AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Danny Lee figured he would see Tiger Woods at some point during the Masters, but it was no less surprising to look up from the putting green at golf’s biggest star hitting a 3-wood off the 10th tee.
“I thought he would be big and ripped like I’ve seen him on TV,” Lee said. “But he looked tall and skinny from where I was standing.”
No telling what Woods might have thought had he looked over his shoulder.
Lee is 18 and doesn’t appear to be a day older. He hardly appears to be a threat to the world’s No. 1 player, but his results suggest otherwise. He already has replaced Woods in the record books as the youngest U.S. Amateur champion, and he made more history in February when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic to become the youngest winner in European Tour history.
But at this Masters for the ages, Lee isn’t even the youngest player at Augusta National.
That honor goes to 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, who already has rock star status in Japan. Ishikawa won his first Japan Golf Tour event when he was 15, won as a pro last year and is taking time away from high school to play in the Masters.
Filling out this crowd of teenagers is Rory McIlroy, who beat a strong field in Dubai this year and already is No. 17 in the world.
“I don’t feel like a 19-year-old,” McIlroy said. “Obviously I am, but I feel like I’ve matured very quickly since coming on tour, and I’m sure Danny and Ryo will tell you the same thing. But it’s obviously a great position to be in.”
Twelve years ago, Woods became the youngest Masters champion ever at age 21.
Now, he is older than 41 players at the Masters.
“It’s a different time,” Woods said recently. “Guys are developing at an earlier age and a faster rate.”
It is rare for the Masters to have three teenagers in the field, but the youth movement goes beyond them. Over the last year, especially with Woods taking an eight-month break from golf because of knee surgery, more younger players are starting to thrive.
– Anthony Kim, 23, won twice on the PGA Tour last year and was the inspirational leader on a U.S. team that finally won the Ryder Cup.
– Dustin Johnson, 24, earned his first trip to the Masters by winning at Pebble Beach, his second PGA Tour victory.
– Camilo Villegas, 27, won the BMW Championship and Tour Championship in consecutive starts late last year in the FedEx Cup playoffs.
– Alvaro Quiros, 26, has won twice in his last nine starts on the European Tour.
– Trevor Immelman, 29, is the defending Masters champion.
For those wondering who might be the next rival to Woods, it could be any number of them from the kiddie corps. The question is whether young players are starting to blossom, or players simply seem younger because Woods is now 33.
“Tiger is not that old,” Kim said. “But the quality of golf is definitely getting better with the younger generation. I think kids like myself and other guys, our skills are a lot more honed than just coming out here, hitting the ball as hard as you can and learning how to play golf. Our technique probably is a lot better because we have access to great golf facilities, great coaches.”
But youth doesn’t always mesh well with Augusta National, a course that takes years to master. Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 is the last player to win the green jacket in his first year playing the Masters.
Immelman joined Woods last year as the only players in their 20s to win the Masters over the last 15 years.
Gary Player announced Monday that this would be his last time playing the Masters, and the 73-year-old champion could only shake his head in wonder at how long he had been driving down Magnolia Lane.
He played a practice round with 24-year-old Martin Kaymer and 26-year-old Louis Oosthuizen. Kaymer asked how many times Player had competed in the Masters (this is his 52nd time). That’s when Player realized that only six other players in the 96-man field had even been born when he made his debut in 1957.
His message to Oosthuizen is advice he would share with all the youth, teenagers included.
“I said, ‘You play well enough to win. You must understand that,”’ Player said. “And same to Rory. He must not come here just as an experience.”
Player was the youngest player to complete the career Grand Slam at age 29 when he won the 1965 U.S. Open. Then along came Jack Nicklaus, who won all four majors at age 26. That record was broken by Woods, who was 24 when he won at St. Andrews to become the youngest player to win the career Grand Slam.
“You must have Tiger as a role model and raise the bar,” Player said.
McIlroy stands out as the most polished of the teenagers, having turned pro in 2007 and earning his European card without having to go to Q-school. He has been around long enough, and under enormous scrutiny in Europe, that even his first trip down Magnolia Lane and his first shot at Augusta National didn’t faze him.
“I’m not really one to get overwhelmed by much these days, for some reason,” McIlroy said. “Obviously, I’m really excited to be here, don’t get me wrong. But I want to try and get the most out of this week as possible. So you can’t really be in awe of anything.”
Kim feels the same way.
He has been a pro about a year longer than McIlroy, but is lacking experience at Augusta National. When he showed up for a practice round last month, it rained so hard he never went to the course. And on Monday, he managed to get in only five holes. He only smiled when he heard rain was in the forecast for Tuesday.
No matter. It’s another tournament – one of the biggest in golf – and Kim will approach it the same way.
“I’m here to win the tournament,” he said.