Wales Open 2013: Analyzing Top Young Contenders at Celtic Manor

Matt FitzgeraldCorrespondent IIIAugust 29, 2013

NEWPORT, WALES - AUGUST 29:  Espen Kofstad of Norway hits his second shot on the fourth hole during the first round of the ISPS Handa Wales Open on the Twenty Ten course at The Celtic Manor Resort on August 29, 2013 in Newport, Wales.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Espen Kofstad fired a seven-under 64 to take a two-stroke lead in the first round of the 2013 Wales Open at Celtic Manor Resort on Thursday.

The 26-year-old is a European Tour rookie and is ranked No. 305 in the world. However, a win at this event could give his career a serious jolt, as it also serves as the first to count toward points for the Ryder Cup.

Celtic Manor hosted the USA vs. Europe showdown in 2010, and it will be held at Gleneagles in Scotland in 2014—the site of last week's Johnnie Walker Championship.

Thus, it is fitting that the journey to the Ryder Cup begins this week for European Tour regulars, and there are several young guns in contention in the early going who have all the makings of being legitimate stars.

Note: Statistics and information are courtesy of Tournament history was obtained via the Official World Golf Ranking.

Espen Kofstad (-7)

Perhaps this scintillating round from Kofstad was just an aberration, but the way he finished the day was particularly impressive.

Kofstad made birdies at Nos. 15 through 17, then holed out for eagle from the bunker on the par-five 18th to come in with a 29 and vault to the top of the leaderboard.

The European Tour's official Twitter account captured the magnificent shot from a distance:

Unfortunately, the first year for Kofstad has been rough, as he's dealt with a neck injury and had missed the cut in 14 of his 20 starts this season entering the Wales Open.

Barring a disaster on Friday, it appears Kofstad may finally be getting back on track and beginning to live up to the promise he showed in winning two Challenge Tour events in 2012. He shot consecutive 68s to finish T-23 at Gleneagles last week, and a win here would salvage a frustrating year.

There is still plenty of golf to be played, but Kofstad is making quite an impression. Playing alongside 2014 Team Europe Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley definitely helps, as Kofstad did on Thursday.

Kofstad is 149th in the Race to Dubai but clearly has the long game and talent to be a significant factor for the remainder of year—as long as he's healthy.

Chris Wood (-5)

Definitely the most accomplished 20-something of this group, the towering Englishman has the long game to compete with the world's best, which he proved in finishing tied for seventh at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

Wood nearly entered the playoff at the 2009 Open Championship between Tom Watson and eventual champion Stewart Cink, missing a par putt on the 72nd hole that eventually left him out by one stroke.

Winning had proven elusive for Wood, but he finally broke through in January at the Qatar Masters, eagling the final hole to finish like a true champion. With that type of experience under his belt, there is no doubt Wood could take home his second trophy of the season in Newport.

A self-described "horrendous" short game at this year's British Open shook Wood's confidence, but he's clearly figured something out.

In Thursday's first round, he hit 15 of 18 greens, converted all three of his scrambling opportunities and needed 29 putts—not bad considering all the looks at birdie.

A three-putt at the par-five ninth, his last hole, was the only blemish on Wood's scorecard. As long as he can continue steadily improving that facet of his game, though, he is well on his way to surging into golf's elite, currently at No. 61 in the world rankings.

Peter Uihlein (-2)

The young American is a product of the Oklahoma State golf program, which is highly regarded and has produced the likes of Hunter Mahan and Rickie Fowler on the PGA Tour in recent years.

Instead of taking his talents to the PGA Tour, Uihlein made the choice to go overseas, broaden his horizons and acclimate his game to all different types of golf.

He may be No. 119 in the world, but Uihlein is enjoying a relatively successful maiden campaign in Europe. If he continues to progress and eventually posts enough good finishes on his native side of the Atlantic, Uihlein could be a huge asset to the American Ryder Cup team.

There is still plenty of work to be done for Uihlein, but he's at least within striking distance after a round of 69.

Beginning on the back nine, he got his 24th birthday off to a wonderful start by turning in three-under 32 but made eight pars and a bogey on the front nine.

With a win back in May already under his belt, it has been a struggle recently for Uihlein as he's missed his past three cuts. However, he should be moving more prominently into the discussion of budding star American golfers sooner rather than later.