March 1, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

As the PGA Tour moves east, Ron Sirak says a collection of fresh faces are good for an added dose of intrigue

The "Tiger Babies", Ishikawa, McIlroy and Lee, average age is 18-years old.

The "Tiger Babies", Ishikawa, McIlroy and Lee, average age is 18-years old.

Admit it, when Tiger Woods was 3 down to Tim Clark in the second round of the Accenture Match Play and climbed down into that bunker on No. 14, there was a big part of you that expected him to hole it out. Which is exactly what he did. Tiger never lets us down.

And when Woods knocked his drive into the Arizona desert on the next hole, a short par-4, and you watched him trudge back to the tee to reload with only one club in his hand -- the driver -- a corner of your brain was calling out that he would drive the green, make the putt, save par and miraculously halve the hole. Which he didn't do, driving the green but missing the putt. OK, Tiger rarely lets us down.

Still, that is what Woods brings to the table: The possibility of magic. Now admit this: You can't wait to see him play again, most likely at the CA Championship at Doral next week. And admit this as well: Rory McIlroy set your heart racing with thoughts that perhaps this guy is what we ache for: A real rival for Woods.

Back in the days before the World Golf Championship events, the PGA Tour season really got going when the guys got to Florida. That was when the international players -- Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els among them -- would show up and start their run to the Masters.

The excitement of the Florida Swing has been undermined somewhat by the Accenture Match Play, which attracts the top talent to the West Coast not just for that event but for some of the other tour stops out there as well. But there is new reason to be excited about the tour as it moves east this year. Not only is Tiger back, but the kids are coming as well.

McIlroy, the 19-year-old sweet swinger from Northern Ireland who won the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour, was extremely impressive as he made it to the fourth round at the Accenture before losing to eventual winner Geoff Ogilvy. He not only pounds it a mile and has a deft touch around the greens, but his head seems to be screwed on properly as well. The consensus is he's the real deal.

And he is not alone. McIlroy plays this week at the Honda Classic, the following week at the CA Championship and then at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill. Ryo Ishikawa, a 19-year old from Japan who has also won a pro event, will play the Transitions Championship and then Bay Hill before he heads to the Masters.

And when McIlroy and Ishikawa get to Augusta National, yet another teenager, Danny Lee, a Korean who is a naturalized New Zealander, will join them. At 18, Lee is the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur. And, oh yeah, he won the Johnnie Walker Classic on the European Tour by one stroke with birdies on the last two holes.

Let's call them the Tiger Babies. When Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes, these guys -- now 17, 18 and 19 -- were 5, 6 and 7. They are the first generation of male golfers who have spent their entire life, from a golf point of view, in the Tiger Woods Era. And you kind of get the feeling they are only the beginning of a wave of talent about to sweep over the men's game.

When Woods burst on the scene people focused on his ethnicity -- his Mom is Thai and his father was African-American -- and thought he would expand the base of the game in the same way Arnold Palmer did two generations earlier. But that has not really turned out to be the case, at least not in the United States, where the game has grown as a spectator sport but has remained flat as a participatory sport. But there are two hugely significant ways Woods has impacted the game of which McIlroy, Ishikawa and Lee are representatives.

Better athletes are now playing the game of golf, and the game has grown significantly as a global sport. Both of those are reasons why there is good reason to believe golf will be successful when the International Olympic Committee decides in October which two sports to add to the 2016 Summer Games. What didn't happen in the United States has happened elsewhere.

Woods expanded the talent base of the game in three ways:

• He made the game cool. Here's a young guy who likes golf so it must be good. That's what Sven Tumba did in Sweden in the early 1970s. When folks saw a hockey player on the golf course, it gave the game credibility. Now Sweden has one of the best per-capita rates of players in the world.

• He made the game inclusive. Having the best player in the world -- perhaps the best ever -- not be a white guy shattered that stereotype about the game. Top players now come from every continent except Antarctica, where the playing season, I'm told, is really short.

• He made it possible to get rich playing golf. In the case of Woods, really rich. All of this has combined to increase the talent level of the game. Golf is no longer the sport that gets the leftovers of athletes who couldn't make it in other sports. A generation ago, before Woods, talents like McIlroy, Ishikawa and Lee may have focused on soccer, tennis, cricket or something else.

This year the Florida Swing offers a special celebration. The three remarkable young talents we are going to see play beginning this week and through the Masters are real reasons for hope: Golf is now not only a truly global game but one with a talent level on the rise.

There was a time about 20 years ago when we thought we would never see anyone ever again dominate golf the way Jack Nicklaus did. And then along came Tiger Woods. Now we tend to think it will be a very long time until we ever see anyone as good as Woods.

In McIlroy, Ishikawa and Lee there is reason to think the future may be as close at hand as it was when we were wondering where the next Nicklaus would come from, only to have Woods appear less than a decade later. Golf seems poised for great things right now, and this year's run-up to the Masters could be a fun preview of what is to come.