Youth serving notice on PGA leaderboard

Aug 14th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. — Finally finding a piece of cool shade, Gerry McIlroy watched his son being interrogated by a phalanx of media types when it was noted that the three players in his boy Rory’s group had an average age of roughly the same as dad’s older golf spikes.

That would be 22, to be precise.

Rory McIlroy’s father paused for a moment to reflect on the pee-wee parade he had just witnessed in the third round of the 92nd PGA Championship on Saturday. Rory, all of 21, wasn’t even the youngest guy in his group, for goodness sakes.

“It’s the future,” Gerry McIlroy said.

With all due respect, it’s the present.

In a year when young players have made some impressive inroads in a sport where being 30 once was considered young, five of the top six players atop the leaderboard after three rounds at Whistling Straits are in their roaring 20s.

Not sure if this is a changing of the guard or a changing of the diapers.

McIlroy played in the fourth-to-last group off the tee along with 25-year-old Dustin Johnson, with whom he is tied for second, three strokes behind a relative graybeard, 29-year-old Nick Watney. Also in the McIlroy trio was 19-year-old Seung-Yul Noh, who fell out of contention.

It was one thing when wunderkind Tiger Woods was torching Augusta National in 1997 at age 21, because that was a historical rarity. Now on a seemingly weekly basis, it’s youth gone wild.

Aussie Jason Day, all of 22 and with a PGA Tour win already this season, is tied for fourth and playing in, get this, the second major championship of his career. This is McIlroy’s eighth major as a pro. It’s Johnson’s ninth. German star Martin Kaymer, also tied for fourth, is 25 and playing in his 11th major.

So much for a learning curve.

It was hard not to laugh as Day, as irrepressible and animated as they come in golf circles, was relating how concerned he was about his two dauschunds, which had been left alone in his new motor home all day. He was afraid they had redecorated the carpets in a smelly shade of brown.

“The puppies are like our children,” said Day’s wife, Ellie.

Sort of the sentiment older fans have when they look at the Saturday leaderboard. Who let the puppies out?

Chubby Chandler, McIlroy’s agent, had a pretty tidy explanation for the open door of the moment as golf faces the strong possibility of having its sixth first-time major winner in the past seven Grand Slam events. It’s also looking like victories from back-to-back 20-somethings, too.

“The world No. 1 and 2 aren’t playing very good,” Chandler said, “and No. 3 is home on the couch.”

That would be, in order, Woods, Phil Mickelson and ailing Lee Westwood, who isn’t playing this week because of a leg issue. The kids, however, have fresh wheels and are running circles around everybody.

Former PGA champion Steve Elkington, 47, is one of four players tied for seventh, all 33 or older. He must feel like a dinosaur. Day professed to knowing little about his fellow Aussie, who won the 1985 PGA title — two years before Day was born.

“No disrespect, he has obviously done a lot in his career,” Day shrugged.

Kaymer, a star on the European Tour for several seasons who will be playing in the States in 2011, laughed when asked about the sea change. He is starting to wonder whether he’s too conservative.

“I was actually very surprised when I watch on TV almost every day,” Kaymer said. “I’m very surprised how aggressive everybody plays. The last couple of weeks, I was thinking about my play a little bit. Now, I play aggressive as well, but for me it didn’t really seem like it. “But for example, Rory or Nick Watney, they go for every flag. So, OK, on this golf course you can be very aggressive because it’s wet, but it doesn’t matter if you have a wedge or a 3-iron in your hands, they are always going for the flag.

“I think that’s great, if you just accept and play shot for shot, and I think that’s the way Tiger Woods plays, as well. He always goes for birdies, and I think that’s a little bit the American style. It’s awesome. It’s great to see.”

No complaints here, Herr Kaymer. U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell, 32, summarized it nicely earlier in the week when he said the next wave of players “basically have no fear.”

McIlroy has one win on both the U.S. and European circuits, but already has two top-3 finishes in the majors. He’s not exactly quaking in his Keds.

“I held off Phil Mickelson and [Angel] Cabrera down the stretch, who are two major champions,” he said this week of his U.S. win on May 2, when he was still 20. “So if I can do that on a golf course like Quail Hollow, then there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to do it here.”

No reason other than about 100 years of professional history that suggests that lions eat their young in this business, especially at the majors.

McIlroy was asked if the game was changing, which seems comparable to asking the Grand Canyon if it’s a hole.

“I think it is,” he said. “I think we must be quick learners as well.”

School will be in session Sunday at Whistling Straits. Based on the expected outcome, then the students officially will be running the asylum.

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