Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Youngsters rush to become ‘next’ Tiger

SAN FRANCISCO — The seeds to Webb Simpson’s U.S. Open triumph on Sunday at The Olympic Club were sown more than a decade ago, and can be traced directly to Tiger Woods.

Woods, who has enough self-culpability for numerous transgressions to last him a lifetime, has only himself to blame for the influx of talented young players like Simpson taking over the game he once dominated.

Woods and Simpson don’t know each other very well, other than to acknowledge each other with a friendly nod while passing in the locker room or practice range.

But Woods and Simpson, along with the growing list of emerging young players in the game who are now winning golf tournaments, will forever be linked, because it was Woods who unwittingly inspired them and helped them believe they, too, can excel at the highest level.

While the likes of Simpson, reigning PGA champion Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner and others are winning golf tournaments, virtually all of them point to Woods as an influence.

“I think it’s been the Tiger effect of inspiring people to play at a younger age,’’ Simpson said.

That Tiger Effect has created a chain reaction.

Now, as the younger players emerge to win big tournaments, they show their age-group peers it can be done. Case in point: Bradley’s victory at the PGA Championship last August in Atlanta spurred Simpson to ask himself, “Why can’t I win a major, too?’’

“I think the prime age of golf 10, 15 years ago was mid-30s; now it’s moving closer to the mid-20s or late 20s,’’ Simpson said. “If I see Keegan Bradley win a major, I respect his game a ton, but I feel like, ‘Keegan Bradley won one, I want to go win one.’

“All these guys that won before me, I thought, ‘I played with these guys all my life. I want to win a tournament. They’re great players, but I want to do what they’re doing.’

“Everybody is so competitive in this world that we just kind of feed off of each other.’’

The catalyst to that feeding frenzy was Woods, who in 1997 began winning major championships at an ungodly young age.

“The game’s changing,’’ Simpson said. “My caddie and I were talking this week, the 14-year-old kid [Andy Zhang] was here. Beau Hossler [age 17] was playing so well. I couldn’t imagine playing in even a qualifier for this tournament when I was in high school. Even in college, I would have been scared to death to play in a U.S. Open.

“And these guys are playing like they’re trying to win the tournament. I think the game will continue to evolve like that. I’m lucky because I feel like we’re playing at a time where golf is at its best.

Simpson’s victory marked the ninth consecutive major championship to be won by a first-time major winner. In the last 15 majors, no player has one more than one of them.

“If I was honest with you I believed in myself I could win a major, but maybe not so soon,’’ Simpson said.

As Simpson was doing his best to draw deep breaths while trying to hit shots in the crucible of major championship Sunday pressure, he thought of Woods.

“One of my thoughts on the back nine was, ‘I don’t know how Tiger has won 14 of these things,’ because of the pressure,’’ Simpson said. “I couldn’t feel my legs most of the back nine. I grew my respect for Tiger all the more.’’

Maybe someday Woods will appreciate being a difference-maker like that. But as his window of opportunity to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships slowly closes as it did Sunday at Olympic, it cannot provide him much consolation.

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Webb Simpson, Simpson, Keegan Bradley

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