The Age-Old Question

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla., May 7 -- With his five-shot victory and tournament-record score of 16-under-par 272 at last week's Wachovia Championship in Charlotte, 22-year-old Anthony Kim vaulted himself into the category of next great young American golfer, perhaps even a budding rival to Tiger Woods.

The youngest champion on the PGA Tour since Sergio García prevailed at the 2002 Mercedes Championship at age 21, Kim is the latest American player in his 20s to be touted as a future superstar. And yet, instead of stockpiling Tour victories and making major championship breakthroughs, no American player under 30 has more than two career wins on the PGA Tour, none of them majors.

Two days before the start of the Players Championship here Thursday, PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem pointed out that five of the last six tournament winners have been in their 20s. Eight of the 18 tournament winners this season are under 30, including Masters champion Trevor Immelman of South Africa, surpassing last year's total of seven wins from that demographic.

"A lot of focus the last few years [has been] about where the young players are," Finchem said Wednesday. "And perhaps we're headed in a more aggressive direction of young players coming on in the cycle, and we'll see how that develops the rest of the year."

With the obvious exception of Woods, the overall performance of American 20-somethings since 2000 has been less than stellar. At the moment, the four Americans under 30 with two victories are Sean O'Hair, D.J. Strahan, J.B. Holmes and Charles Howell III. Ben Curtis and Jonathan Byrd each had three wins before turning 30 this year.

In the 44 major championships since Woods won the 1997 Masters, just five other players in their 20s -- Immelman last month, Curtis at the 2003 British Open, David Duval (2001 British), Justin Leonard (1997 British) and Ernie Els (1997 U.S. Open) -- have won. Woods won nine more majors in his 20s.

Compare that to several American veterans. Phil Mickelson had 16 PGA Tour victories before he turned 30. David Duval posted each of his 13 career wins before his 30th birthday. Woods was in another stratosphere, with 46 of his current 64 tour victories accomplished in his 20s.

Several international 20-somethings have multiple victories on the PGA Tour, but two of the best, Australia's Adam Scott and Spain's García, also have to be considered mildly disappointing, if only because neither has won a major. In 28 major appearances, Scott, with six Tour wins, has just four top-10 finishes and never has really contended on Sunday.

So what's up with this seemingly under-achieving generation, particularly the American contingent?

According to Mickelson, it's mostly a matter of the game's increasing level of competition worldwide.

"I think there's a great crop of young players out on tour," Mickelson said. "I don't know if the increased depth of talent makes it more challenging or if guys are able to play better golf later in their 30s and 40s, which is very likely given that fitness has become a big part of the tour since Tiger has come on board."

Jim Furyk, who recorded six of his 13 Tour victories in his 20s, insisted there is no trend at all.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company