Tim Clarke, marketing general manager for Wilson Golf, was chatting about the state of golf recently.
“When it comes to television, it seems like it’s Tiger or nothing. The events that have Tiger do well in the ratings and when he’s not there the ratings are down. The game needs someone to challenge him, whether that’s Phil (Mickelson), Sergio (Garcia) or someone else.”
Well, that “someone else” might be one or several youngsters.
The game is seeing the explosion of superb, fresh talent. Kids--we’ll use the term a bit loosely--like Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa, Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler of the United States along with a host of others, some not out of their teens, seem ready to become “the next big things.”
How fun would it be to see one of these players battle Woods in the final round of a Major? The kid trying to wrest the crown away from the master. Now that’s the stuff huge television ratings are made of, to say nothing for what it would do to pique interest in the game among a whole new age demographic.
Of the three newcomers mentioned above, McIlroy seems furthest along in his development. He had a quite stunning 2009, finishing third at the PGA Championship, 10th at the U.S. Open, and 20th at the Masters. He also reached the quarterfinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, and won the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour early in the year, the latter a victory that soared him to 16th in the world rankings.
Gary Player has called McIlroy “the most exciting young player in the world,” and few doubt that the 20-year-old is only a short time away from winning on the PGA Tour, and perhaps even capturing his first Major.
Although only turning 18 in September of 2009, Ishikawa has the appearance of a seasoned veteran. Indeed, he has already won seven times on the Japan Golf Tour, including four victories in 2009. He became the youngest player ever to reach the top 100 of the Official World Golf Rankings at the end of 2008.
The precocious Ishikawa became the youngest player ever to win in Japan when he captured the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup in May of 2007 at the tender age of 15 years and 8 months.
He has yet to truly prove himself on the world stage, missing the cut at The Masters and Open Championship in 2009 and finishing 56th in the PGA Championship. But he has energized interest in the game in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, where he has the following of a rock star. He has won critical acclaim from veteran players wherever he has teed it up.
Fowler, who turned 21 in December of 2009, burst onto the national stage in late 2009 when he shot his way into a three-way playoff with Troy Matteson and another young gun, Jamie Lovemark, at the Frys.com Open. He lost in the playoff to Matteson but his effort earned massive media attention.
The dashing Fowler, long hair flowing out from under his cap, was a star in Walker Cup play, compiling a gaudy 7-1 record in two appearances in the world’s premier international amateur event.
Others to keep an eye on in 2010 include the 21-year-old Lovemark of the U.S.; Danny Lee, a 19-year-old who became the youngest winner of the U.S Amateur in 2008 at the age of 18 years, one month and who captured the 2009 Johnnie Walker Classic (the youngest ever to win on the European Tour); and 16-year-old Italian phenom Matteo Manassero, who became the youngest winner of The Amateur Championship (Great Britain) in 2009.
Just for the record, multiple PGA Tour winner Anthony Kim is a ripe 24 years of age.
The future indeed looks bright for men’s professional golf with these young guns ready for the big time and other teen sensations waiting in the wings.
Chris Tuten, Titleist Director of Tour Promotions and Jonathan Loosemore, Director of Tour Operations, Acushnet Europe, on
Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy
What qualities did you see in Rory and Ricky as players and people?
CT: Rory and Rickie are both the type of people and players with whom we are proud to be associated. Although they are both just 20 years old, they played extensively at the highest level of amateur golf. The experience they gained is immeasurable in their quest to succeed at the highest level of professional golf as well. They are among the most likeable young men that I have been around and they are both great ambassadors for the Titleist brand.
Are they hands-on guys when it comes to their equipment choices?
CT: We want all of our Brand Ambassadors to play the equipment that helps them achieve their best performance. Rory and Rickie are both very intelligent when it comes to equipment and are willing to try something new if they think it will provide them a competitive advantage.
JL: Rory’s the kind of player who knows exactly what he wants and when he finds a winning formula he likes to stick with it. While that makes him very low-maintenance to work with, he stays in constant contact with our leadership team to make sure his numbers are at an optimum level. At the level of ball-striking he achieves, he can only seek fractional improvements so is always open to trying new product when it becomes available.
CT: Interestingly and on his own, Rickie likes to custom paint-fill the head of his Titleist 909D2 driver in Oklahoma State orange and the numbers and the forged marking in his new MB irons with white paint fill.
