- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009

The United States’ 20-something cavalry has arrived. Just 18 months after fans and pundits alike questioned the future of U.S. golf, the strongest wave of success from young Americans this decade suddenly has made landfall.

“I’m obviously paying a little closer attention to things like that this year, and I’m excited about what I’m seeing,” U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples said. “A couple of years ago, there was this notion that our younger guys hadn’t really stepped up. Now those guys are on every leader board and standings list I see.”

Players in their 20s occupy six of the top 15 slots in the latest U.S. Presidents Cup eligibility standings. When the world rankings came out at the start of the 2008 season, there wasn’t a single American under 30 ranked in the top 30. Now there are four such players steadily climbing golf’s elite ladder: No. 13 Sean O’Hair, No. 14 Anthony Kim, No. 17 Lucas Glover and No. 26 Hunter Mahan.

At the start of the 2008 season, only two players in their 20s boasted multiple PGA Tour victories: Jonathan Byrd and textbook underachiever Charles Howell III, then 29 and 28, respectively. Currently, seven Americans in their 20s can claim multiple titles.

And lest anyone thinks the list is composed primarily of lower-tier competitors who feast on FBR Opens (see J.B. Holmes), take a look at the recently completed U.S. Open:

Not only did 29-year-old Lucas Glover triumph at Bethpage to become the first 20-something U.S. major winner since Tiger Woods, but three of the top six finishers and five of the top 16 also were Americans in their 20s (Glover, Ricky Barnes, Mahan, Ryan Moore and Kim).

Three of those five were back on the final board at last week’s AT&T National as Mahan (second), Kim (third) and Glover (tied for fifth) continued recent rolls. And 28-year-old Brandt Snedeker, who also tied for fifth, joined the mix at Congressional to give the United States’ younger set a virtual sweep of the top slots behind Woods.

“It means I’m getting older,” Woods said, joking about the AT&T leader board. “Actually, I think it’s pretty cool that so many of the younger guys are coming on.”

The quartet clearly at the core of the American surge includes Kim, O’Hair, Glover and Mahan.

Though Kim posted a faltering 71 in his first head-to-head pairing with Woods, the charismatic 24-year-old embodies the most complete package of talent and panache the game has seen since Woods joined the PGA Tour in 1996.

Kim finished tied for seventh at last year’s British Open and has the game to win majors immediately, but he needs to temper his natural aggressive style with stronger course-management skills. He’s the potential icon of the group if he can channel the Mickelson within.

“I have to get better on my decision-making and definitely improve my putting a little bit,” Kim said after coming up a round short in his AT&T title defense. “I feel like I’m one of the top players in the world. I just need to go out there and take care of those careless mistakes. … I’ve gotten a lot better, stayed a lot more patient than I used to. So it’s only a matter of time.”

The other three each excel in at least one department. Glover is perhaps the best driver of the ball (long and straight) this side of Sergio Garcia. And unlike either the Spaniard or his 20-something counterparts, Glover collected his first Slam title before building up any major scar tissue.

The 26-year-old O’Hair is the purest ball striker of the bunch. He’s a fairways-and-greens machine who ranks second on tour in greens in regulation. But lingering questions remain about his constitution in the crucible.

Aside from Kim, Mahan perhaps is the player who exhibits the most promise. Something of a modern-day Hale Irwin, Mahan is a moderately long hitter who enjoys streaky lethal stretches with the putter (see Sunday’s 62 at Congressional) and always grinds to the finish. His grit landed him on the last two U.S. Presidents/Ryder Cup teams (4-3-3 record) and should make him a Slam staple in the next decade.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in what I’m doing and the player I’m turning into,” said Mahan, who hasn’t missed a cut in 17 starts this season. “I feel like I can win every tournament that I play in, so that’s always a good feeling.”

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