For Generation Next, the time is now

Even if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson still have some of their old magic left, their generation is passing into history and a new era is starting with great promise.

And we are taking not only about top-ranked Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Jordan Spieth, who won the first two majors of the year and made a strong bid for three in a row in the Open Championship at St. Andrews.

Woods didn’t even qualify for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational this week at Firestone, where he owns a record eight victories, and McIlroy will miss the tournament because of a left ankle injury.

Still, it promises to be another exciting event in what already is a year to remember on the PGA Tour, much of the buzz coming from the young guns.

“Lots of young guys are putting their hands up week after week,” said Ian Baker-Finch, the CBS golf commentator who won the 1991 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. “I’m enjoying watching this new young blood. …

“It’s just so hard now to say who are the up-and-comers. It seems like every week there are five new up-and-comers. It’s amazing to me just how many fresh, young stars are popping up.”

Last year, when McIlroy captured the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, the WGC-Bridgestone and the PGA Championship at Valhalla at the age of 25, he separated himself from the field — temporarily.

Spieth, who recently turned 22, has won six times around the world since the end of November, and he could have taken the No. 1 spot from the absent McIlroy had he won at St. Andrews instead of finishing one stroke out of a playoff.

“I just think the kid is special,” said Jim “Bones” Mackay, Mickelson’s caddie. “I think he’s gifted between the ears. When I say gifted, I mean like Jack Nicklaus-gifted. Jordan is going to do amazing things because he’s such a killer between the ears.”

Later, Mackay doubled down by adding: “Jordan’s the closest thing to Tiger, mentally, that I’ve seen out here.”

There was talk of a McIlroy-Spieth rivalry entertaining us for the next several years, a la Nicklaus-Arnold Palmer and Woods-Mickelson.

Then Rickie Fowler, 26, threw his hat into the ring a bit later than expected by winning the Players Championship in May.

“I think it was a huge shot in the arm for golf, for the Tour, especially for Rickie, for the young kids, everything,” said ESPN analyst Curtis Strange, the 1988 and 1989 U.S. Open champion.

“It was just fun. I did an outing the next day, and the world was talking about Rickie Fowler and how great it is.”

Of course, McIlroy, Spieth and Fowler aren’t the only ones, they are simply the leaders in the clubhouse right now.

There also are Patrick Reed, 24, (pictured) who has four wins since 2013; Australia’s Jason Day, 27, whose victory in the RBC Canadian Open two weeks ago was his second this year and fourth of his PGA Tour career; plus Chris Kirk, who just turned 30 and has four victories since 2011.

“The game, I don’t think, could really be in a better place,” Fowler said. “There’s a lot of great players right now, a lot of young guys playing well. … A lot of great young players, and none of us are afraid. We’re ready to go to battle and have some fun.”

Russell Henley, 26, owns wins in each of the past two seasons; Harris English, also 26, won twice in 2013 and has been close a few other times, and Billy Horschel has three victories since 2013, including the 2014 Tour Championship to wrap up the FedEx Cup.

Players who claimed their first PGA Tour victories in the past two seasons include Hideki Matsuyama, 23, who also has six victories in his native Japan; Chesson Hadley, 28; Seung-Yul Noh of South Korea, who has three more wins in Asia; Brian Harman, 28; Ben Martin, 27; Robert Streb, 28; Nick Taylor, 27; Brooks Koepka, 25, who also claimed five titles in Europe; Sweden’s David Lingmerth, 28; New Zealand’s Danny Lee, 25, who has two other wins in Asia; and Troy Merritt, 29, who captured the Quicken Loans National on Sunday.

Even the veterans will acknowledge that winning even one tournament on the PGA Tour is difficult. Among those who have been close but not yet broken through are Justin Thomas, 22; Tony Finau, 25; Daniel Berger, 22; and Patrick Rodgers, 23, who won earlier this year on the Tour.

Tiger, Phil and some others veterans will still have their days, but the torch has been passed.

–Story courtesy of The Sports Xchange, TSX Golf Editor Tom LaMarre

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