- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 9, 2009

AUGUSTA, Ga. | The Tiger Effect is in full bloom at Augusta National in the form of arguably the greatest class of youngsters in Masters history.

There are 19 rookies among this week's 96-man field at the 73rd Masters. At the forefront are a quartet that features Anthony Kim and teenagers Rory McIlroy, Danny Lee and Ryo Ishikawa.

“It's pretty cool to have three teenagers in the field,” said McIlroy, a 19-year-old from Northern Ireland. “I think it's great for the tournament and for golf in general. It's great for the future.”

What separates this group of rookies from past classes at Augusta National are a pair of remarkable characteristics. First, all four acknowledge Woods as both inspiration and role model. As predicted, Tiger's popularity and success has spawned a precocious new breed of player.

“I just watched [Tiger],” said the 23-year-old Kim, who last year collected his first two PGA Tour wins (Wachovia Championship and AT&T National). “I mean, I'll watch Phil and I'll watch Vijay, but Tiger was the guy who made golf cool. … The younger generation feels that they have to do the same things and have the same mental attitude as Tiger to be the best.”

And unlike most previous classes of Masters rookies, this group already has a stunning set of early accomplishments.

McIlroy exploded onto the scene as a 17-year-old at the 2007 British Open, carding an opening-round 68 at Carnoustie to post the day's only bogey-free round. Earlier this season, he became one of the youngest champions in European Tour history in capturing the Dubai Desert Classic in wire-to-wire fashion. He then reported to the U.S. and prepared for his Masters debut by reeling off four consecutive top-20 finishes on the PGA Tour.

During his practice rounds, McIlroy has put his stamp on the holes by booming drives over the doglegs. On Monday, McIlroy blasted a drive over the corner at the 13th and left himself with just 170 yards to the green on the 510-yard hole.

As impressive as his game, however, is the indomitable mentality that defines McIlroy and his compatriots.

“I think the guys that are playing in Tiger's era, I've seen them do all these things and play in the same tournaments as him, and maybe thought this guy is almost unbeatable,” McIlroy said. “Where, you know, maybe the likes of myself and Danny and Ryo have seen him on TV. You know, we can relate to him in a way. … We can see ourselves doing the same sorts of things he did at 21.”

Lee and Ishikawa have already trumped some of Tiger's early accomplishments. The 18-year-old Lee supplanted Woods as the youngest U.S. Amateur champion in history at Pinehurst last year and then scorched a loaded European Tour field at the Johnnie Walker Classic two months ago. A native South Korean raised in New Zealand, Lee will turn pro next week after what some expect to be a breakout major experience.

Golf analyst Johnny Miller suggested last week that Lee already has the game to win at the Masters. And earlier this week, three-time champion Gary Player played with Lee and declared his swing “absolutely flawless.”

“I don't know why people think I'm so good at golf,” Lee said. “The first time playing here [March 31], it wasn't that hard. It was hard to understand why the players struggled over here. It was an easy course. I thought I could shoot 5 or 6 under easily.”

Nerves and toughening tournament conditions have prompted Lee to temper that initial assessment. He's hoping his residence in the famed Crow's Nest will help him find a touch of his idol's customary Masters form.

“Great history has been in there in that Crow's Nest,” Lee said. “I'm sleeping where Tiger slept, so that might help me play better.”

As the second-youngest player in tournament history (Tommy Jacobs was five months younger in 1952), the 17-year-old Ishikawa turned pro at the start of last season and already boasts two victories on the Japanese PGA Tour.

“When I grew up, I saw Tiger Woods and wanted to be like him,” said Ishikawa, a Tokyo native. “I know I'm not going to be him. But I want to be myself and go for No. 1 in the world.”

If this week's rookie class is any indication of things to come, Woods might become a victim of his own success.

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