MIAMI—It's true that the absence of Tiger Woods is hovering over the CA Championship at Doral, and golf in general. It feels like the boss is on holiday and we don't know when he'll return.
I'm now hearing Woods will play Augusta, but he'll be disguised as either Jeev Milkha Singh or Sandy Lyle. Pass it on.
But there's another story brewing, a bigger story, and that is that Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh — the guys we've seen carry the game for 15 years — are playing on borrowed time. Of the 68-man field at the CA, 23 are in their twenties. That's not including perhaps the best 20-something of the bunch, Ryo Ishikawa, 18, who was busy graduating high school this week.
The young guys are figuring it out.
A total of seven players in their 20s won PGA Tour events in 2009, but with Camilo Villegas, 28, winning last week's Honda Classic by five shots, four 20-somethings have already won on Tour in 2010.
"It's a process," Villegas said more than once this week, which is true. And we're now at the part of that process where the youth begin to make the old guys look their age, as opposed to vice-versa. Bill Haas, 27, was a three-time first-team All-American at Wake Forest, but he was a hothead when he first came out on Tour in 2006.
Eventually he came to realize he was getting in his own way, and under the tutelage of dad Jay and coach Billy Harmon he changed his set-up before the Bob Hope in January, and won for the first time.
"I didn't change much on my swing but it was something that allowed me to be more aggressive through the ball, and it was working," Haas said. "It was working for five straight days. It was nice."
Haas shot a 6-under 66 at the CA Friday and was 7-under for the tournament, three behind leader Ernie Els (68-66, 10-under).
Haas was tied with Charl Schwartzel, 25, the first-round leader (67) who was 2-under for his first 17 holes Friday when play was suspended for the second time because of thunderstorms.
Schwartzel impressed even himself on Thursday, when in gusts of up to 25 mph he was the only player in the field to avoid a bogey.
"You know, I played a lot of good rounds in my career," he said, "and yeah, this one rates right up there. It could even be at the top. It was difficult."
In today's media-saturated world we hear about future stars, like Jason Day and Michael Sim, both of Australia, before they've won much of anything at the game's highest level. Schwartzel was like that.
Then he won the first two tournaments on the European Tour this year, the Africa Open and the Joburg Open, giving him five Ws overall.
"I've known Charl a very long time," said Els, who turned 40 last October and has just one Tour win, the '08 Honda, since the summer of 2004. "I've played golf with his dad, that's how far back we go. We won a tournament together in 1987, myself and his dad. It was a better-ball tournament in South Africa. I guess [Charl] was born then, just about." (The younger Schwartzel was born in '85.)
"You know, he won everything as a junior," Els continued, "very similar to Trevor Immelman. But he's even more impressive than Immelman because he's longer. He hits the ball a really long way. He's just got so much talent. When he gets a break out here, you know, you're going to see the next superstar out of South Africa, basically."
J.B. Holmes, 27, shot a 70 at Doral on Friday and was 5-under for the tournament, five back.
He was tied with Yuta Ikeda, 24, a four-time winner in Japan last year who has quietly put together scores of 71-68 so far at Doral.
Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Costano, 29, was another shot back after a second-round 68.
Looking solely at the win column, Schwartzel would seem to be well ahead of 20-something stars Holmes (two Tour wins), Dustin Johnson (three), Anthony Kim (two), Hunter Mahan (two), Sean O'Hair (three) and Rory McIlroy (one Euro W).
But next week the landscape may look different, and Schwartzel isn't even the most prolific winner. That would be either Ishikawa, with eight wins in Japan; or Martin Kaymer, 25, who has won seven times already on the European Tour.
Paired with Villegas and Lee Westwood in the first round, Kaymer was consistently outdriven by both, but he's a better putter than both of his playing partners and eventually carded the best score in the group, a 2-under 70. (The three were through 16 holes when play was called for the second time Friday, with Kaymer still at 2-under for the tournament, two behind Villegas and Westwood.)
Then again, the game's next big star might be someone who's not in the smallest circle of our radar right now, like Ikeda. (Love his furniture.)
Who predicted Singh would briefly hold the top ranking? Who had Stricker rising this high, to No. 2?
To be sure, the old guys won't leave without a fight. Robert Allenby, 38, is a shot off the lead after a 67 Friday. Singh, 47, shot 71 and was at 5-under.
Mickelson, who will turn 40 in June, was at 4-under for the tournament through 17 holes Friday. He will be a favorite, if not the favorite, when the Masters tees off at Augusta National next month.
McIlroy, 20, has been paired with Mickelson for the first two rounds at Doral, and at 1-over for the tournament he trails Lefty by five shots. It's a small victory for the oldies, given that McIlroy said he owed Phil one. The two were paired together for the first 36 holes at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai last year, a tournament Mickelson went on to win.
And yet it's only a matter of time for the old guard, because while you can find fault with inexperience, ultimately you can't argue with longer and sharper. Youth will prevail. It always does.