Posted: Tuesday, April 7th 2009 at 11:28am
As Player steps aside, new generation takes over in Augusta
By The Associated Press
Dustin Johnson warms up his hand on the driving range while preparing for the Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club as temperature hit the low 40's in Augusta on Tuesday. / photo: Associated Press
AUGUSTA -- An armada of mowers hummed along the fairways at Augusta National as a frigid breeze whipped through the place, making it feel more like winter than spring in these parts.
Workers raked pine straw into neat piles, gathered up any stray limbs and put the finishing touches on a course that will be hosting a Masters for the ages.
From Gary Player's farewell to an invasion of fearless teens, none of whom seems to realize that youth is rarely served at Augusta, the generational divide is as large as ever for this Masters.
Player, a three-time champion and winner of nine majors overall, announced Monday that his 52nd appearance at Augusta will be his last, the game having long since passed him by even though the 73-year-old South African never lost his passion for staying fit.
``I'm exercising profusely, but it's very difficult,'' Player said. ``The golf course is so long. It is just so long. I mean, I'm hitting a wood to almost every single hole.''
Length is not a problem for 19-year-old Rory McIlroy. Or 18-year-old Danny Lee. Or 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa. They may be too young to order a beer in the clubhouse, but they're all eager to take on Augusta for the first time.
``It's pretty cool to have three teenagers in the field,'' McIlroy said.
The kid from Northern Ireland made a name for himself with an opening-round 68 at the 2007 British Open. This year, he beat a strong field at Dubai for his first major win. Amazingly, he's already climbed to No. 17 in the world rankings.
``I don't feel like a 19-year-old,'' McIlroy said. ``Obviously I am, but I feel like I've matured very quickly since coming on tour, and I'm sure Danny and Ryo will tell you the same thing.''
Lee replaced Tiger Woods in the record books as the youngest U.S. Amateur champion, and he made more history in February when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic to become the youngest winner in European Tour history.
Then there's Ishikawa, who could pass for a rock star in Japan. He won his first Japan Golf Tour event as a 15-year-old amateur and won again last year after turning pro. This week, he's taking time away from high school to play in the Masters.
Anthony Kim, all of 23 and a star of America's Ryder Cup victory, chuckled when someone asked how all those youngsters made him feel.
``I feel really old,'' he quipped.
Of course, everyone is chasing the man with four green jackets in his collection and plenty of room at home for a few more. Woods won his first at 21 the youngest Masters champion ever and he's coming off a win at Bay Hill that erased any doubts about the quality of his game after knee surgery.
Woods showed up at mid-afternoon Monday, getting in some work on the driving range and putting green while still in his sneakers. Then, after most of the patrons had headed home on an unseasonably cool day, the world's No. 1 player managed to sneak in six holes on the back nine before giving way to the grounds crew.
Still only 32, he's not prepared to give way to the kiddie corps anytime soon.
But they already have Woods in their sights.
From Phil Mickelson to Sergio Garcia, those who came along about the same time as Woods often seem a bit overwhelmed when they get into a Tiger staredown.
This next generation seems a bit more willing to take him on. They've just got to do it on the course. The learning curve at Augusta is mighty steep, but McIlroy can remember just about every stroke from Woods' record-breaking Masters victory in 1997.
``The guys that are playing in Tiger's era, I've seen them do all of these things and play in the same tournaments as him, and maybe they thought this guy is almost unbeatable,'' McIlroy said. ``The likes of myself and Danny and Ryo have seen him on TV. You know, we can relate to him in a way, especially that first Masters. He was only 21 and you could sort of relate to someone that age. You were thinking to yourself, 'Well, hopefully when I'm that age, I can do something like that.'''
Player would be a pretty good player to emulate, as well. He won his first Masters in 1961, added another in '74 and captured his last green jacket in '78 at age 42.
The Man in Black dueled with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, witnessed Woods' amazing rise and holds the record for most Masters appearances.
No. 52 will be his last. Player will take his final walk down the 18th fairway on Friday in all likelihood, considering he hasn't made the cut since 1998. He'll do his best to hold back the tears as he soaks up all the cheers and the memories.
Then it'll be time to turn it over to the kids.
The game appears to be in good hands.
``The people I've met over the years, the battles that I had with Arnold and Jack and others, and now to see all of these young fellows coming along,'' Player said. ``There's a great saying that the Chinese have. They say, 'Everything shall pass.' And that's what we have got to realize.''
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