The kids are alright at Match Play

Updated: February 25, 2007, 12:16 PM ET
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

MARANA, Ariz. -- Match play is golf's version of Latin -- it's a dead language. Even those who speak it fluently use it infrequently, leaving their talents atrophied and deteriorated from a lack of practice.

The world's best players compete in this format twice each year, three times tops, which puts them a few holes down against the greats of generations gone by. It takes quite a while to accumulate enough professional experience in match play for a consistent pattern of success even to be developed. This fact alone would suggest that the older, more knowledgeable players -- those with Ryder and Presidents Cup appearances under their belts, not to mention a handful of previous starts in this WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship -- would hold an overwhelming advantage over the young 'uns.

Aaron Baddeley
AP Photo/Matt YorkAt 25, Baddeley remains the youngest player in the Round of 16 at the Match Play.
That's a notion which has evaporated into the big, blue desert sky this week. Entering the Round of 16, six of the remaining players are under 30 years old, 13 are 35 or younger, and only two are in their 40s.

The kids are all right, indeed.

Aaron Baddeley, all of 25, leads the youth movement, followed closely by Justin Rose (26), Charles Howell III (27) and Trevor Immelman (27), each of whom has accomplished what the likes of major winners Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els could not -- they have won their first two matches at this prestigious event.

Heck, even Tiger Woods, a relative baby in golf circles at just 31, should be considered an elder statesman among those returning for Friday. He's the second-oldest player still alive in the top half of the draw.

To what can we attribute such achievement so far this week from golf's younger crowd? There are a few ideas. The first states that these players are closer removed from amateur tournaments -- in which match play is a more popular structure than on the professional ranks -- than their more mature brethren, leading to an advantage of familiarity.

"If you go back to amateur golf, which is obviously for the young guys nearer, time-wise, we play a lot of match play in amateur golf," said Rose, who defeated Mickelson, 3 and 1, on Thursday. "So it's not really, I don't think, too much of an issue."

The second theory can be applied more to this event than the match play format in general. Held at La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, Calif., for seven of this tournament's first eight editions, players are now competing at The Gallery at Dove Mountain, a venue many -- if not all -- men in the field had never set eyes upon prior to this week.

"That helps," said Woods, who remains the lone top seed alive in the draw after beating Tim Clark, 5 and 4. "[At] La Costa, it just seemed like the same guys kept advancing as we've all played there before, and guys who won tournaments, [who played in the] Tournament of Champions, and then when it became the Match Play.

"Local knowledge does help. This week everyone is on a blank slate, and there's no learning curve. The more rounds you can get in here this week will help for next year."

The final sentiment is perhaps the easiest to explain and speaks to the state of the game for at least the next decade. Simply put, these guys are good.

The PGA Tour's own motto speaks for many of its up-and-coming players. Consider the fact that the current crop of youngsters in the Sweet 16 doesn't even include twentysomethings Adam Scott, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia -- each of whom are ranked in the world's top 12 -- and it's easy to see why the future is as bright as the present.

"I think there's a lot of really good young players up there in the World Rankings right now," Rose said. "There's no real reason. There's no big surprises. There's a lot of good talent around at the moment."

And there's a lot of good, young talent still advancing in the brackets, as youth continues to be served -- and hand out large servings of defeat -- at the Match Play.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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