Commentary

Teens taking golf by storm in 2009

Originally Published: March 31, 2009
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Look around, golf world. You are rapidly approaching the intersection of Present Place and Future Way, the convergence of two clearly defined eras. Watch closely as one glides precipitously by, still very much in control of the road yet glued to the rearview mirror as the other quickly gains ground.

Observe the panic-stricken looks on the faces of those who have toiled at their craft for so long, only to hover on the verge of being passed in the fast lane by those who just recently earned a license.

Like gold, frankincense and myrrh, three would-be kings have descended upon the world in the form of gifts from the golf gods. These shaggy-haired teenagers have already turned ability into achievement, potential into production. They come from all corners of the globe -- Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Japan -- unearthing gracefully powerful swings and powerfully graceful short games, portending a not-too-distant future that will be filled with superstars unlike those we are accustomed to witnessing on our usual Sunday leaderboards.

They are Rory McIlroy, Danny Lee and Ryo Ishikawa.

Each will compete in the same field for the first time at this year's Masters Tournament; McIlroy via his place in the Official World Golf Ranking, Lee because of his U.S. Amateur victory, and Ishikawa by special invitation. Though it is unlikely that any of the trio will be shouldering the green jacket in Butler Cabin come April 12 -- no Augusta first-timer has claimed the title since Fuzzy Zoeller three decades ago -- consider this tournament Part 1 of the Tiger Woods Era: Version 2.0.

Not since Woods burst onto the scene more than a dozen years ago has the sport seen such rebirth in the form of its next generation. With the emergence of these three teens, the future is once again catching up to the present.


"Eventually, there are going to be people who replace myself, Tiger, Ernie, Vijay -- the guys that have been in the top 5 or 10 in the world ranking the last however many years. … We are trying to hold these guys off, but it's just a matter of time before they start to overtake a lot of us." -- Phil Mickelson


It is apropos that the kid with a major-motion-picture type of tale hails from the town of Holywood. That would be Holywood, Northern Ireland -- and yes, just one "l" in the name -- where Rory McIlroy was raised as the only child of working-class parents.

His story mirrors that of so many celebrated wunderkinds before him. McIlroy started out with an advanced proficiency at the game and just kept getting better. At age 2, he could blast a golf ball 40 yards -- and straight. At age 13, while competing in Darren Clarke's training school, the longtime pro witnessed the raw potential, presenting his personal phone number and offering to host the youngster whenever possible.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlory
Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty ImagesRory McIlroy might be the most accomplished of the three teenagers taking the professional golf world by storm in 2009. He won against an elite field in Dubai earlier this year and has proved his game against some of the PGA Tour's best in two WGC events.

At 16, he set the course record at venerable Royal Portrush Golf Club, firing a sublime 61 to best the many all-time greats who have competed there. And two years later, he earned two total points at the prestigious Walker Cup, though his Great Britain and Ireland side lost to the United States squad.

It was at the 2007 British Open Championship, however, when McIlroy truly became part of golf's public consciousness. Opening with a bogey-free 3-under 68 at Carnoustie -- good for a share of third place through 18 holes -- he ultimately finished T-42 while claiming the event's silver medal as low amateur.

When McIlroy turned pro two months later, his ascent mimicked that of Woods on the PGA Tour 11 years earlier. In his second start on the European Tour, he finished solo third at the Dunhill Links Championship then followed with a T-4 one week later at the Open de Madrid Valle Romano.

Those results cemented McIlroy's place as a full-time member of the tour for the next season -- the youngest ever to receive affiliate membership -- and, like Woods, meant there was never any need to languish on minor league circuits or compete in qualifying tournaments.

In the 18 months since taking up pay-for-play status, the kid nicknamed "Boy Wonder" by the Irish press has transformed into a lead character. He earned six top-10 finishes in 27 starts last season and clinched his first professional victory in January, holding on to best an elite field at the Dubai Desert Classic.

Such results have elevated Rory to No. 17 in the Official World Golf Ranking while drawing rave reviews from some of his more accomplished peers.

Geoff Ogilvy: "He's the real deal. He's a very impressive golfer. It's feasible that he's going to be top 2 or 3 in the world within a year. I mean, he's that good. … The more he plays, the more different sorts of golf courses he plays, he's just going to add more and more dimensions to his game. This will be the worst ranking he's got for the next 10 years, what it is now; it's only going to go up because he's very impressive."

