The shadow of Tiger Woods is a black hole from which nothing can escape. Maybe that's why the world's golfers under 30 years of age aren't getting much respect -- because your aging Tiger is now 31 and no longer a twenty-something.
The fact is, there is plenty of young talent out there. It's hard for today's Young Guns to get a foothold in a sport where top players hang on into their mid-40s, but they're out there. For proof, all you needed to do was watch the PGA Tour this season. Charles Howell III threatened to win twice this season, and has finished second twice. Luke Donald just missed a win in Hawaii. Last weekend, the duel down the stretch was between former Aussie boy wonder Aaron Baddeley and former U.S. Amateur champion Jeff Quinney.
Baddeley, 25, edged ahead on the 71st hole and swiped the FBR Open title from Quinney, 28, and from the looks of his revamped Steve Elkington-like swing, the man known as Badds could be a force on tour this season. In fact, this could be a changing-of-the-guard type of year because so many Young Guns seemed poised to step up. Here, then, are my rankings of the world's top 12 Young Guns...
World Rank: 3
What he's done lately: Won last year's Tour Championship, one of seven top-3 finishes, and ranked third on money list. Near-misses at Riviera, where he closed with 64 and was edged by Rory Sabbatini by one, and Byron Nelson, where he shared 54-hole lead but shot one-over in final round and dropped to third.
Outlook: Long predicted for superstardom because of superb swing and demeanor, finally stepped up in majors last year, finishing eighth at British Open and third at PGA -- he'd had only one top-20 finish in 17 previous majors... Played his way past Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen in world rankings... Could be primed for great things in '07.
World Rank: 11
What he's done lately: Won last year's Accenture World Match Play, captured U.S. Open at Winged Foot with amazing clutch finish and established himself as a major star.
Outlook: Could be a force in majors. In only 12 majors, he's had three top-10 finishes and a win. Tied for 16th last year in first Masters, was fifth at '05 British Open and has been sixth and ninth in last two PGAs. Winged Foot win not likely to be his only major title.
World rank: 8
What he's done lately: Won Honda Classic last year, challenged Tiger at PGA before finishing in a tie for third at Medinah... Very consistent player, with 10 top-10 finishes.
Outlook: He may prove to be the Tom Kite of Europe, a plodder who plays consistently well and is often in the mix. Has finished third twice in his last eight majors and was second in '05 Players Championship.
World rank: 12
What he's done lately: Not much, by his usually high standards. Last year was his first without a win since 1998, although he did spark Europe's Ryder Cup victory with his terrific play. Five top-10s for one of the tour's best ballstrikers was disappointing. His bright spot was a tie for third in PGA at Medinah.
Outlook: He started so young, it seems like he's been around forever and surely must be in his 30s by now. His iron play slipped a bit in '07 and again, his poor putting held him back. He ranked 158th on tour in that category, the part of the game that keeps him from challenging Tiger and winning majors. May need to spend more time on his short game and less time squiring gorgeous starlets (but who wouldn't if they could?) and celebrities.
Country: South Africa
World rank: 13
What he's done lately: Won Cialis Western Open last year, lost Wachovia Championship in playoff and was edged out at the EDS Byron Nelson Classic. A terrific iron player (ranked 14th in greens hit) and a straight driver, was voted PGA Tour rookie of the year, although he's actually been winning around the world since the start of the century (three times in Europe) and hardly rates as a rookie.
Outlook: A classic ballstriker who, like Garcia, sometimes lets shots get away with his putting. Was fifth in '05 Masters so he's had a taste of major competition. Look for him on frequent leaderboards.
World rank: 14
What he's done lately: Won a European Tour event in Abu Dhabi last month with a closing 65, his eighth win worldwide and fourth in his last 27 European events. Also won the World Match Play at Wentworth. Was edged out for Europe's Order of Merit by Padraig Harrington in the final event.
Outlook: He's got the length to dominate courses, similar to Ogilvy, and could break out as Europe's top player. His game ought to fit well at Augusta. He seems poised to become Europe's man to beat.
