played on the U.S. Presidents Cup team, going 2-3-0, and saw his World Ranking rise from 202nd to 41st. A three-time AJGA All-American and winner of the 1999 U.S. Junior, Mahan was only 21 when he started his first full year on Tour in 2004, the second youngest player behind fellow rookie Kevin Na.

Nick Watney, 27
He's frequently been mistaken for lookalike Bill Haas, but the big difference is Watney has won, at the 2007 Zurich Classic of New Orleans. That he prevailed in his 75th career PGA Tour start came as a surprise to almost no one. Watney won five times as a senior at Fresno State, where he was the top-ranked college player. He won on the Canadian tour after turning pro in 2003, on the Nationwide Tour in 2004, and at an unofficial event at Pebble Beach in 2005.

Charles Howell III, 29
In the wake of what his pal Woods did early in his career, Howell's first decade on Tour has been one of the most dissected and criticized in history. CH3 killed on the American Junior Golf Association circuit, and hopes were raised even higher when at age 17 he faced Woods in the round of 16 at the 1996 U.S. Amateur. "The longer I stay alive in match play," Howell said then, "the more school I get to miss." Alas, Woods sent the skinny kid back to high school (3 and 1 was the score), but it wasn't long before Howell was winning the 2000 Big 12 and NCAA championships as a junior at Oklahoma State. He's won twice in more than seven years on the PGA Tour.

Johnson Wagner, 28
He burst onto the scene as an amateur with a victory at the 2001 Metropolitan Open at Bethpage Black, defended his Met Open title as a pro the following year and has kept winning ever since. Wagner finished 98th on the PGA Tour money list with just over $1 million in his rookie year in 2007, and broke through with his first victory at the Shell Houston Open in early April.

Lucas Glover, 28
This Clemson product with the lag in his swing birdied his last two holes to score his first Tour win the Funai Classic at Disney in 2005, when he capped his round by holing a 100-foot bunker shot on the 18th hole. (He had four no-putt greens in his final nine holes.) Jack Nicklaus made him a captain's pick for the 2007 U.S. Presidents Cup team, and Glover went 2-3-0. Up next for the South Carolina pro: converting his multiple top-25 finishes (44 in his first four years) into victories.

Still knocking on the door

Justin Rose, 27
England's Rose won the European Tour's Order of Merit in 2007, and he seems destined to wear the green jacket after holding at least a share of the first-round lead in 2004, 2007 (he finished T5) and 2008. Rose was one of five players to record top-10 finishes in the first two majors of 2007 — he notched a T10 at the U.S. Open at Oakmont — but in America he has yet to close the deal on Sundays.

Bubba Watson, 29
He's never had a lesson, and his swing thought can be boiled down to one word: kill. But the PGA Tour's leader in driving distance is no one-trick pony. He tied for fifth place at the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont, and he won $2.7 million in his first two years on Tour. He doesn't lack for confidence, either, despite going winless on the Nationwide circuit as well.

Ryan Moore, 25
His one-under-par 287 total at the 2005 Masters (he finished T13) was the best by an amateur at Augusta in 27 years. Moore became the first since Woods to go directly from college to the Tour, bypassing Q school, but has been bothered on and off since then by an injured left hand. After finishing tied for second at the 2005 Bell Canadian Open and 2006 Buick Championship, and solo second at the 2007 Memorial, Moore lost a tense sudden-death playoff to Scott at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship in April. His first Tour win seems imminent.

Under-25 aces

Anthony Kim, 23
He dominated as a junior and in college, created buzz when he finished second at the 2006 Valero Texas Open in his first Tour start, then made it through all three stages of Q school that December. After admittedly slacking off in his rookie year in 2007, Kim broke out with a five-stroke victory at the Wachovia Championship in May. Mark O'Meara, Kim's teammate at the Merrill Lynch Shootout last December, said: "I told him, 'I'm not an expert, but I've watched a lot and I've seen a lot, and you have as much talent or more talent than any other player I've seen besides Tiger, and I believe that.'"

Rory McIlroy, 19
The kid from Northern Ireland burst onto the scene with an opening-round 68 at last summer's British Open at Carnoustie, the only bogey-free round of the day. (He eventually finished tied for 42nd place but was low amateur.) McIlroy turned pro after the Walker Cup and finished third in his second start as a pro, at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, to secure his European Tour card in record time and at a record age.

Martin Kaymer, 23
The kid from Dusseldorf, Germany, shot 59 in a mini-tour event in Europe, won twice in eight starts on the Challenge Tour in 2006 and was European Tour Rookie of the Year in 2007, with five top-10 finishes and £754,691. He won the 2008 European Tour season opener, the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, as well as the BMW International Open in June. He chatted with Woods at the Dubai Desert Classic after finishing second. "This is one worth watching," Padraig Harrington said of the young German.

Jason Day, 20
He became the youngest player to win a PGA Tour-sanctioned event when he shot a tournament-record 16-under-par to win the Nationwide Tour's Legend Financial Group Classic last season. The win began a torrid stretch in which he recorded four top-five finishes in five starts, effectively catapulting him to the PGA Tour in 2008. But aside from top-10s at Pebble Beach and Houston, it's been a rocky rookie year. Day missed the cut nine times in his first 13 starts, suggesting he still may not have recovered from a right wrist injury in 2007.

 

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