The 22-year-old Rory McIlroy’s record-breaking U.S. Open win last month signaled not only the start of a new stage in the career of a potential all-time-great golfer, but also a new age on the PGA Tour.
Other youngsters in the No. 4-ranked McIlroy’s generation are already making their mark on a game that has long been the dominion of Tiger Woods, whose star is fading at age 35, and Phil Mickelson, 41.
Here is a look at four younger players to watch.
No. 7 Jason Day
Day has been compared to Phil Mickelson (for his consecutive runner-up finishes at majors this year) and Greg Norman (Australia’s greatest golfer). While he was overshadowed by McIlroy’s dominance at this year’s U.S. Open, Day tied McIlroy’s bogey-free 65 with one of his own in the third round. Day also placed 10th in the PGA Championship last year.
A professional since 2006, Day already has two tournament wins. Thanks to improved putting, he’s made 43 of the past 55 cuts. He leads the PGA Tour in par-3 average (2.94) and sand-save percentage (66.67).
Fact: Day borrowed a book about Tiger Woods from his roommate in boarding school. He was so inspired that he began to practice golf every day at five in the morning before classes.
No. 29 Matteo Manassero
Manassero made his first million before he was able to open his own bank account. At 16 years, 11 months and 22 days, Manassero broke Bobby Cole’s 1967 record (by nearly two years) as the youngest player to make the cut at the Masters last season. Manassero also became the youngest British Open amateur champion in 2009.
Manassero has two European Tour wins, both at the record age of 17. The Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year in 2010, he is in the company of previous winners Martin Kaymer (former No. 1 and 2010 PGA champion), Ian Poulter (former No. 5), and Sergio Garcia (former No. 2).
Fact: The media have dubbed Manassero “the new Seve Ballesteros” because of the many records he’s set at a young age.
No. 49 Ryo Ishikawa
Ishikawa should never be counted out of a tournament. Entering the final round of The Crowns in Togo, Japan, last year, Ishikawa trailed Shigeki Maruyama by six strokes. Ishikawa then recorded the lowest one-round score ever on a professional tour — a 12-under 58 via 12 birdies and six pars — to catch Maruyama and win by an amazing five strokes.
Since 2009, when he became the youngest player to crack the Top 50 in the World Golf Rankings, Ishikawa has continued to improve in major championships, tying for 20th and 30th in this year’s Masters and U.S. Open. Despite his 10 victories on the Japan Golf Tour, Ishikawa is still winless on the PGA Tour.
Fact: On March 30, 2011, Ishikawa announced he would donate all of his 2011 tour earnings to Japan earthquake relief efforts.
No. 51 Rickie Fowler
Until 2009, golfing legend Sam Snead had the highest recorded shoulder turn, at 142 degrees. Upon turning pro, Fowler’s turn was recorded at 145 degrees. This flexibility helps Fowler, at only 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, smash the ball down the fairway an average of 298 yards. Fowler, who ranks second in birdies per round (4.48), finished in the top 10 eight times last season, his first full year on the PGA Tour, and earned a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Viewed as a risky selection, Fowler silenced critics with a late charge to come from four behind after 12 holes, birdieing the final four holes to halve the match.
Sponsored by Puma, he is well known for his colorful and flashy on-course apparel and long hair.
Fact: Fowler turns his flat-brim hat backward for interviews so the camera can “see my face.” During the Masters at Augusta National, known for its traditions and rigid rules, organizers forced Fowler to turn his hat forward.