Do you see them being involved in club design at all in the future?
CT: Many of our Titleist Brand Ambassadors play an integral role in determining what premium equipment is brought to market. Our golf ball and golf club research and development teams solicit Tour player feedback throughout the process. We believe that if we can make produce equipment that meets and exceeds the expectations of Tour players, we will do the same for all golfers. Both Rory and Rickie will be part of that “shaking out” process.
How do you project their careers?
CT: Obviously, they have both already risen steadily in the World Rankings since making their professional debuts. Their performances to date speak for themselves.
What segment of the marketplace do they appeal most to?
CT: It would be unfair to pinpoint one demographic. They are exciting players to watch. Period. Their appeal crosses all boundaries when it comes to fans of golf.
Mike Gorton, Yonex Tour Representative, on
What qualities did you see in Ryo as a player and person?
MG: As a player he is very focused and committed to his golf. I believe he really enjoys a challenge and has no fear on the course. As a person he is very genuine and pleasing to be around. He is extremely polite and friendly.
How is the fit for Yonex?
MG: Ryo is a great fit for Yonex. He has used Yonex products for quite a while now and is very loyal to the brand. Ryo represents the type of young talented player that Yonex is privileged to be involved with not only in Japan but also in the U.S. Wherever he is playing he represents the Yonex brand at the highest level.
Is Ryo a hands-on guy when it comes to his equipment choices?
MG: He is somewhat hands-on and like other players his age loves to experiment. However once he finds something he likes he usually sticks with it.
Do you see him being involved in club design at all in the future?
MG: I think that Ryo will be a great asset to help Yonex stay at the forefront of new technology, especially as his career matures and he gains even more experience.
How do you project his career?
MG: Really, the sky is the limit. As a golfer and person he possesses so many great attributes that they only need time to blossom even more. He also has a wonderful support system of family and friends who help keep him grounded and support him. That is huge for a player who is already so popular at such a young age. Even the world’s best has taken note. At this year’s Presidents Cup, Tiger Woods said, “He’s (Ryo) by far much more developed in his game than I was ever at 18...I certainly did not have the ability to hit shots like he does. It’s quite remarkable what he’s done and how he goes about it, and at his age, it’s unheard of.”
What segment of the marketplace does he appeal most to?
MG: I believe Ryo represents the next wave of talented young golfers who will move the game to even greater heights. He is very popular with the younger golfers but also because of his personality, he relates well to golfers of all ages.
What They’re Using
• Rory McIlroy
Driver: Titleist, 909D2 8.5; Fujikura Romax 7VO5
1st Fairway Wood: Titleist, 906F2 13; Fujikura Pro 95
2nd Fairway Wood: Titleist, 90 F2 18; Fujikura Pro 95
3 - 9 Iron: Titleist, ZM Forged; Project X
Pitching Wedge: Titleist, Vokey Design 200 Series 48
Sand Wedge: Titleist, Vokey Design Spin Milled 54
Lob Wedge: Titleist, Vokey Design Spin Milled 60
Putter: Titleist, Scotty Cameron by Titleist Studio Select Fastback
Ball: Titleist, Pro V1x
• Rickie Fowler
Driver: Titleist, 909D2 7.5; Mitsubishi Diamana White 73
1st Fairway Wood: Cobra, S9-1 Pro 15.0; Fujikura ZCom Pro 95
1st Hybrid: Adams 9031 18; Matrix Ozik XCon HM2
3 - 9 Iron: Titleist, New Titleist MB; T.T. Dynamic Gold Steel
Pitching Wedge: Titleist Vokey Design 200 Series 48; T.T. Dynamic Gold
Sand Wedge: Titleist Vokey Design 200 Series 54; T.T. Dynamic Gold
Lob Wedge: Titleist Vokey Design Spin Milled 59; T.T. Dynamic Gold
Putter: Scotty Cameron by Titleist Prototype
Ball: Titleist, Pro V1x
• Ryo Ishikawa
Driver: Yonex Nano V Nextage Type 430
Fairway Wood: Yonex Nano V Nextage Type ST 3- wood
Irons: Yonex Nano V Nextage Tour Forged irons 2-9
Also: Yonex Staff bag and Yonex apparel and footwear