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Well? We're Waiting

By Jaime Diaz Photos by Getty Images
June 21, 2010

Johnson (above), McIlroy (center) and Ishikawa (right), three of thet game's brightest young players, all eventually wilted under Pebble Beach's demanding U.S. Open conditions.

Dustin Johnson's closing 82 wasn't the only thing that happened at Pebble Beach to put golf's presumably inevitable new world order on hold.

There was 21-year-old Rory McIlroy missing the cut, and 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa fading from two strokes off the lead Saturday to a closing 80 and T-33. Rickie Fowler, also 21, didn't qualify to play, nor did 17-year-old Matteo Manassero of Italy. The new era was best represented by a pair of relative middle-agers, the 25-year-olds Johnson and Martin Kaymer of Germany, who were T-8, five strokes back.

U.S. Opens have a way of setting things straight. For better or worse, they are all substance and no style points, with even less sentiment. There have been a few isolated exceptions, but the ultimate examination is generally not suitable for the very young.

We've been due for an adjustment. Since Michelle Wie nearly won an LPGA major at 13 and Ty Tryon played the PGA Tour at 17, golf has become infatuated with the shiny and new. Consistent with our disposable culture, there seems to be an urgency to replace the tried and true.

Like the rest of the world caught in a difficult present, the golf industry is hungry for a jump-start. Based on plenty of evidence that there have never been so many players getting so good, so young, it's been widely accepted that a new wave of talent is on the verge of drowning the status quo. But too often, such thinking confuses young with better.

In truth, the game still isn't quite over the way 21-year-old Tiger Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 and set off on the best dozen years anyone has ever played. The golf world has waited for a repeat of that phenomenon, and lately has been getting impatient. Ironically, the desire in some quarters to push the now disgraced Woods off the main stage has increased the desire of a young successor.

At the same time it's Woods who offers the blueprint of what it's going to take. First of all, he came out of the gate winning. A lot. It seemed to be all he cared about, and even when he didn't win, he consistently finished near the top. Whatever people might now think, Woods was never happier than when he was hitting practice balls working on his swing. There was considerable style, but a lot more substance.

Those values have been getting reversed in the current climate. At the moment, the great American hope is Fowler. Since turning professional late last year, the Southern Californian has been impressive, racking up regular high finishes. His verve and talent can be legitimately compared to that of a young Lanny Wadkins, but there seems to be more emphasis on his Justin Bieber hair and Day-Glo wardrobe.

There are some cautionary signals. Fowler is 5-feet-9 and slightly built. He is a great putter, which can mask some shotmaking deficiencies. His swing is set at a pleasing allegro tempo, but there are a lot of moving parts that require great hand-eye coordination and timing to find the ball. He has looked like a winner three times, but lost in a playoff at the Open, and lost the lead on the final nine at Phoenix and the Memorial, where a bad miss with a 5-iron on the watery 12th proved fatal. Though his case for future greatness is strong, the jury is still out.

Of golf's bonus babies, McIlroy is the furthest along. He won in Dubai last year, and in May put on a tour de force at the Quail Hollow Championship with a closing 62 that won by four. Among older peers, it is McIlroy who is considered to have the most tools.

But he also has a lot of toys at his home near Belfast -- he just bought his fourth exotic car -- and is with an agent, Andrew (Chubby) Chandler, whose players are well-known for living the good life. His weakest club seems to be his putter, especially from short range, and it is troubling whenever an otherwise brilliant young player doesn't flow with grace and confidence on the greens.

Perhaps it would be fairer to characterize McIlroy as a streaky putter. But few would defend his course management as anything but laissez faire. It caught up to him at Pebble, where he stubbornly took on flags and kept paying the price, shooting 75-77 to miss the cut by three.

"Rory plays gung-ho golf," countryman and eventual champion Graeme McDowell somewhat sternly offered after the second round. "He doesn't put a lot of thought in what he does. He relies on sheer talent and sheer belief in what he does. He's awesome, no doubt about it. But put him on a test like this where you get above the holes, and I don't care how good you are, you're going to make bogey, simple as that. I would imagine that Rory has not put enough thought into the golf course regarding a game plan. He's a young kid, he grips it and rips it. It's not U.S. Open golf, where you've got to place it, plot your way around and play smart. Right now, he's a bit of a raw talent."

