By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- The PGA Championship, the final major of the 2011 season, takes place this week at Atlanta Athletic Club. Given what we've seen at the majors in the last couple of years, the winner could seemingly come from any generation -- a 20-something, a 30-something or a 40-something.
Heck, we probably shouldn't discount the teenagers, considering how well 19-year-old Ryo Ishikawa played in last week's World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, along with the success 18-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero has had on the European Tour.
And we probably shouldn't discount the 50-and-over crowd, either. After all, 63-year-old Larry Nelson might be this year's version of Tom Watson, a multiple-winner of this event playing on a course he loves and has succeeded on.
In looking at the long-range future of potential major winners, we've broken it down by three age groups. Which players in their 20s, 30s and 40s are the biggest favorites to win a major -- or multiple majors -- in the coming years?
Some on our list have already broken through; others have simply come close but haven't won a major yet. But in this case, we're looking ahead, not backward. That's why we expect these players to be holding up major trophies in the years ahead.
And of course, possibly holding up the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday.
First there was Louis Oosthuizen, then Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel before the apple-cheeked Rory McIlroy, barely 22, took it over the top at Congressional two months ago. Four of the last five major champions have been under the age of 30 -- and there's plenty more talented youngsters waiting for their chance. And that's not even counting two teenagers in Ryo Ishikawa of Japan and Italy's Matteo Manassero.
RORY McILROY (22): Anyone who saw how the young Northern Irishman dominated at the U.S. Open knows he is destined for greatness. The curly-haired 22-year-old is playing in his 12th major this week, and he already has four other top-10s in addition to that eight-stroke win at Congressional. That includes a trio of thirds, and he has matched the major championship record of 62, as well. Need we say more? Although he's too modest to admit it, McIlroy has got Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus in his sights.
JASON DAY (23): Odds are this young Aussie will be breaking out in a big way soon. The 23-year-old has played in just five majors but has finished 10th or better in three of those, including a tie for second at the Masters and solo second at the U.S. Open earlier this year. Add to that a tie for sixth at THE PLAYERS Championship last May and his fourth-place at last week's World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational and it's obvious Day is thrives on the big stage.
RICKIE FOWLER (22): Granted, he's having a bit of a learning curve just trying to get his breakthrough PGA TOUR win. But anyone who's daring enough to wear all orange on Sundays has to have some moxie, and Fowler isn't the kind of back down. He's played in seven majors now, and the experience he gained in that tie for fifth last month at Royal St. George's should be key.
DUSTIN JOHNSON (27): The lanky South Carolinian nearly won two majors last year, then tied for second at last month's British Open, so he continues to give himself opportunities. He hits it long but doesn't neglect his short game, and he has the guidance of one of the game's best instructors in Butch Harmon. If Johnson can stay out of his own way -- remember that penalty on the 72nd hole of last year's PGA -- he should be a factor in majors for a long time to come.
CHARL SCHWARTZEL (26): The South African was nothing short of phenomenal as he birdied the final four holes at Augusta National to surge past Adam Scott and Jason Day to win the Masters this year. But Schwartzel, who is one of Ernie Els' proteges, shouldn't have been a surprise after finishing 18th or better in his three previous major starts. He followed the win with ties for ninth at the U.S. Open and 16th at the British Open so he's got loads of street cred.
Tiger Woods has more major championships than his current 30-something brethren combined. But that doesn't mean he won't have competition for the next -- and it could start this week at the PGA Championship. After all, conventional wisdom holds that a golfer doesn't hit his prime until his mid-30s.ADAM SCOTT (31):
TIGER WOODS (35): We haven't seen the last of the former world No. 1. You can bet on it. Woods may be hard-pressed to get the five majors he needs to pass Jack Nicklaus for the all-time mark but he's hardly past his prime. Once the now-healthy Woods gets comfortable with the swing he's reconstructed under the guidance of Sean Foley, the 35-year-old will contend -- and win -- again. There is no one with more determination than Woods.
