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Back in the '70s they called me a young lion," Tom Watson said last Friday afternoon at Pebble Beach. And just by squinting you could smooth the deep lines off his weathered face and picture him as the boy wonder he once was (four Missouri Amateur titles by the age of 22), as the up-before-dawn Stanford student who swept Pebble's dew on weekend mornings and as the still-boyish-at-32 champion who celebrated imminent victory at the 1982 U.S. Open by sprinting across the 17th green with his arms raised in ecstasy.
"I was with Lanny Wadkins and some other guys—we were the young lions," Watson continued, waxing nostalgic after his turn-back-the-calendar second round of par-71. "But you had to prove yourself. You can have all the potential in the world, but the results are the most important thing."
Watson's discourse on youth was pertinent because the USGA, an aged yet sporadically droll organization, had paired him for the first two rounds with golf's current wunderkinder, Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, 21, and Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, 18. The age disparity led those of us with nimble minds to point out that the lads' combined ages fell 21 years short of the Hall of Famer's six decades. McIlroy, with curly brown hair spilling from his cap, and Ishikawa, with his Peeps-inspired wardrobe, were well positioned to take the advice of Bob Hope, who said, "I'll tell you how to stay young—hang around with older people."
Where better to do that than at a U.S. Open? The 156-man field at Pebble Beach, while weighted heavily in favor of careworn men with narrow eyes and advancing foreheads, featured no fewer than 32 golfers from the 25-and-under demographic, known to marketers as Generation Next. The youngest of the cohort, born on the same September day in 1991, were Ishikawa and 18-year-old amateur Byeong-hun An of Bradenton, Fla., a product of the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. The oldest, who turned 26 on the Tuesday after the Open, was three-time PGA Tour winner Dustin Johnson. DJ celebrated his impending birthday by outplaying everyone for three days (six under for three rounds) and then blowing up on Sunday (11 over for one round).
In between there was a freshly minted NCAA champ (amateur Scott Langley), a prospective Ryder Cupper (Martin Kaymer), a five-time winner on the European tour (Charl Schwartzel), a onetime cricket prodigy with a recent Euro tour win on his résumé (Rhys Davies) and a teenager who has won on both the Asian and the European tours (Seung-yul Noh). Not to mention—though we want to—three regulars from the Hooters tour, a refugee from Golf Channel's Big Break X, a former Pebble Beach caddie and a guy whose player bio could pretty much be summed up in two words: "Enjoys dancing."
The best of the young guns, in Watson's opinion, is Ishikawa. The unflappable teen, with his contrail of Asian shutterbugs, was one of only five players under par through two rounds, and he clung to the weekend leader board with a veteran's tenacity. It was Ryo's ability to smack long, high-trajectory irons onto Pebble's tiny greens that impressed the old pro—that and a putting touch that Watson described as, well, Watsonesque. "He reminded me of me when I was 18," Watson said after two days in youth's orbit. "Made everything. Drove it in the back of the hole and rattled it."
Langley, the college champ, was nearly as impressive, even if he didn't catch Watson's eye. The Big Ten player of the year started his June run by winning the Division I title in Ooltewah, Tenn., went on to take medalist honors at the 19-man Open sectional qualifier in St. Louis and then turned heads at Pebble with a second-round 69. (His first round, a 75, hadn't gone quite as smoothly. Asked if the course had given him any trouble, the smooth-swinging lefty said, "Yeah, I had to chip twice on three holes because I whiffed my first chip.")
Langley's comment was a reminder that inexperience in majors is never an asset. The exemplar at Pebble was 20-year-old Morgan Hoffmann, a Walker Cupper and All-America from Oklahoma State. Hoffmann was even par in the 18th fairway on Thursday evening, his name on the leader board and dreams of low amateur dancing in his head. Calmly selecting a three-iron, he took dead aim and let it fly—apparently forgetting about the two cypress trees that punctuate the fairway of the par-5 hole. "I didn't see it," he would later say of his rerouted shot. "I heard it. I had no idea, I was just looking around."
He needed to look left, because his ball had hit the second tree and ricocheted into Stillwater Cove. Still reasonably composed, Hoffmann dropped a fresh ball 50 yards up the fairway and hooked it onto the rocks, where it bounced five times before splashing into waves lapping at the seawall. Fortunately, youth can be an anaesthetic. Chatting with reporters outside the scorer's cabin afterward, Hoffmann, who would miss the cut by a shot, refused to dwell on the mistakes leading to his closing 9. "I made a good putt," he said without a trace of irony, "and hit a good drive."
Will five more years of bad bounces and lip-outs change Hoffmann? The answer to that came to Pebble in the form of Ty Tryon, a 26-year-old Young Gun Emeritus. Tryon, who plays on Florida's aptly named Moonlight tour, drove cross-country to get to the Open. He hadn't played in a PGA Tour event in seven years, but when he was 16, he finished 39th at the 2001 Honda Classic, and at 17 he became the youngest player to earn a Tour card at qualifying school. But in the decade since, Tryon has had to deal with illness, injury and a parade of youngsters with more game than he ever had.