The Life of a 20-Something on the PGA Tour

Aaron Baddeley is only 25, but says of his PGA Tour career, "I feel like I've been out here forever."

Such is the life of a 20-something on Tour: Lose and you're a bust, especially if you've shown early signs of prodigious talent. But win? Win and the public and press murmur and shout, how about a major?

Baddeley seemed to anticipate the question moments after eking out his first Tour victory at the Verizon Heritage Classic in Hilton Head, South Carolina, last weekend. After the young Aussie explained that the W was, "a stepping stone of the big picture," and was asked what exactly the big picture is, he replied: "To win major tournaments. Win majors. To win majors."

Sigh. Perhaps it was too much to hope for that he'd say, "Cars. Birds. Birdies. The Simpsons. And X-Box."

There is no joie de vivre in the land of 20-somethings because, as Jim Furyk put it after losing to Baddeley by a stroke, "When a kid comes out and he's 21, I think everyone expects him to be a world-beater. Everyone is looking for the next Tiger Woods, and there's not too many of those."

Woods didn't need his 20s to broker a truce between his physical talents and his head, suggesting "maturation" was a polite word for "dilly-dallying." We all bought it, especially the players, but Tiger's 20s are looking more freakish by the day.

Of the 16 PGA Tour events so far this year, just four have been won by 20-somethings: the FBR Open (J.B. Holmes, 23), the WGC-Accenture Match Play (Geoff Ogilvy, 28), the Honda Classic (Luke Donald, 28) and the Verizon. Given the 20-somethings' tendency to fire and fall apart, there's no guarantee that those Ws signify anything, despite the breathless reception that greeted Holmes in Phoenix. "Give me a break," one caddie griped. "If that guy's not young and hittin' it 320, no one cares."

The search for the next Tiger is on and it's taking casualties, giving us "over-the-hill" pros who are too young to know The Dukes of Hazard was a damn fine TV show. Ty Tryon made it through all three stages of Tour Q-school at 17, but bounced off the Tour in just one year. Now an old 21, Tryon is playing overseas, forgotten if not lost. David Gossett, 26, winner of the 2001 John Deere Classic, made one cut in eight Nationwide starts in '05 and is almost certainly finished. Even Charles Howell III, 26, has struggled. A decade ago, as he beat Boyd Summerhays in the AJGA's Canon Cup in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I thought, this kid could play on Tour now. Today? Howell hasn't finished in the Top 35 all year and failed to break 80 while finishing dead last at Augusta. Sergio Garcia, 26, is looking less likely to win a major with each passing year.

All of which is another way of saying the more things change, the more they stay the same. Scads of pros wilted in the aura of Jack Nicklaus. "Bear Apparent" casualties included Bobby Clampett and, for a time, Hal Sutton, among others.

So it goes in the wake of Woods; the search for Tiger Cubs has been at full throttle ever since it was clear he really is the Next Nicklaus. Once we find that one-of-a-kind, incandescently brilliant talent, we can't help but try to find his equal, and we are shocked, shocked, at the failure to launch among the most prodigiously gifted young players.

Even the devoutly religious Baddeley, who said to himself, "This is for you, Jesus," as he stroked his winning, 7-foot putt on Easter Sunday, isn't immune to the pressure. He won the 1999 Australian Open at 18, the first amateur to cop that trophy in four decades, and his special invite into the 2000 Masters was the first given to an amateur since 1976. The green jackets made no secret of their lofty expectations, pairing him with Garcia and Woods for his first two rounds. Baddeley shot 77-72 to miss the cut by a stroke. He got an exemption into the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach two months later but shot 79-74 to MC while Woods was winning by 15. "In September of that year," Baddeley said at the Heritage, "I wanted to quit."

Now he's turned the corner: He gets to talk about majors, as does his countryman Adam Scott, 25. Those two, along with Garcia and Howell, would do well to think of themselves as nice players but no one's heir apparent, no matter what it says in this space or anywhere else. Chad Campbell has it right; he never reads his own press. As Furyk reminds us, there won't be another Tiger but there will be more Tryons, victims of their own precocious youths and the mad rush to anoint the next Mr. Smoothstrokes.

Save a seat in the broadcast booth, Bobby Clampett.

Cameron Morfit covers the PGA Tour as a Senior Writer for GOLF MAGAZINE. You can read his column every Monday on GOLFONLINE. E-mail him your questions and comments at golfletters@golfonline.com.

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