NICK WATNEY (30): The soft-spoken Californian aged into this bracket when he hit the big 3-0 in April, and he has a promising future. Watney, who tops the FedExCup standings, got on-the-job training when he took the lead into the final round of last year's PGA Championship only to shoot 81 and tie for 18th. He's come back strong in 2011, though, with two wins, including his first World Golf Championships victory.
The Aussie has more major experience than just about anyone in his age bracket not named Woods, and he's only 31. But Scott has played in 42 majors and has just five top-10s, including the tie for second at the Masters earlier this year and a share of third at the 2006 PGA. The addition of Woods' former caddie Steve Williams to Scott's team has been a confidence builder, though, and he comes to Atlanta on a high note after a dominating win at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.SERGIO GARCIA (31):
The Spaniard first wormed his way into our consciousness when he finished second to Tiger Woods at the 1999 PGA as a 19-year-old. He hasn't missed a major since, and he's played in 56 total -- posting top-10 finishes 16 times, including the last two majors. The 31-year-old Garcia's game is on an upswing right now, and he could be the Phil Mickelson of his generation.LUKE DONALD (33):
Prior to this season, Donald might not have made the top five; in fact, we debated that perhaps 32-year-old Graeme McDowell, already a major winner after claiming the 2010 U.S. Open, should be in this spot. But Donald has really taken a step forward in 2011. He's won three times around the world and risen to the top of the Official World Golf Ranking. Donald's fairways-and-greens game is well-suited to the major stage, and he ranks fourth on TOUR in Strokes Gained-Putting.
Darren Clarke struck a blow for the veterans last month when he won the British Open at the age of 42. He has a ways to go to be the oldest -- Julius Boros was 48 years, 4 months and 18 days old when he won the 1968 PGA Championship -- but a major win after a player hits the big 4-0 is a rarity indeed. Just ask Vijay Singh, who won the 2003 PGA at the age of 41, the last before Clarke's win.
PHIL MICKELSON (41): The popular American played in 47 majors before he won his first one. Mickelson has gone on to win three more in his last 29 starts, though, with 12 other top-10s so he keeps giving himself chances. If there's any justice in the world, the next will come at the U.S. Open where the big lefthander has been second five times. But don't rule out this PGA -- Mickelson was second to David Toms at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001.
STEVE STRICKER (44): Stricker, who has finished fifth or better in three of the last four FedExCups, is one of the most consistent players on TOUR. The 44-year-old's best chance to win a major, though, came at the 1998 PGA Championship where he held a share of the 54-hole lead with Vijay Singh and finished two strokes behind the big Fijian. But Stricker, who has played in a total of 52 majors, has been consistent in this year's majors with three finishes of 19th or better so maybe this is his year.
K.J. CHOI (41): There was a time we thought Choi would be the first Asian to win a major but Y.E. Yang beat him to it at the 2009 PGA. Not to worry, though, Choi continues to play the tough courses well and picked up the biggest win of his career earlier this year at THE PLAYERS Championship -- a month after posting his second straight top-10 at the Masters.
ANGEL CABRERA (41): The majors are feast or famine for this 41-year-old Argentine, who already has a Masters and U.S. Open title on his resume. He's has seven other top-10s in 48 major starts but has also missed 16 cuts. When Cabrera's game is on, though, he's sneaky good and he could surprise this week at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
PADRAIG HARRINGTON (39): Yes, we're fudging a bit on this one. Harrington doesn't turn 40 for another three weeks, so he'll squeeze one more major in this week as a 30-something. Still, for purposes of this list, we'll celebrate his birthday early. The three-time major champion is searching a bit now, but his work ethic rivals Vijay Singh and there's no doubt Harrington will figure it out. His three titles -- two British Opens and one PGA -- came in the span of six majors, and he has 12 top-10s overall in 53 starts.