Garcia, other young PGA Tour stars still fighting the fight

DUBLIN, Ohio -- Tiger Woods is absent, his surgically repaired knee and its effect on his game subjects of conjecture. Woods' return must wait until the U.S. Open, but that hardly means he is not on the minds of those competing in this week's Memorial Tournament or any other event.

Sergio Garcia thanked Woods for not being at the Players Championship two weeks ago, jokingly implying that it helped pave the way to the biggest victory of his career.

No doubt, Sergio would have welcomed Woods' presence and the opportunity to beat him. But he surely isn't returning the trophy -- or the money -- just because the No. 1 player in the game was out.

And yet, nobody would blame Garcia or a slew of his contemporaries if they were to wonder just how different their careers might be were it not for the unrealistic standards set by Woods.

By itself, Garcia's record is impressive, if not outstanding. Heading into the Memorial, which begins Thursday at Muirfield Village Golf Club, Garcia, 28, has 17 worldwide victories, including seven on the PGA Tour, the most of any player in his 20s. Although he has no major titles, Garcia has seven top-5 finishes, including two seconds.

Woods has 13 major championships and 64 PGA Tour titles, blowing away everyone else while leaving many to wonder who, if anyone, will even begin to remotely challenge his numbers.

"Tiger has won so often," said Geoff Ogilvy, 30, who stopped Woods' winning streak earlier this year at Doral and won the 2006 U.S. Open -- the only time Woods has missed a cut in a major as a pro. "It's not like there's a shortage of good players at that age. He's just good. He's very good at winning a golf tournament.

"The frustrating thing is that people think that we're not trying and we're flying the white flag. I don't think that's true in any case, really."

When Garcia won the Players, he became the sixth player under the age of 30 to win in seven tournaments this year, a stretch that included Trevor Immelman at the Masters, Adam Scott at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship, Johnson Wagner at the Shell Houston Open, Andres Romero at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and Anthony Kim at the Wachovia Championship.

In all this year, there have been nine winners in their 20s, surpassing the total of the 2007 season.

The trouble has been in sustaining the winning. In the past three seasons, 21 players in their 20s have won PGA Tour events, but just four have won multiple times. Garcia is not among them. His victory at the Players was his first in three years. Immelman, D.J. Trahan and J.B Holmes have each won twice. Scott, who has six PGA Tour wins, now has won in each of the past three years.

Charles Howell III, who figured to be a longtime challenger to Woods when he turned pro in 2000, is just 28 but has only two victories to his credit.

A decade ago, Phil Mickelson won 16 times in his 20s. David Duval won all 13 of his PGA Tour titles before turning 30 -- and it coincided with Woods' era. Woods, 32, won 46 times and 10 majors in his 20s.

"I think there's a great crop of young players that are out on tour," said Mickelson, who won Sunday at the Crown Plaza Invitational at Colonial, his second win of the year. "I don't know if [the] increased depth of talent makes it more challenging, or if guys are able to play better golf later in their 30s and 40s. That could be a big element. But when I look at these young players in their 20s, they're all so talented. They all have so much game, and a lot of them have won this year."

Garcia figured to have won a bunch more by now -- certainly a major championship -- which is why he often comes across as defensive. He said after his Players victory that he often can tell by the line of questioning in news conferences that he is being criticized.

Asked whether the media scrutiny motivates him, Garcia was quick to reply: "Definitely. It gives me something to prove."

Now, after two weeks off, including some down time at home in Spain, where he celebrated the victory with family and got in some practice, Garcia is looking ahead. The Memorial is the first of three straight events that end with the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, a venue he loves.

"Winning the Players was a big boost of confidence," he said. "But I still have to go out there and perform at the U.S. Open and the British Open and the PGA, and give myself a chance. The good thing about it is I know that coming down the stretch, my whole game can step up to it. That's good to have. But I still need to get myself in that position."

And having Woods there will make it all the better.

"Tiger is an exceptional player, and you cannot go out there thinking, when he's in contention, that he's going to back up," Garcia said. "So you know that you have to step up your game and play well and try to beat him at his own game.

"But I'm looking forward to it. We always enjoy playing against the best, and when he's around, it's always a little bit extra motivation. It does make it a little bit tougher to win the event, but that's what drives you into trying to become a better player."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.