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Masters are getting younger; Golf: With Tiger Woods leading front and center, the youngsters of the sport are heading into Augusta not just thinking about competing, but about winning as well.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

This is how young the world of professional golf is getting: At age 24, Tiger Woods is no longer considered a prodigy. He might be the best player on the planet, potentially the greatest in history, but young?

Not anymore.

Not when you consider that Woods is now being looked upon as both a mentor of and rival to Sergio Garcia, the 20-year-old Spaniard who caused such a sensation last summer by nearly beating Woods in the PGA Championship.

Not when you consider that Woods has been the inspiration of and is the measuring stick for Aaron Baddeley, the 18-year-old amateur who beat a field that included Greg Norman and Colin Montgomerie in last year's Australian Open.

Not when you consider that Woods is practically middle- aged in comparison to Aree Wongluekiet, the 13-year-old from Thailand who recently finished tied for 10th at the Nabisco Championship, the LPGA's first major of the year.

"Where do I see it going? I see it getting younger and younger obviously," Woods said last month at Bay Hill, where he won for the third time this season and for the 10th time in his past 16 events.

"The guys I grew up watching in my generation on TV are all now moving on to the Senior Tour. And the kids are now coming up. They're going to make quite an impact, and there's going to be more of them."

This week, the focus at Augusta National for the 64th Masters will be on Woods, who will try to repeat the magic he created three years ago when he became the tournament's youngest champion and its first player of color to win.

Woods will attract the largest galleries, but there will probably be nearly as big an early-week buzz surrounding both Garcia, who was low amateur at last year's Masters, and Baddeley, the first non-exempt amateur to be invited since 1975.

While Tigermania is still in evidence, it has taken on a different feel. The hype remains -- how can it not with a player that has become Jordanesque in his dominance -- but the hysteria has subsided.

"I truly believe that since I'm no longer a new face, that newness, that excitement of seeing someone new for the first time out there is gone," Woods said during the recent Players Championship.

That type of excitement is certain to follow Garcia and Baddeley, who have now pushed aside more accomplished players such as David Duval, Ernie Els and Justin Leonard when mention is made of future rivals for Woods.

There is renewed talk of another "Big Three" competition for the current young players similar to that among Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player during the 1960s.

"It will be something really good, but I don't know, time will tell us. And I think there are going to be a lot of good players, not only us," said Garcia, who has struggled this year to repeat his performance from last summer.

Baddeley has been compared to Woods back home outside Melbourne since making his debut on the Australian Tour at 15. As Woods did with Nicklaus, Baddeley began charting his own achievements in relation to what Woods did at a similar stage.

Others have made their own comparisons.

"The best young player I ever saw was Jack Nicklaus," Player said after he was paired with Baddeley at the Greg Norman Invitational in February of last year. "I think this young man -- and I don't say this lightly -- has the ability Jack Nicklaus had at the same age."

Admittedly, Baddeley got a late start, not even picking up a club until he was taught the game at age 12 by his grandmothers. But it was watching Woods win the Masters in 1997 that helped shape Baddeley's future.

"It just inspired him," Ron Baddeley said of his increasingly famous son. "He said to me, 'If Tiger can do it, why can't I?' I think from that day on, he has worked to get out here [on the PGA Tour]."

Said Aaron Baddeley, "I set my goals very high, but to be able to play out here as a teen-ager is unbelievable. To get to play with Tiger [during a practice round at Bay Hill], you just learn so much."

Golf has been going in this direction for many years.

When Seve Ballesteros won the 1979 British Open at 22 and then backed it up with a victory at the Masters a year later, he became the first player since Nicklaus in 1963 to win two major championships before their 24th birthday.

"When Seve was doing it, there wasn't the media exposure there is today," said noted teacher David Leadbetter, whose current clientele includes Wongluekiet and her twin sister, Naree.

Said Els, who won the first of his two U.S. Open titles at 24, "When you're young and up-and-coming, you want to show the guys that you can play. You want to show the guys you're not scared. You've got a guy in Aaron who can really play. Same with Sergio. It's great for the sport."

The PGA Tour still has a large group of older players capable of winning big tournaments, as evidenced by 41-year-old Hal Sutton's one-shot victory over Woods at The Players.

It marked the third time this year that a player past the age of 40 has won, the sixth winner over 35 in the 13 events to date. Consider this: Except for Woods, the average age of the Masters champion over the past five years is 39.

"It's still a game that takes a lot of maturity," Leadbetter said. "The mental aspects are just as important as the physical."

That's why players of all ages are constantly talking with sports psychologists. But most point out the new emphasis on physical fitness -- with Woods becoming the model -- as to why players are winning at an earlier age.

"I think the golfers that are doing very well on the tour generally are guys that have a physical training program or are building themselves into a condition that is comparable to any athlete in any sport," Palmer said.

Tom Lehman, whose victory earlier this year in Phoenix helped rejuvenate his already late-blooming career, said that golf's sudden influx of teen-ager players is simply a sign of the times.

"When you look at what's happening in tennis and basketball, why should golf be any different?" said Lehman, 41, who didn't win his first PGA event until age 35.

Baddeley could become the Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett of the PGA Tour. He plans on skipping college and turning pro, possibly by the end of the summer. He finished tied for 57th at last month's Honda Classic, then missed the cut at Bay Hill.

If he tries to make it on tour at this age, he would be going against a trend in which Woods played two years at Stanford and Matt Kuchar, who made such a splash at Augusta two years ago as a sophomore at Georgia Tech and later backed it up at the U.S. Open, finished out his college career.

"The plan is to get an education on the golf course," said Ron Baddeley, a former crew chief for racing legend Mario Andretti who moved his family back to Australia in 1983, when Aaron was 2.

Aaron Baddeley doesn't plan on being the next Justin Rose, who at 17 finished tied for fourth at the British Open two years ago and then turned pro, only to fail miserably on the European Tour. "I'm not thinking about that," said the younger Baddeley.

Nick Faldo is happy that he wasn't faced with such decisions when he turned pro at 19.

"It's much different now because of the money and the big [endorsement] contracts," said Faldo, now 42 and struggling to regain the form that helped him win three Masters and two British Open titles, on the practice range at Bay Hill. "You'd go out and not worry about anything interfering with your game."

Young, old masters

Five youngest winners of The Masters:

Yr. Player Age

(Age in years, months, days)

'97 Tiger Woods 21, 3, 14

'80 Seve Ballesteros 23, 0, 4

'63 Jack Nicklaus 23, 2, 17

'37 Byron Nelson 25, 2, 0

'65 Jack Nicklaus 25, 2, 21

Five oldest winners:

'86 Jack Nicklaus 45, 2, 21

'95 Ben Crenshaw 43, 2, 29

'78 Gary Player 42, 5, 8

'54 Sam Snead 41, 10, 16

'98 Mark O'Meara 41, 2, 30

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