America's Lost Boys still searching for success

HONOLULU -- In a post-round interview with Golf Channel on Saturday, U.S. Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger jokingly (we think) pronounced Tadd Fujikawa the best American golfer under 30. Egged on by counterpart Nick Faldo, Azinger even jokingly (we think) revealed he might not mind having the 16-year-old amateur on his squad in 2008. The comments were innocuous enough, but said less about the young Hawaiian's prospective outlook than they did about the current crop of young players Azinger has to choose from.

It is difficult to determine the exact date when the future of American golf appeared to be in decline, but let's give it a shot anyway: Dec. 30, 2005. That's when Tiger Woods turned 30 years old, leaving the collective group of U.S.-born twenty-something golfers as a disappointing, underachieving lot.

Consider Charles Howell III the poster child of this generation. He figured to be one of its best players, the AJGA Player of the Year at age 17, an NCAA champion at 20, a PGA Tour winner at 23 and Presidents Cup team member at 24. Now 27, Howell still owns just one career victory, and his ranking on the money list has slipped from ninth in 2002, to 33rd in '04, to 52nd in '06.

Howell's latest, greatest chance to double his win total came at this weekend's Sony Open. Instead, he walked away with a staggering ninth career runner-up finish, surrendering a two-stroke lead at the turn on Sunday to fall one shot shy of tournament champion Paul Goydos.

If victories are the true measure of success, then this next wave of U.S. golfers has left something to be desired. The "young" Americans winning tournaments really aren't all that young. Dean Wilson, Brett Wetterich, J.J. Henry, Eric Axley, Arron Oberholser, Will MacKenzie and Chris Couch each garnered their initial PGA Tour victory last season, but not one was born after 1976. Meanwhile, those in their 20s who won include J.B. Holmes, Troy Matteson, D.J. Trahan ... and that's it.

Even so, Howell dispels the notion that this group of players is the PGA Tour's version of the Lost Boys. "I think it's ridiculous" he said on Sunday. "I think American golf under 30 is fine. If you look across the board, if you look at the guys playing nowadays, I don't buy into that, no."

"I think it's ridiculous. I think American golf under 30 is fine. If you look across the board, if you look at the guys playing nowadays, I don't buy into that, no."
-- Charles Howell III

The facts say otherwise. Delve even further into the numbers and you'll find that only two such players, Ben Curtis and Jonathan Byrd, own multiple victories, while only one American golfer under the age of 30, Lucas Glover, is currently ranked in the world's top 50.

That's not to say there is a dearth of talented young golfers in the world. They just weren't born on U.S. soil. Adam Scott is the world's third-ranked player; Sergio Garcia has been a household name since bursting onto the scene in 1999; Geoff Ogilvy is the reigning U.S. Open champion; Luke Donald owns two top-10 finishes already this season; and Trevor Immelman staved off Woods to claim last year's Western Open.

Strangely enough, the success of these players has actually given some of their U.S.-born alter egos renewed confidence in their own games. "I feel that I'm a little bit under the radar if you will, which is kind of nice," Howell said. "I see a lot of the focus in on these great young British and European players, you know, different things like that, which [is] fine."

Still, the question remains: Why aren't the top young American players finding similar results to their global counterparts?

The most likely conclusion is that these players are still developing. After all, one can make the case that for professional golfers, life begins at 30. Look at the top U.S. players, save for Woods. Phil Mickelson earned each of his three major championships after passing this milestone. Jim Furyk claimed seven of his 12 titles in the six years since turning that age. Even Davis Love III, known as a quick starter in his career, has found more success on this side of 30.

In fact, there is no greater evidence for the phenomenon of players getting better with age than the season's first two winners, Vijay Singh and Goydos, who are 43 and 42, respectively. All of which means there is plenty of time for Howell and the rest of America's twenty-somethings to fulfill their full potential in coming years, be it 2007, 2017 or even 2027.

Like the saying goes, patience is a virtue. This current crop of young American golfers could mature into more than a playful punchline. It just might take a few decades before we finally know for sure.

Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.