- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland | With nine players in their 20s occupying the top 26 slots in the world rankings, golf is in the midst of the strongest youth movement the game has enjoyed since the inception of the rankings system in 1986.

“It’s an impressive group,” said Greg Norman, who assumed the top spot two months after winning the 1986 British Open at Turnberry, the site of this week’s 138th Open. “I think it’s a sign of the times. They start so early now, and their training, technique and conditioning is so generally top class that these kids come out here prepared to play. They have no fear. And the thing that really impresses me is that they’re from all over; it’s truly a global group. I think it’s great, and it’s great for golf.”

Norman is paying particular attention to such things now because of his role as the captain of the International squad facing the United States in the Presidents Cup (Oct. 8-11). And his assessment of the multinational nature of the group is spot on. Six different nations are represented by the nine 20-somethings who compose more than a third of the game’s elite establishment: Spain (Sergio Garcia), Germany (Martin Kaymer), Colombia (Camilo Villegas), the United States (Sean O’Hair, Anthony Kim, Lucas Glover and Hunter Mahan), England (Ross Fisher) and Northern Ireland (Rory McIlroy).

The American cluster has made the most noise in 2009, with Glover highlighting a flurry of memorable performances with his triumph in last month’s U.S. Open. In recent weeks, however, a European youth has claimed the spotlight, and the continental contingent hopes to follow Glover’s lead by making a major statement at Turnberry.

Arguably no player in this week’s field boasts a better run of success than Kaymer. Thanks to consecutive European Tour victories at the French and Scottish opens, the 24-year-old rolls into Turnberry seeking the first European Tour threepeat since Seve Ballesteros accomplished the feat in 1986.

“Everybody asks me about the third win in a row, but we are playing a major, and the field is going to be the best we have all year long,” said Kaymer, who ranks fourth on the European Tour in both scoring average (69.83) and putting.

Kaymer has limited experience in majors and on links courses. He has played only a handful of events - mostly as an amateur - on the firm, fast seaside layouts that represent both golf’s roots and its purest test. But as Glover showed last month while making his first top-10 at a major a victory, experience can be overrated.

“It’s always important if you only have positive things in your head,” Kaymer said. “Though I haven’t played much links golf, I was fortunate enough to finish quite well in the British Boys and British Amateur events I played on links courses. So I only have good memories in my head.”

If Kaymer is Europe’s man in form, McIlroy is its darling. As an 18-year-old amateur, Mcllroy posted an opening-round 68 at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie and finished tied for 42nd. Unlike Kaymer, McIlroy learned the game on Ireland’s famed links courses. And though his major dossier is slim at three starts, it’s already impressive. Aside from collecting his first victory at Dubai and six other top-10s in his debut season as a professional, McIlroy finished tied for 20th at the Masters and tied for 10th at the U.S. Open.

“I’ve been very pleased with my progress in the majors this year,” said McIlroy, who this season has made the cut in 17 of his 19 starts on the European and PGA tours. “I’ve sort of proved to myself that I have the game to get around in major championships.”

And none seems to suit his skills better than the Open, where his combination of length, deft touch and links knowledge make him a dark horse to steal the show at Turnberry.

“Obviously, I’ve played a lot of links golf growing up,” said McIlroy, who holds the course record at Royal Portrush (61). “I feel as if I’ve got all the shots that are required to play good golf on links courses. … It’s sort of like riding a bicycle; once you’re on them, you sort of remember all the shots you need to play them - little pitch-and-runs and punch shots into the wind and so forth. I feel very comfortable on links, and hopefully that will show this week.”

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