By JAMES McMAHON
For the past couple years, the PGA Tour has been seeking and hoping for the arrival of brash, fresh-faced golfers with enough talent to challenge the game's established stars. Despite an almost, "we built it, so they will come" hope process, we've seen only flashes of brilliance from young players, but no sustained parade of promise.
Those recognizing the game's need for fresh faces that are fun to root for -- and against -- have waited and watched as the sport's standard guard -- and we know who they are -- continued to win tournaments and dominate the airwaves even when they weren't. In fact, one player continues to gain headlines for how poorly he's playing, rather than for winning tournaments -- we also know who he is.
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Yet if the first month or so of the 2011 season is any indication, the days of Tiger, Lefty, Love and Ernie (among others) might be fading in favor of the era of the Young Guns, and that has to be welcomed news for a tour that is preparing for a new television contract and has been mired in economic uncertainty for 24 months.
Consider how the first five tournaments of the season have played out. Winners include promising young stars such as Bubba Watson and Jonathan Byrd and complete newcomers Jhonattan Vegas (how great is that name, really?) and Mark Wilson (twice). At the same time, players-with-promise Anthony Kim, Bill Haas, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson continue to find their way into contention and to the top of leaderboards.
Granted, much of this has happened as many in that "old guard" have skipped events that allegedly are not worthy of their attendance, and certainly Mickelson has played well in his couple of starts. But even that shouldn't overshadow the recent play of golfers we've been waiting on to emerge or who have been lying in the Nationwide Tour weeds for the past 24 months or so.
The fact is, despite the maintained popularity of players such as Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Jim Fuyrk and others, the tour has been in desperate need of young blood to lead it into the emerging decade. If things continue on the current path, it just may be getting that lifeline. There's no denying the lure of players such as Watson, Fowler, Kim and young European stars such as Rory McIroy and Martin Kaymer. There's also no denying they have the games to compete and beat the best. We've seen them do it.
That "curb appeal" combined with their brash, aggressive style of play will make for good television, enticing rivalries and perhaps the re-introduction of other social segments to the sport of professional golf, not the least of which is the younger generation. Perhaps, but there is no guarantee, it will also help the tour strengthen events that have struggled to gain national attention and sponsor support without some of the more established stars among their field year in and out.
Sound familiar? Well, it should. The emergence of these young players, some of whom have ties to this region or have already competed on Hilton Head Island before, could pay dividends for the Heritage in its search for a new title sponsor for our hometown PGA Tour event. It may seem like a stretch at the moment, but it's something to stay tuned to.
Younger players such as Vegas, Watson and Johnson tend to play more as they build their careers and fortunes and have emerged during a period when Tour players are being urged to expand and diversify their playing schedules. That willingness, and it appears to be present, will undoubtedly allow tour events such as the Heritage to realize better fields. In other words, very soon it might become a bigger deal to have a Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnson playing in your field than a Phil Mickelson or an Ernie Els. We aren't quite there yet, but for the first time, I sense those days are more likely coming than not.
That said, professional golf is about the majors and the world championships and it is in those events that the young guns must shine to truly announce their presence in 2011. Despite some heartbreaking finishes, Johnson, a South Carolina native, announced his arrival in last year's U.S Open and PGA Championship. Watson did the same at the PGA, losing in the playoff Johnson just missed out on. The next step is for players of this new generation to turn near victory into real triumph.
The first two opportunities are looming with the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship slated for later this month and, of course, the Masters in early April. We know the "old guard" will be there with plans to continue their dominance. What is most exciting to see is whether their young gun counterparts are ready to finally arrive.
Should they be, better days are on the horizon for the PGA Tour, and hopefully our local piece of it.