Young Stars Emerging at Phoenix Open: Jumpstart for a New Generation

Will Leivenberg@@will_leivenbergFeatured ColumnistFebruary 28, 2010

Before Brandt Snedeker went on a birdie rampage Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the void that Tiger’s absence had left on my ‘golf soul’ was beginning to subside. There it was: an abundance of youth—Camillo Villegas, Ryan Moore, Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler—was perched atop the leaderboard.

Suddenly, I’m revitalized.

For the first time in a long time I am eager and excited to tune into a PGA Tour event.

I had been dejected after learning of Gatorade’s decision to release Tiger from his endorsement. Tiger’s seriousness and sincerity at his press conference appeared, at least in my eyes, to be enough to restore faith in his ability to transform himself. However, Gatorade obviously viewed his issues through a different lens.

Then, yesterday, as my browser slowly unraveled, I couldn’t help but coyly smirk in satisfaction that guys my age were tearing it up at TPC Scottsdale. A combined age of 101, it was almost surreal to see Villegas, Moore, Kim, and Fowler being chased by major winners, future PGA Hall of Famers, and over 140 of the most talented golfers in the world.

It’s a strange, but pleasant, reminder that life goes on in the golf world.

Having met both Kim and Fowler, hit on the range next to them, and observed the intricacies of each of their games—Kim the powerful and Fowler the crafty—I have been hopeful and anxious for their individual breakthroughs on the Tour.

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Though Kim has already had a great deal of success in his short career, especially in 2008 with wins at the AT&T National and Wachovia, it was refreshing to see a guy like Fowler, who has immeasurable amounts of pressure on him from all the hype and acclaim, producing under pressure.

Moore’s methods may be a little unorthodox, considering he refuses to wear spikes on the golf course, but the dude has got game. His last few seasons have been characterized by a slew of both top-tens and missed cuts; not exactly the blueprint of consistency. But he has a gritty, aggressive attitude on the course that I anticipate will launch him to the forefront of the golf world in the coming months.

Villegas is off to a rapid start of the 2010 season. After nearly winning at the WGC Accenture Match Play last week, he started the Phoenix Open with a blistering nine-under par 62 Thursday, and a three-under par 69 Friday. Looking at Villegas’ stats over the last three years, every year he has been improving, most visibly in his short game; the nucleus of a successful golf career.

Over the last few years, my anticipation for young players’ success on tour has been ebb and flow. Whether they are straight out of college, like Fowler, or a recent graduate of the Nationwide Tour, like Moore, rumors start, hype grows, and the judgment begins.

As an observer and fervent fan, I can’t imagine how arduous this task and transition must be for these young golfers. They are acclaimed at the junior and college level, reigning victorious at local, national, and even international events. Leading in stats like driving distance and putts per round has become common—but then, they reach the big time, or what Crash Davis would call ‘the show.’

It’s a culture shock. It’s a mental shock. It’s a shock.

Their role models are now their playing partners. They’re finish in the event doesn’t just earn them a mention in the newspaper, but a paycheck.

They’re not just pursuing a dream anymore—they’re going to work every day to survive in a cutthroat business.

Only time will tell which of these emerging golfers will consistently shine when its crunch time on the PGA Tour. But, one thing is for certain: they radiate vigor and a visible, perceptible desire to compete and thrive and that is everything and more that the PGA Tour is yearning for right now.

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