Ready for more success from the youngsters on TOUR?

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Franklin/Getty Images
The big-hitting Gary Woodland is a prototype for the new generation of golfers.
January 05, 2012
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- When a kid calls his father "Old Man," it usually has little to do with age and more to do with unintentional sarcasm ... especially if the kid hasn't yet started grade school and the father hasn't yet seen his first stubble of gray hair.

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But when Jonathan Byrd hears his 5-year-old son call him "Old Man," the tone sounds, well, different. Byrd feels like maybe he is really old, even though he doesn't turn 34 until later this month.

While conventional wisdom suggests 30-somethings should be in their prime on the PGA TOUR, perhaps Byrd has a right to feel a bit old on TOUR.

After all, in 2011, the players in their 20s produced nearly as many victories (18) as the players in their 30s (20). Three of the four majors went to players in their 20s, while the 30s were shut out (42-year-old Darren Clarke won the British Open). The FedExCup champ was another 20-something, Bill Haas.

Going into this week's season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions, no one expects the 20-something freight train to stop. The young guys are confident, cocky, aggressive and fearless -- and everybody else who's older must either step up their games or step aside.

"There's a part of me that doesn't want to look back at some of the guys coming up," said Byrd, the defending champ at Kapalua. "They're good and they're talented and they're athletic and they hit it a mile."

One of those guys who hits it a mile is Gary Woodland, who broke through with his first TOUR win at age 26 last year at the Transitions Championship.

Woodland is a poster child for the 20-somethings, a former college basketball player who combines length (he ranked fifth in driving distance) and accuracy (12th in greens in regulation). His win last year came in just his 33rd career start.

Woodland said the rise of the 20-somethings can be traced back to Tiger Woods' success in his 20s. Those players coming after him realized that the waiting period for making an impact on TOUR had been drastically reduced.

"We all have high expectations now," Woodland said. "I think the bar's been raised. Tiger did that 10 years ago and it's starting to carry over to all us young guys now.

"You look at the guys coming up and they're getting younger and younger. I almost feel like I'm old and I'm only 27 now."

Imagine how the 40-somethings feel.

Steve Stricker, who turns 45 next month, was one of just six players in their 40s to win an event last year (in fact, Stricker won two). Although he feels confident about his game and about his chances, having seen Vijay Singh, Kenny Perry and others flourish on TOUR in their 40s, he also knows the window of opportunity is closing.

20-Somethings at Kapalua
Click on a player's name for his season preview.
Player Age
Keegan Bradley 25
Webb Simpson 26
Chris Kirk 26
Scott Stallings 26
Jhonattan Vegas 27
Gary Woodland 27
Kevin Na 28
Brendan Steele 28
Sean O'Hair 29
Martin Laird 29
Bill Haas 29
For all of PGATOUR.COM's Top 100 to watch in 2012, click here.

"There's kind of been a transformation of players out here," Stricker said, "and it's going to happen eventually. ... It makes it harder to compete out here, for sure."

While knowledge and experience can still pay dividends -- "always worth a few shots here and there," Stricker said -- confidence and talent can't be denied for long. Look at how well Webb Simpson played late last year, winning two events in a span of three weeks after turning 26 years old and finishing second in the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup.

Along with International 20-somethings such as Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Charl Schwartzel, as well as Americans Haas, Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Dustin Johnson -- each of whom is already a winner on TOUR -- there are certainly enough young players out there to feed off each other. In fact, 11 of the 28 players in this week field are in their 20s, and that doesn't include one of the TOUR's most popular players, Rickie Fowler, who enters 2012 intent on posting his first TOUR win.

"These young guys that have had some success early on, and they know where they fit in the whole scheme of things as a player, and they see that they've played well, and I think that gives them confidence, too," Stricker said. "And then they can come out and perform at a high level, too."

Said Woodland: "You're still trying to learn off the veteran guys out here and trying to beat the younger guys as well. I definitely think we're feeding off each other. Every week, it seems like there's a new young guy coming out and playing well."

Indeed. Bradley, who won two events last year -- the HP Byron Nelson Championship and the PGA Championship -- en route to claiming Rookie of the Year honors, sounds like a guy who's already looking over his shoulder a bit.

"I think the rookie class this year is unbelievable," he said, "and there's more guys coming."

Stricker was asked Thursday on the eve of the first round at Kapalua whether there were guys in the field this week that he did not know a year ago. He said yes, citing Brendan Steele and Chris Kirk, two more players in their 20s.

He knows them now, of course, after they've joined the elite group of PGA TOUR winners. He expects the youngsters to make even more noise this year.

"Right now," Stricker said, observing from afar, "it seems like young is good."

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