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Martin Kaymer
Martin Kaymer of Germany, at age 24, is sitting pretty after winning each of the last two European Tour events. (Franklin/Getty Images)

In search of youth at golf's oldest championship

The never-ending quest to find someone who can challenge Tiger Woods leads us to the youth brigade at Turnberry, which ranges from Ryo Ishikawa and Rory McIlroy to Martin Kaymer and, still, Sergio Garcia.

TURNBERRY, Scotland (AP) -- British bookmakers have listed Rory McIlroy as the third favorite at Turnberry, unusual for someone playing in his first Open Championship as a pro.

Stranger still is that he doesn’t seem fazed, perhaps because his age (20) matches the odds (20-1).

McIlroy already has shown in small doses that he is capable.

He comes from Holywood -- a coastal town in Northern Ireland, not to be confused with the glitz of Los Angeles -- and already is easily recognized by his freckles and curly brown hair that tumbles out of his cap and over his ears. He made his Open debut as a teenager two years ago at Carnoustie and opened with a 68 on the toughest links in golf.

And without knowing it, he can put on quite the exhibition.

On a surprisingly sun-splashed day along the Ayrshire Coast, McIlroy found a flat part of the putting green Wednesday, and his caddie marked off 8 feet with a chalk line. The kid rapped three balls at a time, stopping to chat, constantly smiling, not really paying attention.

He made 105 putts in a row, seemed to lose interest, then moved on to another hole 30 feet away.

One reason he is getting so much attention, beyond the talent that allowed him to win the Dubai Desert Classic this year and rise to No. 22 in the world ranking, is constant search for someone to challenge Tiger Woods.

Even at golf’s oldest championship, the focus turns to youth.

McIlroy will be playing the first two rounds with 24-year-old Anthony Kim, who is No. 15 in the world and an explosive talent. Martin Kaymer, the 24-year-old German, is coming off consecutive victories on the European Tour and can became the first player since Seve Ballesteros in 1986 to make it three in a row.

Among the “older set” are 29-year-old Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott, who turns 29 on Thursday when the Open begins.

So far, it has been a hopeless pursuit.

Woods set an obscure PGA Tour record two weeks ago when he won his AT&T National at Congressional for his 53rd victory this decade, topping the previous record of Ben Hogan, who won 52 times in the 1940s.

His 12 majors this decade is another record.

Woods is 0-for-2 in the majors this year since returning from knee surgery, both times giving himself a chance on Sunday, both times finishing in a tie for sixth, four shots behind Masters champion Angel Cabrera and U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover.

“He’s not just another player,” McIlroy said. “I remember when I first came out and I talked to Tiger, and I was even nervous talking to him. He just has some sort of aura about him, you know? He’s just an incredible competitor. He hits shots that … I wouldn’t be able to hit sometimes. He’s not won 14 majors for nothing. And I’m sure he’ll win a few more before his career is over.”

Woods returns to the United Kingdom for the first time in two years, having missed the Open last year at Royal Birkdale while recovering from knee surgery.

He showed up at Turnberry on Wednesday only to hit balls on the range and rap a few putts, sticking to a routine that has worked fairly well for him in the majors.

One thing McIlroy has in his favor is having never faced Woods.

“It’s been more inspirational for me, rather than disheartening, that this guy is coming to win every major he plays,” McIlroy said.

Kim played with him for the first time at Congressional in the final group, tied for the lead, hit one bad stretch of bogeys and pars and wound up chasing him the rest of the day.

Garcia might have won a few majors by now except for Woods.

It was 10 years ago when he first challenged Woods in the PGA Championship at Medinah, finishing one shot behind. They played in the final group at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black and the 2006 Open at Hoylake, both won easily by Woods.

Garcia is still without a major, still answering questions about winning his first, and not enjoying the topic.

“The most important thing for me is obviously winning it,” said Garcia, listed at 15-to-1 odds. “But at least having the chance. The guy that is finishing 15th or 40th, he doesn’t have even one shot. I know they say that second is the first lower. I’d rather be the first loser than the 39th loser. When you’re out there, you have your chance. Sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t.”

That’s particularly true in links golf at the Open.

No one thought Padraig Harrington had much of a chance last year when he showed up with a wrist injury and played in the worst of weather during the first round, rain that fell sideways. He wound up with a 32 on the final nine and a claret jug for the second straight year.

It all unfolds Thursday at Turnberry, with Woods teeing off with 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, another young player with hopes of someday challenging the world’s No. 1 players.

The biggest generation gap is five-time champion Tom Watson (59) playing with British Amateur champion Matteo Manassero (16).

Watson won the most famous Open at Turnberry in 1977, the “Duel in the Sun” against Jack Nicklaus. His biggest thrill was going head-to-head against the best and beating him.

That’s what the kids from this generation face.

“There is that element of who is challenging Tiger,” Watson said. “Well, you’re going to have some people challenge him and beat him. But he’s beaten everybody a lot more than anybody’s ever beaten anybody in this game of golf. He just as a run that’s been unparalleled.”
 

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