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Mahan headlines Byron Nelson; McIlroy leads loaded field in Europe

Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

 had a chance to catch Woods on the closing holes, but he had to settle for second place.

Jordan Spieth, 16, sounded like Tiger Woods this week when, in regards to his sponsor's exemption into the Byron Nelson Championship, he told the Dallas Morning News, "I don't enter a tournament unless I think I can win."

Rory McIlroy, 21, will be among the headliners at the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. He'll be one of five top-10 players in the field as he tries to recapture the magic from his recent win at Quail Hollow.

As golfers prepare for this week's Byron and BMW — their last chances to earn an automatic invite to the U.S. Open based on 2010 money (top 10 in the U.S., top five in Europe) or World Ranking points (top 50) — one truth has become abundantly clear. For the first time in more than a decade, golf has no dominant player. And with Woods looking like he may take a long time to reclaim the pole position, if he ever does, the focus turns to the young stars with designs on replacing him.

"There are a lot of great players," Adam Scott, 29, said after picking up his first win since 2008 and his seventh overall on Tour at the Valero Texas Open last weekend. "You look at the top 20 guys, any of them could be top 10. We're all fighting it out for our place out there, and you can go even deeper, and any of the guys up to 200 [in the World Ranking] are good enough to play in the top 15 in the world."

Scott, who is taking the next two weeks off in Australia despite winning the '08 Nelson, hopes recent putting help from Dave Stockton Sr. and Stockton Jr. will help him resurrect a stop-and-go career that has featured several costly injuries and free weekends.

McIlroy and his supporters would like to believe his missed cut at the Players Championship two weeks ago was a mere hangover from his epic first win in America, and his well-attended 21st birthday party two days later. He finished fifth at last year's BMW PGA, won by eighth-ranked Paul Casey, and says winning this week would be "a huge achievement" just below that of winning a major or WGC event.

Ernie Els, coming off a T3 in Texas, enters "Europe's Fifth Major" as a favorite, having won the World Match Play seven times at Wentworth. He still owns a home there, and recently redesigned the entire West Course, including all 18 greens and the par-5 finishing hole. (It now features a brook that runs in front of the putting surface.)

Padraig Harrington, who will undergo surgery to remove loose cartilage from his knee next week and expects to be back in time for the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Lee Westwood and Race to Dubai leader Ian Poulter also figure to contend.

Matteo Manassero, 17, the newly minted pro from Italy, will also compete at Wentworth.

In America, two 16-year-olds will get much of the attention. Spieth, a Dallas high school student and U.S. Junior Amateur champion, will try his luck at the Nelson, and North Carolina's best junior, Grayson Murray, will play in the Nationwide Tour's Rex Hospital Open at TPC Wakefield Plantation in Raleigh, N.C.

Murray, who will attend Wake Forest on a golf scholarship, earned his spot in the Nationwide field with a win in the tournament's Junior Invitational with scores of 69-67. Spieth brings considerably more buzz to the Nelson, not just because of his in-it-to-win-it attitude but also because Hunter Mahan is the highest-ranked player in the field at No. 17. Clearly the best junior boy in the country, Spieth frequently swaps text messages with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who successfully pre-qualified for the Nelson but skipped Monday's qualifier in order to work out with the Cowboys.

(It was a good move given that there were 85 players for four spots, and given that Romo, a plus-3.3 handicap, would have had to shoot a seven-under 65 just to get into a four-man playoff for the last two spots.)

Rickie Fowler, 21, will try to improve on his four top-10 finishes this year and break through in Dallas with his first Tour win. Like McIlroy, he is coming off a missed cut at the Players, but he had a solid showing at Quail Hollow (sixth place) the week before that.

Michael Sim, one of Australia's best young players, returns from a right shoulder injury that knocked him out of the Masters and the Players Championship. Others in the Byron Nelson field include defending champion Rory Sabbatini, whose final-round 64 helped him break the tournament scoring record last year; Y.E. Yang (19th in the world); Sean O'Hair (23); Kenny Perry (25); Stewart Cink (27); and Dustin Johnson (29). Johnson tied for fourth place at last year's Nelson.

Brian Davis, runner-up to Jim Furyk at the Verizon Heritage last month, returns to Las Colinas after finishing second to Sabbatini there in '09.

This will be the third straight TPC course on the PGA Tour schedule and the fourth in five weeks. In Europe, BMW is the title sponsor for the second time in three weeks.

- On the LPGA Tour, top-ranked Jiyai Shin leads the 64-player field at the Sybase Match Play Championship at Hamilton Farm Golf Club in Gladstone, N.J.

Other favorites include Brittany Lincicome, who is coming off a playoff loss to Se Ri Pak last weekend and who won the 2006 HSBC Women's Match Play at Hamilton. Ai Miyazato of Japan, a three-time winner already this season, is seeded second and will face Jeong Jang in the first round.

Norway's Suzann Pettersen, the third seed, gets a tough first-round opponent in veteran American Juli Inkster, who is 6-1-1 in Solheim Cup singles.


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