Bill Nichols

Monday, May 14, 2012

HP Byron Nelson Welcomes Shots From Young Guns

Decked in neon orange, 23-year-old Rickie Fowler on Sunday almost became the first golfer in 15 years to post his first two victories in consecutive weeks.

Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the World Ranking, turned 23 a couple weeks ago. Hunter Mahan, the FedEx Cup leader, will celebrate his 30th birthday on Thursday.

John Huh, 21, came home with the trophy in his fifth career start on the PGA Tour, and 24-year-old Kyle Stanley got his first victory the week after losing in a playoff.
This week’s HP Byron Nelson Championship may be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Nelson’s birth year. But the royal and ancient game seems to be getting younger and younger.  

The Nelson has been known for crowning up-and-comers. The tournament helped identify some of the game’s top young players in the mid 1990s, and over the past few years.

Keegan Bradley was a rookie when he got his maiden victory at last year’s Nelson. He rode that momentum to a major championship win and Rookie-of-the-Year honors.

The year before, 22-year-old Jason Day got his name etched on the wall behind Nelson’s statue near the first tee.

And Adam Scott was 27 when he won the Nelson in 2008, sinking a 48-foot putt on the third playoff hole to beat fellow young gun Ryan Moore.

``We’ve had a great mix of recent winners,’’ Nelson tournament director Jon Drago said. ``To see them having success after winning here has given us an identity that we like a lot. Our fans are fairly young and HP likes that audience.

Back in the day, golf’s young stars showcased their acts on the Nelson stage.

Ernie Els was 25 when he won the first Nelson he played in 1995. He shot a course-record 61 at Cottonwood Valley en route to a record total of 17 under.

The next year 25-year-old Phil Mickelson won his third event of the season at Four Seasons. He went on to post another victory to finish second on the money list.

And in 1997, 21-year-old Tiger Woods matched Els’ 17-under score. Woods was playing his first event since his record-breaking performance at the Masters.
Els and Mickelson are back at the Nelson after extended absences.

The current era of young guns, honed on Woods videos, is giving golf what it needs in attracting a younger audience and growing the game. They are athletic, fashionable and fearless.

They are also winning. In 2011, 16 winners were in their 20s, including a record six rookies. Three of the four major winners were 26 or younger.

Already this season, 20-somethings have claimed seven of 21 tournament titles.

That Bradley, Day and Scott were not one-hit wonders plays well for the Nelson. In addition to Bradlety, who won the PGA Championship, Day and Scott contended in majors.

``It’s great to see a lot of guys coming out and having success early,’’ said U.S. Amateur champion Kelly Kraft of Dallas, who turned pro after the Masters. ``It shows you that it can be done.’’

Will the Nelson crown another future star on Sunday?

Stay tuned.

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