Another major, another crop of Tiger hunters

  • By Mark Craig Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • Wednesday, August 12, 2009 3:33pm
  • SportsGolfSports

CHASKA, Minn. — Tiger Woods was just 26 when he played at the 2002 PGA Championship at Hazeltine National. But even back then the search was on for the so-called young guns who would challenge his stranglehold on the PGA Tour.

Back then, the Minneapolis Star Tribune presented six players younger than Woods to watch. Justin Rose, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia were 22. Charles Howell III and David Gossett were 23. Matt Kuchar was 24.

Woods had 33 PGA Tour wins and eight major victories back then. The others had a combined five PGA Tour wins and no majors.

“I haven’t won a major yet, but I have top-10s in each,” Garcia said at the time. “I’m only 22, so it’s not too bad.”

Since that 2002 PGA Championship, Woods has won another 36 PGA Tour events, including six more majors. The other six have combined for 12 victories (six by Scott, four by Garcia, two by Howell) with no majors.

Gossett is now 30 and a member of the Hooters Tour. The former phenom won the 1999 U.S. Amateur and earned his PGA Tour card by winning the 2001 John Deere Classic as a mini-tour pro playing on a sponsor exemption. He never won again and lost his card in 2004.

Seven years ago, two-time major champion and NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller pointed to some of these younger players as the ones who would challenge Woods.

“It’s the new generation that hasn’t been run over by Woods eight times,” Miller said. “Pretty soon, they will say, ‘Yeah, he’s Tiger Woods, but he’s old.’ I remember saying that about Arnold Palmer.”

Seven years have passed and the PGA Championship returns to Hazeltine this week, so here we go again, reloading with another set of so-called young guns. Our picks include five players who have a combined six victories and no majors.

Camilo Villegas, 27, Anthony Kim, 24, and Dustin Johnson, 25, have two wins each. When Johnson won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am at 24 earlier this year, he joined Kim as the only players under 25 with two victories.

If those three aren’t young enough, then how about Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, 20, or Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa, who, at 17, will be the youngest person on record to play in a PGA Championship when he tees it up today.

Believe it or not, Ishikawa was just 5 when Woods won his first Masters in 1997. From that moment on, he grew up idolizing Woods. When he turned pro at 16, he said his goal was to become the youngest Masters champion, beating the mark Woods set in 1997 when he won at 21 years, three months.

Ishikawa played in his first Masters this year and missed the cut. He also missed the cut at the British Open but was paired with Woods and outplayed him on the first day, shooting 68 to Woods’ 71.

The next wave of young guns has spent so many years watching Woods, it’s no surprise that they seem poised beyond their years for the challenge that’s ahead.

“Guys don’t go into majors thinking, ‘I have to do this to beat Tiger, I have to do that to beat Tiger,’” McIlroy said. “They go in and they concentrate on their own game. If their own game at the end of the day isn’t good enough, then that’s just the way it goes.”

Good luck, Young Guns II. Perhaps we’ll check back in seven years to see how some of you stack up to the 40-year-old Tiger as he gets ready for the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine.

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