A fresh breeze at Augusta

The Baltimore Sun

AUGUSTA, Ga. -As the Masters prepares to get under way, teenagers Rory McIlroy, Ryo Ishikawa and Danny Lee could do something the 20-something crowd has not - provide Tiger Woods with a meaningful, lasting rival.

Maybe Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and Camilo Villegas, who have zero major victories, will get lapped by the likes of McIlroy, 19, a native of Northern Ireland who is ranked 17th in the world and shot an opening-round 68 at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie.

"Rory must use Tiger as a role model and raise the bar," said Gary Player, who will be competing Thursday in his 52nd, and final, Masters. Player won all four majors before turning 30. Jack Nicklaus accomplished the feat at 26. Woods was 24.

Woods confidant Mark O'Meara played with McIlroy this year in Dubai and said, "ball-striking-wise, at 19, he's probably better than Tiger was at 19."

Is McIlroy in awe of Augusta National?

"I'm not really one to get overwhelmed by much these days," he said.

And he said of his fellow teens: "It's great for golf. Hopefully it inspires people who are not that much younger than us to take up golf and try to emulate what we have done."

Lee supplanted Woods as the youngest U.S. Amateur champion (18 years, 1 month) and won a European Tour event, the Johnnie Walker Classic, in February. He played a practice round at Augusta National last week and recalled thinking the course was "easy."

Lee, a Korean native whose family moved to New Zealand in 2001, is under no such illusions now. He acknowledged his nerves and said he was "shaking" on the course because of the crowds and windy conditions.

"I wasn't swinging properly," he said.

Ishikawa, who won't turn 18 until September, will become the Masters' second-youngest competitor. "The Bashful Prince," as he is called, has six top-five finishes on the Japan Golf Tour.

"The quality of golf is definitely getting better with the younger generation," said Anthony Kim, who won twice on the PGA Tour last year and joked about suddenly feeling old at 23. "I think kids like myself and other guys ... our technique is probably a lot better [than previous generations] because we have access to great golf facilities and great coaches."

"The guys who played in Tiger's era maybe thought he was unbeatable," McIlroy said. "We have seen him on TV and [thought]: Hopefully, when I'm that age, I can do something like that."

Woods, 33, reminisced Tuesday about his first Masters, in 1995. Fourteen years later, he's the one inspiring a generation and offering advice to the likes of McIlroy.

"He certainly shows the talent," Woods said. "It's just a matter of gaining the experience in big events. There's no hurry. There's no rush."

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