Ishikawa is even more intriguing. His recent closing 58 to win The Crowns tournament in Japan, a 3-2 record at the 2009 Presidents Cup that included a dusting of Kenny Perry in singles, and seven victories on the Japanese Tour have all put "The Bashful Prince" at the white-hot center of the golfing universe. Unlike most of the young players of the last decade, Ishikawa has a masterful short game and putting stroke. His swing also impresses, because beginning with athletic posture, he hits one classic position after another in a freeflowing motion. "It doesn't get any better than that," said ESPN analyst Curtis Strange during a slow-motion replay on the Friday telecast.

Yet Ishikawa's game has been almost exclusively homeschooled by his father, a banker who is an avid student of the swing but is without competitive golf experience. Ishikawa last year tried to work with a swing instructor in San Diego but broke it off when he missed the cut at the Masters. His most influential mentor has become Japanese legend Jumbo Ozaki.

Also slight at 5-feet-10 and 160 pounds, Ishikawa is most concerned with distance, says Andy Wada, a former Asian Tour player and commentator for Golf Channel Japan. It is why he plays the ball well forward of his left heel and hits his driver on a notably high trajectory. It's a great game for carrying the trouble on the Japanese Tour, where most of the fairway bunkers are set in the 270-yard range, but by PGA Tour standards, Ishikawa is only moderately long. Still, golf is understandably most fun for Ishikawa when he is pulling off his driver headcover, which has been a bit eerily fashioned in his own image, complete with a huge shock of hair.

"Ryo talks a lot about wanting to hit 350-yard drives, and the players he most wants to play with are guys like Bubba Watson, Alvaro Quiros, J.B. Holmes -- the biggest hitters," says Wada. "Trying to generate a lot of speed can make his swing handsy, and he doesn't really have an off-speed shot for more control. The high ball flight puts him at a disadvantage in the wind." Indeed, Ishikawa had a difficult time getting the ball near the pin on the weekend, hitting only 14 of 36 greens in regulation, making just two birdies.

Probably more important is the way Ishikawa withstands off-course issues. He is hounded by Japanese media, his every tournament move played out before hordes of cameras. According to Wada, Japanese golf writers are particularly interested in the golf swing, and ask detailed questions expecting detailed answers. "It's bad when his game goes south, because then he has to explain and dwell on the negative," said Wada. "He has to learn to cut off his answers like Tiger, or even sometimes just decline to speak. It's hard for him because he is so nice, but it's getting to be too much."

Ishikawa has expressed a desire to be the best in the world and enjoys the attention and opportunity the major championships afford. Wada said he is also uncanny at learning new shots and moves by closely observing the top players he has been paired with. But the best golfers from Japan have traditionally had difficulty with long periods of play in the United States. Isao Aoki was perhaps the most bicultural, but according to Wada it was largely because he married a woman who spoke English. Ozaki, on the other hand, was never comfortable with more than a week at a time in America.

Ishikawa has some two dozen Japanese sponsors, and essentially holds the Japanese Tour on his narrow shoulders. He is expected to play 12 to 15 tournaments a year in his home country, leaving room for no more than 10 overseas, including the four majors. "I think it will be very difficult for him to play a lot in the U.S.," says Wada. "What concerns me is that it is harder to be passionate about his golf in Japan, where there is a lot of pressure to win and so many things are tied to his business relationships. He is most enthusiastic when he knows he is playing among the best of the best." Veterans invariably speak generously of young hot shots, but privately retain a healthy show-me skepticism. At Pebble they could have wordlessly justified that attitude by pointing at the now 26-year-old Tryon, who finished T-80 and continues to labor in the game's bush leagues.

"It's natural to think when one of these young players wins that, as a group, they are the best players in the world," said Padraig Harrington. "And on their best days, they might be. But the nature of the game is that it comes and goes. The best are the most consistent. The young guys need to stay patient and not worry so much about the outside pressures. Because they are definitely a detrimental influence."

Tom Watson was creatively paired with McIlroy and Ishikawa in the first two rounds. He was suitably impressed, but predictably reserved judgment.

"You have to give them their due, they have a lot of talent, and you have to say there are great expectations for them," said Watson. "But bottom line, they have to prove it. And until they prove it, you can't say they are in that league yet, whatever their talent." A few moments later, Watson would repeat, for emphasis, competitive golf's ultimate question: "Can you handle it? Can you handle it?"

It's harder to know the answer with the young, and Pebble was a timely reminder.