Young guns are piling up wins, but Tiger shouldn't worry yet

Rory McIlroy stormed to victory at Quail Hollow, but failed to contend at his next two tournaments.
Mike Ehrmann/SI

Jason Day, 22, lurched home for his first PGA Tour victory at the HP Byron Nelson last weekend, which means that heading into this week's Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, the theme of the 2010 season is the spate of young winners.

Nine 20-somethings have won on the PGA Tour so far this season, but if I'm Tiger Woods, keeping tabs on the Tour with a hot pad on my neck and the tabloids and swing coaches beating down my door, I'm not worried. Here's when it will be time to worry: When we see a 20-something author two Tour wins in a row, or three in a month, or a major championship runaway.

"I'm not looking to just win one tournament," Day said. "I really want to go ahead and win many more tournaments." That's good. That's what we like to hear, even if his totals of five fairways hit Sunday and three water balls for the week on 18 don't inspire confidence. As he said, he got it done.

Day's maturation has been slowed by injuries (wrist, back) and illnesses (sinuses, possible swine flu), but he also admitted to slacking off after he made the Tour and the money started flowing in 2008.

Is that why the 20-somethings have eased into the pattern of fire-and-fall-back? Or is it because that's just the way mere mortals play the game? So far only South Africa's sweet-swinging Charl Schwartzel, 25, has backed up a win with a win, taking the first two events on the European tour this season. He was second to Ernie Els at Doral, proving his game can travel, but finished 30th at the Masters.

The young player who's come the closest to capturing a major, Anthony Kim at Augusta (third place), is on the DL after thumb surgery that will keep him out of the U.S. Open.

Woods won 40 times on Tour, including eight majors, before he turned 30. He was freakishly precocious — Jack Nicklaus won 30 times, including seven majors, in his 20s — and probably will end up being unique in the history of the game.

Given the recent fireworks, though, we have to wonder.

Day took just 22 putts in the third round last Saturday. Kim won twice at major-worthy venues (Quail Hollow, Congressional), led a U.S. Ryder Cup resurgence in '08 and made a record 11 birdies in the second round of the '09 Masters.

Rory McIlroy's 62 at Quail Hollow came on the same day, May 2, that Ryo Ishikawa, 18, shot a 58 to win in Japan. And while neither Ishikawa nor Rickie Fowler, German Martin Kaymer or Aussie Michael Sim are among the under-30s who have won on Tour this year, all seem abundantly capable of doing so.

So should Woods be worried? Not yet. Of the nine 20-something winners on Tour this year, five have won with neither Woods nor Mickelson in the field. Only one, McIlroy, prevailed in a week when the top two players decided to show up. (Although it's still up for debate whether Woods was there mentally.)

What's more, McIlroy's last two performances came to us straight out of the 20-something playbook. After his thunderous weekend at Quail, where he dusted Mickelson by four, McIlroy missed the cut at the Players and finished T48 at the BMW PGA.

Again, to revert to the unfair but unavoidable comparison to early Tiger, after his first Tour win, the '96 Las Vegas Invitational, Woods finished third (Texas Open) and won again (Disney).

Should we chalk up Rory's lackluster play to his 21st birthday party the week of the Players, the redesign of Wentworth, his balky back or all three? Such is the urgency and scrutiny that comes with playing golf very well in the enormous wake of Woods.

We've been trying to figure out what's wrong with Luke Donald (32), Sergio Garcia (30) and Adam Scott (29) for most of their careers, and they now seem so yesterday. Yes, Ben Hogan was 34 when he won his first major. But Tiger was 21.

With three victories on Tour, Sean O'Hair (27) is alternately a future star and not, as are Nick Watney (29, two Tour wins) and Ryan Moore (27, one). All three won last year, but, pity for them, not yet this year. And so it's gone in 2010: fire and fall back.

Dustin Johnson looked bulletproof when he won the AT&T at Pebble Beach for the second time in two years, but not so much since then. Ditto for Hunter Mahan (Waste Management Phoenix Open), Bill Haas (Bob Hope), Camilo Villegas (Honda), and the still virtually unknown Derek Lamely (Puerto Rico Open).

In other words, what we've got here are a bunch of possible Hogans but no Tigers, at least not yet. And if and when these 20-somethings hit their primes in five or 10 years, Woods will have easily surpassed 18 professional majors and will be on his way. (Assuming he's still physically capable of swinging a club.)

Perhaps Johnson will take part-ownership of Pebble with a win there at the U.S. Open next month, or Mahan's putting will catch up with the rest of his game, or Day's ball-striking will catch up to his putting and he won't have to wait nearly as long for the second victory as he and we did for the first.

Until then, Day could have spoken for his generation when he said Sunday: "I realize how tough it is to win on the PGA Tour." The sound of stark realism — it's music to Tiger's ears.

 

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