Originally created 10/10/01

The next wave of stars is beginning to swell



Gary Hallberg was the first on a list that is getting longer.

A four-time All-American and NCAA champion from Wake Forest, Hallberg turned pro in the summer of 1980 and had only a dozen tournaments to make enough money to earn his PGA Tour card without going through qualifying school.

He won a Monday qualifier for the Quad Cities Open and tied for third. By the end of his short season, he was 56th on the money list and the PGA Tour rookie of the year.

"I guess that had never been done before," Hallberg said this week while relaxing after a casual round at Pebble Beach. "It wasn't easy."

It only looks that way now.

Only five other players in the past 20 years have skipped Q-school and gone straight to the tour - Scott Verplank, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia.

But already this year, three players not even listed in the PGA Tour media guide have earned enough money to secure their cards for next season:

- David Gossett, the 1999 U.S. Amateur champion, was taking a break from the Buy.com Tour when he won the John Deere Classic and automatically earned a two-year exemption. He has made $698,801 and is 65th on the money list.

- Matt Kuchar, the gee-whiz kid who won the '97 U.S. Amateur and was the darling of the Masters and U.S. Open a year later, was down to his last two sponsor's exemptions when he tied for third in Vancouver and was a runner-up at the Texas Open. He has earned $533,253, which would place him at No. 87 on the money list if he were a Tour member.

- Another non-Tour member, Charles Howell III, might be the most impressive of all. The former NCAA champion from Oklahoma State already has earned $1,373,016 on the strength of five top 10s. That would put him at No. 36 on the money list, and another big finish could get him enough money to qualify for the Tour Championship. Woods is the only other player who made the elite field after starting the season without a card.

"That's pretty unique," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. "We had six guys in 20 years do that, and now three this year, which is impressive. And those are three good guys who want to do the right thing and are good for the fans."

And those are only the fresh faces of American golf.

Adam Scott, a 21-year-old Aussie whose swing reminds so many people of Woods, already has won on the European tour and is No. 22 on the money list. Should he finish in the top 15, he would get in three majors and likely receive an invitation from the Masters.

Paul Casey of England might not be too far behind. He turned pro this year, won the Scottish PGA and is No. 28 on the European tour money list. Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance gave him fleeting consideration as a captain's pick.

And don't forget Aaron Baddeley. He hasn't done anything in America, but back-to-back victories in the Australian Open - the first as an amateur, when he beat Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman - cannot be overlooked.

Golf has produced a stellar class of stars once every decade.

Tom Watson, Larry Nelson and Lanny Wadkins all turned pro in 1971. They accounted for 60 tour victories and a dozen majors.

Fred Couples, Mark O'Meara, John Cook and Scott Hoch turned pro from 1979-80.

Fast-forward 12 years to find Mickelson ('92), David Duval ('93) and Leonard ('94) making a sudden splash from college to pro.

Who knows what the credentials of these youngsters will look like in 10 years? Hallberg was the top young gun in 1980 and managed only three career victories.

The bigger question is whether this new wave of stars is only beginning to swell.

"That may be the direction for the next 20 years," Finchem said. "We're competing better with other sports for good athletes. The financial promise is more significant, which helps attract more kids.

"There are more good players coming up. They are more athletic. They generate more clubhead speed. And they all want to beat the man, who may be the best ever."

Indeed, all of them seem to be equipped to challenge Woods. They have top coaches from an early age. They have the best equipment. They have no fear.

They will only get better.

"Mark my words," Earl Woods said recently. "There are kids who would have been tight ends in the NFL, point guards in the NBA, outfielders or shortstops in baseball ... who are going to choose golf. That's going to be the major difference between golfers in the future and golfers now. We're going to see world-class athletes."

The PGA Tour will get stronger and deeper.

And winning five times a year - which Woods has done each of the last three seasons - could get a lot more difficult.