2005: Young and restless

Here’s an alarming statistic: Tiger Woods, who will turn 30 in December, has been the youngest American on the last four U.S. Ryder Cup teams.

Certainly, that point alone begs the question: Where are all those superkids that Tiger’s father, Earl Woods, said were on the way?

If there is a disturbing dearth of young, tournament-ready U.S. talent on the PGA Tour – a few players are still works in progress, and a couple other promising talents such as Bill Haas and Ryan Moore have yet to gain PGA Tour cards – the same cannot be said for the women’s side of American golf. Not after last week.

At the 60th U.S. Women’s Open at Cherry Hills, the leaderboard was dominated not only by youth, but by red, white and blue flags next to players’ names. Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lang, Natalie Gulbis, Paula Creamer, Paige Mackenzie, Michelle Wie – all spent time placing their respective names on the leaderboard at our national championship. And all but Wie, who slipped on Sunday with an uncharacteristic final-round 82, earned their way back into next year’s Open championship at Newport (R.I.) Country Club.

Not surprisingly, the players and a supportive record Open crowd at Cherry Hills appreciated the show. Just as the 1999 U.S. Open proved a pivotal stepping stone for nonwinners Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open may one day be viewed as a coming-of-age passing for such fledgling stars as Pressel and Lang.

Was it not that long ago we looked at the landscape of young American female golfers and considered it to be rather barren ground?

“Growing up, it’s all I heard,” said Mackenzie, a 22-year-old amateur from Washington. “Where are all the American girls? Why aren’t there some good American golfers?”

Mackenzie and Gulbis, also 22, are the oldest players in the above-mentioned group. Wie, at 15, and Pressel, a fiery 17-year-old who might have won the Open had it not been for Birdie Kim’s 11th-hour miracle from a bunker, are still in high school. The fact there are a few built-in rivalries within this group should only help these players push one another to excellence.

Lang, 19, who tied for second alongside Pressel, will turn pro at next week’s Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic in Ohio, and could be as explosive and gifted as any young player out there, Creamer included.

“It’s great,” said Meg Mallon, 42, the two-time Women’s Open champion. “I was disheartened about five years ago because we just weren’t getting any young players going out, and now we’ve got them coming in droves. Let me tell you, they want to beat each other really bad, and it’s going to make for a great environment out here in the next 5 or 10 years.”

We look forward to that. In the end, the U.S. Women’s Open was Birdie Kim’s party, but the play of the young Americans at Cherry Hills was energizing and encouraging, and a sign of a bright road ahead.

Now if only their young male counterparts could take a cue . . .

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