THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — The pool of young talent in golf has never looked deeper.
Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open at age 22, the second-youngest player to win a major since the Masters began in 1934. Jason Day, the 24-year-old Australian, was a runner-up in two majors this year. Rickie Fowler, 22, won his first pro event in South Korea and is responsible for all those bright orange Puma hats in just about any gallery.
Matteo Manassero won twice on the European Tour before he was 18. Ryo Ishikawa had 10 wins in Japan before he was 19.
The list gets even longer with budding stars in their 20s — Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel, Dustin Johnson, Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Anthony Kim.
Attribute that depth to Tiger Woods.
It’s not because he set the bar so high and made everyone try to get better. It’s because he no longer wins so many tournaments. So maybe the pool only looks deeper because it no longer has such a big fish.
For the second straight year, nobody won more than three times on the PGA Tour. And both years, that third win came in their last tournament — Luke Donald last month at Disney, Jim Furyk last year at the Tour Championship.
The five previous years, Woods won at least six times in all but one year. The exception was 2008, when he missed the second half of the year with knee surgery. He won four times in six starts.
It’s one thing to talk about this great parity in golf, particularly on the biggest tour. But two questions should be asked: Would that perception of parity exist if Woods had not gone away the last two years? Is it possible that just as many great young players were around over the last decade, only to be overlooked by the overwhelming presence of the game’s biggest star?
Sergio Garcia nearly won the PGA Championship at 19 except that he went up against Woods that day in Medinah. Adam Scott was 23 when he won The Players Championship. Justin Leonard was 25 when he won the British Open. Phil Mickelson won as an amateur.
“The talk like there’s parity on tour is slightly flawed, because there’s always been parity,” Geoff Ogilvy said in a recent interview. “It’s just that there was one guy who made no one notice. The last 15 years you’ve had Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, David Duval, Adam Scott, Sergio Garcia. You had arguably more proven players — lots of them — over the last 15 years. Now it’s the same.
“You have new names, but we notice them now. The media notices them. Fans notice them.”
They used to be looked upon as possible challengers to Woods. Now they are seen as potential replacements.
Woods has gone two years since his last win, which for so many years seemed unimaginable until his personal life unraveled, until he chose to go through yet another swing change, then effectively went four months without being able to practice due to injury. Through it all, his confidence eroded with each setback.
Thirteen players have won the last 13 majors, dating to Padraig Harrington at the 2008 PGA Championship. There was a time when Woods won seven out of 11 majors early in his career, and six out of 14 majors right before reconstructive knee surgery.
If he had kept winning at the rate he did for 14 years, would anyone have noticed this crop of young players?
“Rory McIlroy would still be up there,” Hunter Mahan said Tuesday. “But Tiger played a practice round and it made news. He’s chasing records whenever he plays. How are you not going to write about that? No offense to the young guys.”
Nick Watney also suggested that McIlroy, based on his sheer talent and eight-shot win at the U.S. Open, would get his fair share of attention even if Woods had kept winning a major a year, along with a half-dozen other titles.
“But he would be like Sergio was, like Adam Scott was, like whoever the media tabbed — Charles Howell, at one point,” Watney said.
The question is whether Woods can get back.
The Chevron World Challenge, for an 18-man field in which everyone but the host — Woods — is among the top 50, figures to be a good benchmark. Woods has gone 26 official events without winning. He is coming off two strong weeks in Australia during which he hit the ball where he was aiming for nine rounds in windy conditions.
To win at Sherwood — or even to be in contention — would send expectations for 2012 higher than they have been in two years. But the road back doesn’t start until he’s posing with a trophy.
What happens then?
Only three players at Sherwood are older than Woods (Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk, K.J. Choi), so the challengers he faces around the world are all younger than they used to be. And while none of these guys has won more than three times in a year, they feel a lot better about themselves because no one else has won that much more.
That’s the Tiger effect.
“Golf is a very confidence-driven game,” Ogilvy said. “A lot of these players now have more confidence than if he was winning eight times a year. Because if a guy is winning eight times a year, even if you win three times, you don’t feel like you’re as good of a player because there’s someone who’s so much better than you.”
Donald is No. 1 by a wide margin, courtesy of his work ethic, consistently being in the top 10 and four wins around the world. But it’s not domination that golf saw for the better part of a dozen years.
Golf always has had its share of rising stars. It only looks as if there are more now because no one is that much better than anyone else.