Patrick Reed, 23, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour in 2014, is part of the latest wave of young golfers to crash ashore and churn the rankings. The world’s top 50 players include eight under 25, with Reed among them at No 20.
It is not the first time the tour has been in the path of a youth swell. In April 2004, there were four players under 25 in the top 50, led by the 23-year-old Australian Adam Scott, who rocketed to No.12 shortly after winning the Players Championship.
Joining Scott were the Spaniard Sergio García, who challenged Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship as a teenager and won three times on tour before his 25th birthday; the South African Trevor Immelman; and the American Charles Howell III, who won for the first time on tour at 23.
In the decade since, Scott and Immelman have won the Masters. Of the four, only Scott has circled the No 1 spot. Scott, who turns 34 in July, could have overtaken Woods with a victory at the points-rich World Golf Championships event at Doral, outside Miami, two weeks ago. Even with Woods sidelined with a back injury, Scott cannot ascend to No 1 with a victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But he can at least see the summit.
During Scott’s first few years as a pro, Woods was so much better than any other golfer that Scott could not picture anyone else in the No 1 spot. Shortly after he turned pro in 2000, Scott recalled, he played a practice round with Woods in Las Vegas that made him wonder if he had chosen the wrong career.
“It was clear he was doing things that other players couldn’t do,” Scott said. “And I don’t just mean like his mental strength that no one else seemed to have.”
He added, “It’s just that physically he was hitting shots no one else was capable of hitting.”Woods, 38, has not lost his mental fortitude, but over time his physical advantages have been corroded by injuries and technology, most notably the advent of hybrid clubs and dri vers with grapefruit-size heads. “We’re talking 14 years ago, and obviously everything moves on,” Scott said. “It’s very different to come out and see where the top of the game is now and where it was in 2000 when Tiger was more than double the world ranking points ahead of second place.”
In the past few years, Scott has shown the kind of consistency that has underscored Woods’ career. He has made a tour-best 30 consecutive cuts and 42 of the past 43. Woods, who has missed nine cuts since turning pro in 1996, is 26 for 26 since failing to qualify for the weekend at the 2012 Greenbrier Classic. The Woods who won four majors in a row starting with the 2000 US Open was so good that he burrowed into the heads of competitors.
“He had everything working in his favour to put you a couple shots behind when you’re teeing off,” Scott said, adding, “It was all well publicised and well known exactly what he was up to and how good he was and how good he is.”
Woods last won a Masters in 2005, and his last major triumph came at the US Open in 2008, when he won four of the six tour events he played. That was three years before Reed turned pro. Woods’ aura has not disappeared, but it has dimmed, which is why Reed can picture himself challenging for the No 1 spot, in contrast with Scott at 23.
“There’s a different benchmark, maybe, that may not seem as high,” Scott said. “But I think the depth of talent, that talent pool, is much bigger now. And I can see maybe because that benchmark doesn’t seem as high, a lot of guys are working harder to get there. Because more guys think they can.”
If the field of major contenders has grown like wildflowers, Woods has no one to blame but himself. His athleticism and success made the game attractive to players like Rory McIlroy, 24, and Reed, both of whom have grown up to beat him.
Reed has won three times on tour since Woods’ last victory seven months ago. At Doral two weeks ago, Reed was in the final group on Sunday and played directly behind Woods, who was not a factor.
Applying what he learned from watching Woods, Reed blocked out the huge gallery in front of him and got around Doral’s Blue Monster in even par for a one-stroke victory.“That’s a thing that allowed me to realise that I’ve worked really hard on becoming mentally strong and not letting the things around me distract me as much,” Reed said. Then, alluding to Woods, he said, “That’s something he’s been amazing at, and that’s something that I’m really working on and that I’ve tried to take from him.”