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The young and the ready

Seven of the top 10 players on the board have yet to win a major, and five have yet to hit the big 3-0. But their tenacity and talent, says Helen Ross, means they have all the tools they need to break through in a major way.

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Dustin Johnson, at age 26, will play in the final group of a major for the second time this season on Sunday. (Getty Images)

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

KOHLER, Wis. -- A week ago, everyone was talking about all the international players who were winning PGA TOUR events. The final tally was 11 of the last 17 tournaments, to be exact.

As the season's final major championship winds to a conclusion at Whistling Straits on Sunday, though, there's a different storyline. Two of them, in fact.

Seven of the top 10 players on the leaderboard at the 92nd PGA Championship have yet to win a major championship. And five of those have yet to hit the big 3-0.

Players in their 20s have won 13 PGA TOUR events this year, so it's not really anything new. But it speaks to the tenacity as much as the talent, and there are only going to be more to come. Maybe as soon as Sunday.

"I think that there's some really good players that haven't won a major," said Nick Watney, who leads the PGA Championship by three. "And all the guys that have at one point they hadn't won either, so you got to start somewhere -- and hopefully tomorrow will be my day." 

Watney is 29, just two years older than Louis Oosthuizen, who won the British Open last month. And the lanky Californian with so much on the line Sunday played some college golf against the U.S. Open champ, Graeme McDowell, a veritable old man of 31.

"They were both extremely solid down the stretch and I think that's where most people think that (un)proven players are going to falter and both of them didn't," Watney observed. "They played brilliant golf. So it's definitely great to see and hopefully I can join them." 

But Dustin Johnson, the 26-year-old who trails by three and will play in the final group of a major for the second time this season, knows what it's like to do the opposite. He didn't get the job done at Pebble Beach, shooting an 82 and watching his overnight lead evaporate into a tie for eighth.

Johnson, who has already won three times on TOUR, is excited to have another shot so quickly and doesn't think the youth movement should come as a surprise.

"The younger guys we have been playing well all year, so it's not a shock to anyone," Johnson said. "We have ... contended in a lot of tournaments. We have won a lot of tournaments. So being a major, yes, a little bit different, but it's not too much different than a (PGA TOUR) event.
   
"But tomorrow's going to be a good show to see. You're going to have to go out and be somewhat aggressive, especially being a few shots back of the lead. But if you hit some good golf shots make some putts early, then you never know what's going to happen."

Rory McIlroy, who also trails by three, has been there, done that. The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland was four behind entering the final round of the Quail Hollow Championship earlier this year, shot 62 and ended up beating world No. 2 Phil Mickelson by four.

McIlroy, who tied for third at his first PGA Championship last year, made a bid at the British Open this year, too. He opened with a 63 at St. Andrews but skied to an 80 in the second round. Still, he managed to battle back and tie for third.

"I'm not sure if we're feeding off each other, I just think that we're all improving and we're all getting better every year," McIlroy said. "... I definitely don't look at the young guys and go ‘right, I have to be as good as him.’ I'm just trying to get better. And I think everyone else is sort of doing the same thing."

McIlroy, who played with Johnson and the 19-year-old South Korean Seung-Yul Noh on Saturday, thinks technology has also helped younger players develop more quickly. They can watch videotape of their swings to ferret out the weaknesses, as well as compare themselves to the greatest players in the world.  Equipment has progressed to the point where it's a made-to-order, exacting science, too.

Perhaps most important, though, is the quality of the competition as players make their way up through the junior, amateur and college ranks. McIlroy can remember playing a Walker Cup match against Johnson, and now the two are battling for their first major. 

"I think, the players are just getting so much better at a younger age," said McIlroy, who is living proof after winning on the European Tour at the age of 19.

"Their confidence is so high that they can take on shots that other guys just might not have thought they could. I don't know if that's because most of the guys swing it better out here now or whatever, but it does seem fast the younger guys are coming out and they're just a lot better and more ready to win."

Martin Kaymer, the 25-year-old from Germany who picked up his fifth European Tour victory in Abu Dhabi earlier this year, agrees. Kaymer, who is tied for fourth with Wen-Chong Liang and 22-year-old Jason Day, been surprised at how aggressively his contemporaries are playing.

"For example, Rory or Nick Watney, they go for every flag," he said. "So, okay, on this golf course you can be very aggressive because it's wet, but it doesn't matter if you have a wedge or a 3-iron in your hands, they are always going for the flag.

"I think that's great, if you just accept and play shot for shot, and I think that's the way Tiger Woods plays, as well.  He always goes for birdies, and I think that's a little bit the American style. It's awesome. It's great to see."

Expect to see even more on Sunday as the final round of the season's final major winds to a conclusion, too.