Ian Poulter: "He hits it high, he hits it long, he putts well, and he's got a good head on his shoulders. That's a nice, round mix to have to be out here playing professional golf, so he's going to have a very exciting couple of years. He's going to be heading in one direction, and that's up."

Ernie Els: "Rory's going to be a major factor in professional golf. I think you are probably looking at the next world No. 1 in him. Winning in Dubai got that little monkey off his back and he's got a lot of confidence going now. Rory's hungry, as we say. He has a lot going for him."

Even the current No. 1 is keeping close tabs on the potential challenger to his throne.

"There's no doubt, the guy's a talent," says Woods, who has yet to compete in the same pairing as McIlroy but congratulated him after McIlroy won in Dubai. "We can all see it: The way he hits the golf ball, the way he putts, the way he can chip, get up-and-down. He has the composure. He has all of the components to be the best player in the world, there's no doubt. It's just a matter of time and experience, and then basically gaining that experience in big events. That takes time, and I mean, geez, he's only 19. Just give him some time, and I'm sure he'll be there."

As for McIlroy, who finished in the top 20 in each of his first three U.S. professional starts over the past month, he's keeping such exaltation in stride.

"You can't let those things sort of get into your head," he says. "But you know, it's obviously nice for those guys to say those things about me. It obviously fills you with a bit of confidence that you're doing the right things, so it's good to get all of these compliments. [But] you still have to go out and play good golf at the end of the day."

So far, so good for McIlroy. Expect this Holywood story to have a very happy ending.


"You'll see the younger generation coming through, and they have all got the arms and the pecs and the six-packs and all of that. It makes the game look better. It makes the game cool, you know. Even the dress sense has changed a lot out here. All in all, I think the product of the tour is starting to look more athletic and more healthy. I think it's all good. It makes us, makes everybody, work harder." -- Ernie Els


Whatever happens to Danny Lee during his career -- whether he reaches the greatest of heights in this game or sinks to the lowest of lows -- one thing is guaranteed: It will be entertaining to watch.

Lee was born in South Korea and emigrated to New Zealand at the age of 8 (where he became a naturalized citizen last year). He has already made a career out of winning early and following with outlandish -- if not accurate -- comments before ever turning professional.

Last year, one month after turning 18, he became the youngest winner of the vaunted U.S. Amateur, surpassing some guy named Woods by more than six months. Asked later to convey the feelings of his parents -- whom he had spoken with from their home in New Zealand -- Lee said they told him, "Danny, I'm so proud of you and blah, blah, blah." Typical teen, huh?

[+] EnlargeDanny Lee
David Cannon/Getty ImagesDanny Lee has already broken one of Tiger Woods' records as youngest U.S. Amateur champ. The teenager, who plans to turn pro after the Masters, has spoken boldly about trying to eclipse many more of the world No. 1's marks in the coming years.

It was another quote, though, that really raised some eyebrows. When informed that his victory may result in a pairing with reigning U.S. Open champ Woods the next year at Bethpage Black, Lee admitted, "That's a special thing for me," before thinking about such a prospect and proffering more than a little moxie: "I'm going to beat him."

And so it should come as no surprise that when Lee set another age-old mark this season, becoming the youngest player to claim a European Tour title while taking the Johnnie Walker Classic by a single stroke, he once again recalled a form of golfer's blasphemy when discussing himself in comparison to Woods.

Asked to list his greatest long-term goal, Lee said, "The next Tiger Woods maybe. … No, I can't compare to Tiger because he's one of the greatest players in the world, and he's the No. 1-ranked player in the world. All I want to do is just break what he's done, and obviously I can't win three events in a row [at] the U.S. Amateur, but I'll try to break his record on the PGA Tour."

Granted, his quip came with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but his gumption at making such an aggressive statement shouldn't be understated. And perhaps there was some truth to it, too, not only in the intentions but also in the overall career results for Lee.

"He's got the attitude. He's got the game. And he's fearless at times," said Felipe Aguilar, who finished co-runner-up at the Johnnie Walker. "We'll see what happens after he turns pro, but what I've seen today, I really enjoyed playing with him. He's a good player."

Lee's final appearance as an amateur will come at the Masters before embarking on a professional vocation that he hopes will be as fruitful as predicted by so many -- himself included.

"It still feels like I'm in a dream," Lee said after winning on the Euro Tour, "and I hope nobody wakes me up."