World rank: 44
What he's done lately: Won last weekend's FBR Open in Phoenix in impressive fashion with a birdie streak on the closing stretch of holes. Backs up his first PGA Tour win at Harbour Town in '06. Won Australian Open twice as a teenager.
Outlook: A superb putter who seems destined for a Ben Crenshaw-style career -- don't expect consistency but there will be plenty of spots of brilliance. He's been the opposite of fellow Aussie Scott, a great putter and short-game player with an erratic swing. After working during the offseason, his swing looked much improved in Scottsdale. If can he keep that up, he has potential to make a run at the top 10 in the world rankings. It's early but he could be the surprise of '07.
World rank: 36
What he's done lately: Had the lead at the Bob Hope Classic but got out played on final nine by Charley Hoffman and John Rollins. He's made progress, had a hot fall in '06 with a second at the Valero Texas Open and a pair of fourth-place finishes, which is how he has stealthily sneaked into the top 40 of the world rankings.
Outlook: Has five wins worldwide but none on PGA Tour, where he is starting his fourth full year. Great potential, a good swing but has played in only two of the last 10 majors. Still climbing the ladder.
Country: United States
World rank: 47
What he's done lately: Not much last year when he won $1.5 million and ranked 52nd on the money list, which qualified as slump given his talent and the great expectations that came with him when he turned pro in 2000. Won the '02 Michelob Championship, has had 10 runner-up finishes. Signs of life at Sony Open, where he held the lead until midway through the final nine. His short game looked much improved at times and his results have shown it -- he was second at the Sony Open and Bob Hope Classic.
Outlook: Last year wasn't a waste because Howell learned what didn't work when he experimented with his swing after leaving long-time teacher David Leadbetter, with whom he later reunited. He has too much talent to not be a regular top-10 money list guy. Look for him to get a victory this year.
Country: United States
World rank: 49
What he's done lately: Was 21st on money list last year on strength of nine top-10 finishes but faded in summer when he had a chance to play his way onto the Ryder Cup team -- in 10 events from mid-May through PGA, he missed five cuts and finished no better than 15th. Won at Disney in '05 when he holed out a long bunker shot on the final hole.
Outlook: Considered a major talent who's still a work in progress. Hasn't developed that closer instinct yet and doesn't have much experience yet in majors -- has only played in six, missing the cut in five. He's got game, just give him time.
Country: United States
World rank: 76
What he's done lately: Won twice in '06 and ironically, both tournaments became defunct -- the Booz Allen Classic and 84 Lumber Classic. The wins ended his status as a one-hit wonder after his surprising British Open title in 2003.
Outlook: Curtis hasn't gotten enough credit for having three wins because he's so inconsistent. When he's not all the way on, he's all the way off. His two wins last year were his only top-10 finishes. You never know when he'll contend but when he does, he usually wins.
Country: United States
World rank: 73
What he's done lately: Finished last season on a roll with five straight top-10s, including a win at the Frys.com Open and a second at Disney World. Got to the tour by being the No. 1 money-winner on the Nationwide circuit in '05.
Outlook: He's a power player who can go low -- he had four rounds of 64 last year -- on a tour that is geared for power players.
...Sean O'Hair, 24, won the 2005 John Deer Classic but slipped back last year due to a failed swing-change experiment. He's got all the tools plus he's one of the nicest guys on tour
...Ryan Moore, 24, had a pair of runnerup finishes in his short time as a pro and was impressive despite playing with a problem wrist that forced him to use a unique takeaway. He won everything there was as an amateur, should be a winner on the PGA Tour, too
...J.B. Holmes, 24, won in his fourth start on tour in Phoenix, which was probably before he was really ready. The adjustment to the long grind of the pro season took its toll on the Kentucky alum, who should bounce back in '07
...Jeff Quinney, 28, a former U.S. Amateur champion who's been among the hottest players on tour this year. He was fourth at the Hope, seventh at Torrey Pines and third at Phoenix. He displayed fine consistency until the final nine on Sunday, and notably fumbled away a chance to win the FBR Open in Phoenix. If he can start closing like Mariano Rivera, he'll be dangerous.