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Teenagers already have eyes on Tiger

3 rookies come to Augusta with win over professionals

Sunday, April 05, 2009

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Golf is in a hurry to christen a new generation of Tiger rivals. Three Augusta-bound teenagers from different parts of the globe are in a hurry to get there.

Danny Lee defeated Drew Kittleson 5 and 4 in match play to win the U.S. Amateur. (Associated Press)

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, 19; New Zealand's Danny Lee, 18; and Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, 17, wasted no time in making names for themselves. They arrive at their first Masters Tournament with victories on their resumes and green jackets in their eyes.

"I think it will be really great for golf in the next 20 years if there's people from all over the world being able to compete in majors and being able to fight it out for them," McIlroy said of the teenage wave of talent.

McIlroy earned his invitation with a top-50 world ranking and sealed his status with a victory in Dubai in January, but he admits he has to pinch himself sometimes over the company he now keeps.

Lee won the U.S. Amateur last summer and will wait until after the Masters to turn pro, but he didn't wait to beat professionals -- he won the European Tour's Johnnie Walker Classic in Australia in March.

Ishikawa has been dubbed the Japanese Tiger. He received a special exemption after becoming the youngest winner of a world-ranking event as a 15-year-old high school freshman, and he backed it up last fall with another victory on the Japan Tour.

"There's suddenly this influx of very young players," said Chubby Chandler, McIlroy's agent. "Ishikawa's only 17; Danny Lee's 19; Anthony Kim is only 23. There might be a generation that's missed out here. These guys are rookies when Tiger is at his peak. Ernie (Els) articulated it better than anyone. He said, 'They're not going to have to put up with what we did, where every time they go into the media room they get asked about Tiger.' "

Though McIlroy has been most often compared to Woods, the other two teens have made it their stated goal to follow in Woods' footsteps.

Ishikawa, known as the "Shy Prince" for his modest demeanor, said when he turned pro at 16 that he hopes to supplant Woods (21 years, 3 months, 14 days) as the youngest Masters winner.

Lee already has clipped Woods as the youngest U.S. Amateur champion.

"The next Tiger Woods maybe," Lee said after becoming only the second amateur and the youngest ever to win a European Tour event. "I can't compare to Tiger because he's one of the greatest players in the world, and he's the No. 1-ranked player in the world, and all I want to do is just break what he's done. Obviously I can't win three events in a row -- the U.S. Amateur -- but I'll try to break his record on the PGA Tour."

Ishikawa was thrilled at the opportunity offered by Masters Chairman Billy Payne. He will be the second-youngest competitor in Masters history behind Tommy Jacobs in 1952.

"It's always been my dream to play in the Masters. It's like a fantasy for me," Ishikawa told reporters after getting the invitation. "I've seen the Masters only on TV. And now I'm so excited that I'm actually going there. I'll try not to be too nervous on the first tee."

Ishikawa has rock star status in Japan and must handle a media horde unlike anything other golf stars deal with, including Woods. That was on display at the WGC-Accenture Match Play, where he was practicing as an alternate not even in the field of 64. When he posed for a picture with Woods, the scene was described by observers as a rugby scrum of photographers.

"The young Japanese player, Ishikawa, the circus around him is 10 times more," said Chandler, who pointed it out to his client in Tucson, Ariz. "That shows (McIlroy) what other people have to deal with."

Brendan Jones, the Australian who played Woods in the first round of the match play tournament, plays on the Japan tour with Ishikawa.

"Ishikawa will probably be the hottest property in Japan in regards to movie stars, sports people," Jones said. "He's the king right now, or he's the prince, really. He's good looking, good with the media, great with the galleries. He's just a complete package. And he's got the game to back it up. You haven't really seen the best of him over here yet, but I've got no doubt that he'll be here in the future."

Woods has been asked repeatedly about the teens who are getting the kind of accolades and scrutiny he did early on.

"Just because people are writing about you and talking about you, as my dad always said, that's never hit you a high draw, a low fade or holed a putt," Woods said.

The Japanese media are already trying to build some buzz about their young star in relation to the other prodigies.

"They are very keen to develop a rivalry between Ryo and Rory," Chandler said. "Very keen. All the magazines and TV. They want to make a rivalry so they got something to excite people with the next 10 years."

McIlroy said he thinks it will all be good fun growing up in the game together.

"It will be great for the game of golf if we all do improve and get to the top level in professional golf," he said.

"I think it would be because golf has had young guys coming through, but never at the same time. You had Sergio (Garcia) and Adam (Scott) and a few of those guys, but they never really came through at the same stage."

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