Here's hoping nobody suppresses his candor, either. If Lee keeps talking the talk, he'll at least be the most impressive player off the course. If he can walk the walk, he might be the most impressive on it, as well.


"I think it's great. Things like that for the game of golf are great, to see youngsters coming out and playing well, because they are the future of the game. We're going to be here hopefully for some years, but we need as many of those 17-, 18-, 19-year-olds coming out and doing well, because they're going to carry the game." -- Sergio Garcia


It's never too difficult to find Ryo Ishikawa. Just look for the cameras.

The Japanese teen has reported that he can't leave his home without being besieged by photographers and autograph requests. "I can't walk in Japan by myself," the 17-year-old says. "Probably do not have enough bravery to do it."

His situation isn't much different in the U.S., either. In his first professional stateside event in February, the Northern Trust Open credentialed a record number of media -- so many that it was forced to extend its on-site facilities.

[+] EnlargeRyo Ishikawa
AP Photo/Sakchai LalitEvery move Ryo Ishikawa makes, he's followed by the media and fans. The "Bashful Prince," as he's been dubbed in his native Japan, will play the Masters courtesy of a special invitation from Augusta National.

Although three-time major champions Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Vijay Singh were all in the field, it was Ishikawa who brought the masses to Riviera Country Club. One week later, they were at it again, conscientiously snapping pictures for hours during his lengthy practice sessions at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. Not on the golf course, though. That's because as the third alternate that week, he didn't get into the tournament.

That's right. The second-most photographed player of the week -- hey, it was Woods' return performance -- never even hit one golf shot that mattered.

Scratch that. They all mattered.

For a prodigy who comes from a golf-hungry nation that has seen only a modest amount of success from its professionals on the highest levels -- Jumbo Ozaki, Shigeki Maruyama, and the LPGA's Ayako Okamoto and Ai Miyazato are among the most accomplished over the years -- Ryo represents an opportunity to have one of their own included among the game's most well-known one-named superstars. As such, his every word is reported, his every facial expression splashed across the Japanese papers like he's some sort of royalty.

And, well, in a way he is. Ishikawa has been dubbed Hanikami Oji, which roughly translates to "Bashful Prince" -- a moniker even the player doesn't quite think he has justified yet. "I don't dislike to be called the Bashful Prince," he admits. "But I wonder if they really think I am the Prince. It is kind of uncomfortable to be called Prince."

Ryo hasn't been crowned without reason, though. In May, 2007, competing for the first time on the Japan Golf Tour, he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup while still an amateur at the age of 15 years, 8 months. He has since prevailed on two further occasions, all of which has unlocked doors for special invitations to Arnold Palmer's tournament and the Masters, while earning high praise from his professional peers.

"The kid's very impressive," says fellow countryman Ryuji Imada, who was paired with Ishikawa for two rounds in a Japan-based event late last year. "His skills are unbelievable, but I think his attitude and mentality are a little bit like when Tiger came out of college and turned pro. He knows he's good. He knows everybody is watching him. He knows that he can do it and he does it. Obviously, Tiger has done unbelievable things in golf, but I think Ryo is on his way to doing something great, too."

And when he does, the cameras will be following him every step of the way.


"You know, it is different now. Guys, I think, are developing at an earlier age and a faster rate because, one, you have technology and you have video cameras, better analysis, better instruction now than we have ever had; they have aids and progress these kids at an early age. And you give them the right tools, the clubs fit them. You don't have to fit the club to your swing. Or the other way around, you don't have to fit your body to the club. All of these different advancements help kids progress at a faster rate." -- Tiger Woods


When discussing the prospects of McIlroy, Lee and Ishikawa, cautious optimism has succumbed to unabashed frenzy; the prevailing opinion is that the can't-miss kids are certainties for long-term professional success.

Those few who choose to play the role of devil's advocate will swiftly offer the foreboding tale of Ty Tryon, the 17-year-old who in 2001 reached the PGA Tour quicker than anyone before him only to flame out before hitting it big.

Such an argument holds little merit, however, since the three teens in question have already proved themselves accomplished players on the most elite levels. Each has already won on a major professional golf tour and will soon compete on the game's grandest stage at Augusta National.

"I don't know if it's just if we have all just came along at the same time or it will be a reoccurrence in the future," McIlroy says, "but it seems that golfers are becoming a lot better a lot younger. … It will be great for the game of golf if we all do improve and get to the top level in professional golf. It's had young guys coming through, but never at the same time … so it's pretty cool."

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

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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.