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The Changing of the Guard

The PGA Tour witnessed a generational shift of new stars last season, and in 2012, expect them to shine even brighter

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A breathless Bradley said just after his PGA win: “It seems like a dream and I’m afraid I’m going to wake up here in the next five minutes and it’s not going to be real.”
It was real, very real. And his aunt thinks she knows why.
“Keegs really gets joy out of his success,” says Pat Bradley. “In that way, he is much different from me. I got mine from fear of failure.”
There is no fear of failure in Rory McIlroy. He led the British Open at St Andrews in 2010 after the first round, then got caught up in bad weather conditions the second day and shot 80. Still, he made the cut and played well on the weekend. Then, leading the Masters by four shots last April, he shot 80 in the final round. He hit such a pulled hook off the 10th tee that his next shot was played from the lawn that separates a pair of member cabins. It was a disappointing loss, but in the end not disheartening. A little more than two months later, he stomped all over the field at the U.S. Open at Congressional, winning with a total of 16 under par, the lowest score in Open history. He won by eight shots over Jason Day.
“I don’t know if it shows I have a very short memory,” said McIlroy after he had taken the first round lead at the Open. “I took the experience at Augusta and learned from it. You can’t be thinking about what happened before.”
Looking ahead to the youngest tier of stars, there are rays of brilliance.
At 17, Matteo Manassero of Italy became the youngest player to win a European Tour event last year and he won again this year. He has played in all four majors by the age of 18, and presents himself as a mature professional well beyond his years.
Bud Cauley left the University of Alabama after his junior year this past May and turned pro. The 21-year-old qualified for the U.S. Open and got sponsor exemptions into PGA tournaments, and earned enough money to finish in the top 125 on the money list and go straight to the PGA Tour in 2012, bypassing qualifying school and the Nationwide Tour.
Tom Lewis, a 20-year-old English lad from Welwyn Garden City (home of Nick Faldo), made a statement at the British Open this summer, shooting a 65 to tie for the first round  lead, the lowest score ever shot by an amateur. He played alongside Tom Watson, the five-time Open champ, who is  his namesake. Three months later, after turning pro, Lewis won the Portugal Masters, only his third start as a professional.
Patrick Cantlay, a 19-year-old sophomore at UCLA, put on quite a performance this summer. He was low amateur in the U.S. Open, tying for 21st. Playing on a sponsor’s exemption in the Travelers Championship, he shot a 60, the lowest round ever by an amateur in a tour event. He finished tied for 20th at the AT&T National, Tiger Woods’ event. He finished tied for ninth in the Canadian Open. He was the world’s top- ranked amateur at the end of 2011, and did not have plans to turn pro.
Harris English, a 22-year-old who played golf at the University of Georgia, won the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational as an amateur this summer, turned pro and is now playing the Nationwide Tour. He just earned his PGA Tour card for 2012 at the qualifying school.
But lest we get carried away with burying Tiger, Phil, Vijay and Els under a pile of young talent, let’s bring in wily veteran Kenny Perry, who divides his time between the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour. In the Age of Tiger, Perry’s seen it all, including playing practice rounds with many of the younger generation during the past two seasons.
“I still don’t see anybody as mentally tough as Tiger Woods,” says Perry. “They are all polished players and hit the ball a mile, but I don’t see anyone right now that is separating themselves from the rest of the field the way Tiger did, and the way Phil did sometimes, Vijay. Luke Donald is No. 1. He doesn’t have the wow factor of Tiger, for sure. But he’s just become so darn consistent, has a great short game, great putter and he’s able to finish in the top 10 all the time and win a couple.
“Bubba Watson has some wow factor because he hits it so long and he can curve the ball so far. The new balls don’t curve much, but he can curve it 50 yards if he wants to, so that’s pretty entertaining to see. You know, I like that wow factor, and Tiger had a huge amount of it. It was something to play with him, see him hit a shot. And he was such a great putter, clutch putter. He was just different from anybody else and that made him special to play with.”
But Perry does see young talent bound for glory.
“College golf is so much more different than when I played,” says Perry. “I think now it produces a lot of very talented, polished players and any one of them is capable of playing tour golf. I played with Bud Cauley at [Jackson]. I was in awe of this little kid. He can’t be 5-8, but he was hitting it a mile, had a short game. He’s a player.”
This young posse of players, so filled with talent and confidence, still has a long way to go to match the record of Woods, or Mickelson for that matter. With so many bright prospects clawing their way to the top, Baker-Finch thinks it might be difficult for any one of them produce the extraordinary record of the generation before them.
“This group may not have a Tiger or a Phil, but someone like Rory McIlroy has so much promise and already has that major under his belt,” says Baker-Finch. “There are so many young stars now.”
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.
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