Commentary

Fresh, young faces share PGA spotlight

Originally Published: August 14, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. -- This should be no surprise, really. As much as we clamor for the big names in golf, the established stars, the experienced major players, it is those without the pedigree who often end up celebrating.

At least recently.

With one round to go at the PGA Championship, there is a very strong possibility that we will again see a first-time major championship winner leave Wisconsin with the Wanamaker Trophy.

And it is quite possible that new member of the major champion club will be in his 20s, as five players under age 30 occupy the top seven spots on the leaderboard. Five of the last six major championships have been one by first-timers, with only Phil Mickelson interrupting the run.

[+] EnlargeRory McIlroy
Allan Henry/US PresswireRory McIlroy, 21, shot a third-round 67 on Saturday at Whistling Straits. He's within 3 of 54-hole leader Nick Watney.

And unless Jim Furyk, Steve Elkington or Zach Johnson can overcome a five-stroke deficit to Nick Watney, we'll have a third straight major winner hoisting one of the game's four biggest trophies for the first time.

Watney, 29, leads Dustin Johnson, 26, and Rory McIlroy, 21, by three strokes. They have combined for a total of six PGA Tour titles, no majors. Four strokes back is China's Wenchong Liang, who set the Whistling Straits competitive course record of 64.

And tied with Liang are two more 20-somethings: Jason Day, 22, and Martin Kaymer, 25.

"Majors are a lot more open than they were five or 10 years ago,'' said McIlroy, in an obvious reference to the troubles of Tiger Woods, who is well out of contention and will go a 10th straight major without winning one.

McIlroy has been poised for greatness since his teenage years and accomplished a great deal before his 21st birthday. Last year, he won the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour, and this year he captured the Quail Hollow Championship when he shot a final-round 62.

Last month he began the Open Championship with a major championship-tying 63, only to be blown away by a gale in the second round on the way to an 80. But he rebounded to shoot 69-68 and tie for third behind Louis Ousthuizen, 27, who won his first major after Graeme McDowell did the same at the U.S. Open.

"He probably figured out that since Graeme's won one and Louis' one won that one of these is within his range,'' said Chubby Chandler, McIlroy's agent. "And it hasn't gone missed that the world No. 1 [Woods] and [No.] 2 (Mickelson) aren't playing too good. And the world No. 3 [injured Lee Westwood] is on the couch.''

Even fourth-ranked Steve Stricker is well back after a 68, nine strokes off the pace.

"The younger guys ... we have been playing well all year, so it's not a shock to anyone,'' said Johnson, who has three PGA Tour victories, including this year's AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. "We have contended in a lot of tournaments. We have won a lot of tournaments. So being a major, yes, it's a little bit different, but it's not too much different than a regular tour event.''

Of course, that is not really true.

When Johnson made a triple-bogey 7 at the second and a double-bogey 6 at the third hole in June at the U.S. Open, he went from leading by three to trailing in the matter of minutes.

That sort of thing doesn't typically happen at a regular tour event. And if it does, the circumstances are certainly not remembered as they are at a major championship.

[+] EnlargeDustin Johnson
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallNearly two months after imploding during the final round of the U.S. Open while playing in the final group, Dustin Johnson will be in the same position Sunday. The difference? At Pebble Beach, he led by 3 shots while at Whistling Straits, he trails by 3.

"Instead of dwelling on it and letting it affect me, it's pushed me to work harder, go to the gym more, practice some more, to get better,'' Johnson said.

The run of first-time major winners began following Angel Cabrera's second major title at the 2009 Masters. Lucas Glover won the U.S. Open, Stewart Cink the British Open and Y.E. Yang the PGA Championship.

After Mickelson captured the Masters this year for his fourth major, McDowell and Oosthuizen became the next surprise major winners.

And the PGA has traditionally been a place where first-timers break through, with 14 winning their initial major in the last 22 years. Of those, four went on to win another major.

"I think everyone can see now that they can win big tournaments," said Oosthuizen, who had made the cut in just one of seven previous majors before winning last month at St. Andrews. (He missed the cut here by one stroke.)

"No one is afraid anymore, wondering if they are too young or too inexperienced to win a major. I think it was just a matter of a few guys stepping up and winning their first major for the rest to see that this is possible."

Watney is in a similar spot as Johnson was at Pebble Beach, holding a three-shot advantage with plenty of time to consider all that goes into the process.

For any of these potential first-timers to get the job done, just the knowledge that others have accomplished the feat will help only so much. Conditions are expected to be difficult Sunday, with wind gusts up to 25 mph. And the thought of winning a major can weigh heavily.

"They were both extremely solid down the stretch,'' Watney said of the last two major winners, McDowell and Oosthuizen. "And I think that's where most people think that unproven players are going to falter and both of them didn't. They played brilliant golf.

"So it's definitely great to see and hopefully I can join them.''

If Watney does -- if any of a number of players with a chance to become a first-time major winner pulls it off -- it will hardly be a surprise. Not now.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com