You can blame Tiger Woods. By winning 10 professional major championships before he turned 30 and having the most dominant decade any golfer ever had, Woods has made the improbable seem easy. But by tilting the landscape in such a dramatic way -- as in, no one else could possibly do what he is doing -- Woods has obscured a long-running truth: most great champions have won at least one major in their 20s, and it is nearly a requisite for building a career people remember.
Ben Hogan, who won his first major when he was 34, is the oft-cited poster boy for late bloomers, but, in fact, many of golf's legendary performers -- Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Seve Ballesteros, among them -- won majors before they turned 30.
Unless his father's perilous health causes him to be absent from Augusta National GC next week, Woods will be the man anybody -- young or older -- has to get past to win a green jacket. Although the foursome of veterans (Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen) usually thought to be Woods' biggest threat are likely to lurk again, The Masters is a perfect time to wonder about the emergence of younger challengers to the world's No. 1.
There has been a dearth of 20-something winners other than Woods at The Masters in the last 20 years. Since 1986, when 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus turned back the clock to win so dramatically, only six times has the champion been in his 20s, with Larry Mize (28, 1987) and José Maria Olazábal (28, 1994), the only winners other than Woods, who claimed his green jackets at the ages of 21, 25, 26 and 29. Contrast that with the 10 years beginning in 1976, when five different golfers younger than 30 -- Watson, Ballesteros, Fuzzy Zoeller, Craig Stadler and Bernhard Langer -- accounted for six Masters titles.
Can The Masters, long thought to be a place where young nerves worked best on the touchy putting surfaces, still be a playground of success for 20-somethings? With few exceptions -- famously, Langer, who managed his virulent jumpiness with creative measures not seen since Sam Snead's unorthodox improvisations -- to be younger than 30 was to be blissfully yip-free. The bigness of the moment might get them, because pressure doesn't check someone's birth certificate before applying a choke hold, but the purity of their strokes seldom did.
Ben Curtis is the only current player in his 20s with a major title. There has been a low murmur of uncertainty about the greens work of some of today's young bucks, abundant theories about why players of this generation sometimes sputter with a putter in their hands -- too much emphasis on the full swing and too much time on the range, among others.
"I think I play too defensively in the majors," 25-year-old Adam Scott says, "and that's something I'm going to try to change this year. At the majors the penalty for a mistake is so extreme -- miss it in the wrong spot and you can spend all day chipping around the green. That's why I think I've been too defensive in the past, putting too much emphasis on the wrong spot to be. I've got a lot of rounds under my belt, and I think it's time to take a chance and play more aggressive and play the course like it's any other course. I might make some bogeys, but you've got to make some birdies to win, I know that."
The Masters will be Scott's 20th major championship, and he has managed only two top-10s so far. He spoke frankly at the Players Championship (where his impressive victory two years ago turned out not to be any kind of springboard for major success) about his desire to produce on golf's most important stages, keenly aware most of the game's stars won at least one major when they were in their 20s.
"He's definitely right now the best of the young players, him and Sergio [Garcia]," says Ernie Els, who was 24 when he won the 1994 U.S. Open, making him the fourth youngest player behind Woods, Ballesteros (22, at the 1979 British Open) and Jerry Pate (22, at the 1976 U.S. Open) in the last 30 years to win a major. "[When I was Scott's] age, I don't think my swing was as good as his. My short game and my rhythm really helped me out a lot. But he's got a sound golf swing, and he looks like he's hungry to take it far."
Scott first will have to digest the bad taste coming from his third-round 82 last week at the Players Championship, which certainly wasn't the preamble to Augusta he wanted. "I thought I did pretty well to hang on and shoot 10 over par," Scott said. "It's ridiculous, but I felt like I was going to shoot 90 there for awhile."
Garcia, who turned 26 in January, was in position to win the Players Championship, one off Stephen Ames' lead through 54 holes, but he started dreadfully Sunday, missing a 3-footer on the second hole en route to a final-round 78. Garcia's putting looked better through 54 holes at Sawgrass, but his putting stats have improved only marginally since an awful putting year in 2005. Ranked 196th in putts per green in regulation on the PGA Tour last year, he is ranked 148th this year.
There may be some solace in the evolution of the winner's stats at The Masters: If you hit the ball good enough, it is possible to prevail without being the best of the best on the greens. From 1987 through 1999, Ian Woosnam was the only Masters champion to rank outside the top 10 in putting for the week; since 2000, four of the six winners have been out of the top 10.
Regardless of which area of the game is most important, the best players figure out how to get the job done. In the era of Tiger, they also have another roadblock -- being careful not to let Woods' track record wear them down before they start. "I was talking to somebody the other day," Singh said at the Players, "and it's just like top guys have almost conceded. It's like we arrive at a golf tournament and they've conceded if Tiger is playing. That's the feeling I don't have."
Luke Donald, the 28-year-old Englishman who was T-3 at the 2005 Masters, is trying to adapt his attitude in order to be more than a backdrop to Woods next week and beyond. "He's a phenomenal player," says Donald. "He's absolutely the No. 1 player in the world right now. That's what I'm striving to be. But I think the only way to catch him is to start believing I'm as good as him. If I don't believe that, I'm not going to be as good as him, full stop. So I've got to start believing."
Woods' back-to-back bogeys to close regulation at the 2005 Masters before beating Chris DiMarco in a playoff was as unusual as if he had shown up Sunday wearing a green shirt. Until further notice, the path toward greatness goes through Woods. "He's a great player, he's mentally strong, he doesn't beat himself," Tom Lehman says. "Therefore, if you're going to beat him, you've got to beat him -- he's not going to lose. I think that does maybe ... change your mind-set knowing that if you're behind, you've got to catch him and pass him -- he's not coming the other way."
DiMarco's 68-71 edge over him in last year's fourth round notwithstanding, having a firsthand view of Woods doesn't necessarily help. Of the 97 golfers paired with him over the last 16 major championships (2002 Masters through 2005 PGA Championship, during which time he has won four titles and had five other top-10 finishes), Woods has scored better than his partners 65 times, been beaten by them 25 times and equaled seven times.
If you're one of the young pretenders to Tiger's throne, those aren't particularly good numbers to chew on. But somebody younger than 30 is going to win The Masters again. Tiger wasn't the first, and he won't be the last. Somebody will make putts and stand up to the heat, and just like that, the future will be the present.
Bill Fields is a senior editor for Golf World magazine