Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

Younger players raising the bar

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Some days are game changers. Sunday was one of them.

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Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy celebrates after making a birdie putt on the 18th hole en route to winning Sunday at Quail Hollow.   Associated Press
Associated Press
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy celebrates after making a birdie putt on the 18th hole en route to winning Sunday at Quail Hollow.

A seismic wave reverberated across the globe, heralding a shift in the golf universe. The game's establishment issued a mayday on May 2 as the kids staged a coup.

On one side of the world, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa carded a paradigm-shattering 58 to win his seventh event on his home tour. On our side of the planet, Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy blitzed the field with a course-record 62 at Quail Hollow to become the youngest PGA Tour winner since Tiger Woods in 1996.

Ishikawa, 18, just graduated high school a couple of months ago. McIlroy can celebrate with his first legal beer in the United States today. Their combined ages Sunday added up to one year younger than Phil Mickelson, the runner-up who McIlroy passed in Charlotte, N.C., like he was standing still.

Turns out he was chasing his new shadow (Ishikawa) as much as his generation's muse (Tiger Woods).

"He goes and shoots 58 to win, and I shoot 62," McIlroy said of Ishikawa. "I'm just trying to keep up with him. He's a great player, and obviously with myself winning today as well, it looks good for the future."

A lot of highly hyped young guns have come and gone since Woods burst onto the scene with a pair of tour wins in his coming-out season and his historic triumph in his major debut as a pro at the 1997 Masters Tournament. Some of them never amounted to anything (Ty Tryon, David Gossett), while others already seem prematurely old as they toil to live up to weighty expectations (Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Charles Howell).

But Ryo and Rory seem about as close to the real deals as we've seen in awhile. They've come out of the gate even quicker than two of their immediate predecessors, Anthony Kim (24) and Camilo Villegas (28).

"I've still got a long way to go," McIlroy said. "Great young players like Camilo and AK, they've won three times on this tour, and this is my first. Hopefully I'll be able to join them soon. I just want to concentrate on getting a few more wins and learn as much as I can at the majors."

The coolest part of this young surge in golf is they're not alone. Just five spots behind McIlroy on the Quail Hollow leaderboard (and just 18 months ahead on the calendar) was Rickie Fowler, who has been knocking on the door so often since turning pro seven months ago that his knuckles must hurt.

Another teenage phenom threw himself into the mix Monday, when Matteo Manessero shed his amateur status on the eve of his home country's Italian Open. Having turned 17 on April 19, he's nine days older than Seve Ballesteros was when he became the youngest pro in the history of the European Tour in 1974.

Manassero was the youngest winner in the history of the British Amateur and was low amateur in both the British Open (T13) and Masters (T36) as a 16-year-old.

Even on the women's part of the tee box, young is in as 20-year-old Michelle Wie threatened to win in Mexico on the day Lorena Ochoa retired at the ripe old age of 28. South Korea's Jiyai Shin, 22, assumed the mantle of world's No. 1, while 24-year-old Ai Miyazato, of Japan, won her third LPGA event of the season.

I guess you could argue that this is the Tiger effect finally coming to fruition on a global scale.

"I think I speak on behalf of all the early 20-somethings out here," McIlroy said. "Tiger was the guy that we all looked up to and the guy that we followed and the guy that we turned on our TV and the guy that we went out to practice so hard. I think he's been the reason that the likes of Ryo, myself, AK, Danny Lee, all the younger guys, have flourished at such an early age, because Tiger set the benchmark so high."

Woods is the most unfair of comparisons for any young pro to shoulder, but McIlroy and Ishikawa have shown an ability to carry the weight. McIlroy has tested his game against the best all over the world, and on the weekend he soared from the cut line past a host of marquee players, including multiple major winners Mickelson, Angel Cabrera and Padraig Harrington.

On Sunday, he marked 3 on his scorecard 12 times, including six in a row to close it out on one of the toughest closing stretches in golf. His premature putter lift and subsequent fist pump seemed a gleeful melding of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger all in one classic moment.

"I shot a 16-under on the weekend around a golf course like this," said the kid ranked No. 9 in the world. "You can't get much more of a confidence boost than that."

Ishikawa may be even more seasoned than McIlroy considering what he has to deal with in a nation starved for male golf superstars. Since winning his first Japanese pro event at age 15, Ishikawa has been tracked across the world by a massive media following that has put him in position to rival Woods as an endorsement earner. After his 58 on Sunday (a great achievement on any course), the executive director of the Japan Golf Tour credited the "Shy Prince" with rescuing the tour from financial ruin.

"Before he appeared, people were losing interest in men's golf," said Andy Yamanaka, fearing a future when Ishikawa might join McIlroy as a regular on the U.S. or European tours.

McIlroy would welcome the rivalry.

"He's special," McIlroy said. "He's a phenomenal player, and he still is very young and everything. It would be great to see him shoot some rounds like that overseas."

Sunday signaled that these guys aren't just shooting stars. If Tiger Woods was watching, the competition is getting thicker by the minute.

Mickelson in position to top world rankings

That 15-foot birdie putt Phil Mickelson made on the final hole at Quail Hollow meant more than an extra $130,000 for finishing in second place alone. It put him in position to become No. 1 in the world.

Mickelson could reach the top spot in the world ranking for the first time in his career by winning The Players Championship, provided Tiger Woods finishes out of the top five.

Of the players considered to be the "Big Four" of this generation -- Woods, Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els -- Mickelson is the only player to have never been No. 1.


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