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Monday, February 6, 2006
Updated: February 14, 2:47 PM ET
New generation is product of the Tiger Woods Impact

By Ron Sirak
Golf World

When the Next Best Thing comes along, it is always a bit of a challenge to determine whether it is an aberration -- something uniquely special -- or whether it is an early indication of a new trend about to explode.

I'm guessing J.B. Holmes is the tip of the iceberg. Say hello to my long friends. The Tiger Woods generation is about to burst onto the scene. A new generation of athletes -- more talented and better conditioned -- has been attracted to golf because a decade ago, Tiger made it cool to be a golfer. Now they are ready to play -- and win -- on the PGA Tour.

J.B. Holmes
Holmes won by seven strokes in only his fifth career PGA Tour start.

And, oh my, can they hit it long.

The performance the 23-year-old Holmes put on in winning the FBR Open by seven strokes was more than impressive; it was jarring. It was reminiscent of Bobby Jones' evaluation of Jack Nicklaus, the first time he saw the power the Golden Bear brought to the sport: "He plays a game with which I am not familiar," Jones said.

Holmes, who hit virtually no tee shots under 300 yards in four rounds (and used a 3-wood to drive the 321-yard 17th hole), appeared at times to be playing a different game than any of his challengers. It was as if he had titanium and the rest of the field was using hickory shafts.

The truth of the matter is the phenomenon we are starting to see on the PGA Tour -- a crop of young, talented, strong players -- first appeared in women's golf. Think about it: Michelle Wie (16), Morgan Pressel (17) and Paula Creamer (19) were 6, 7 and 9 years old, respectively, during Woods' final year as an amateur. He was their role model as an athlete and an example of the riches now available to professional golfers. Two decades ago, athletes with their skills might have ended up playing tennis or soccer. But one decade ago, Tiger put golf on the map of athletes with special gifts.

This Tiger Woods Impact -- and I have no doubt that is exactly what we are seeing right now -- hit women's golf first because female athletes mature physically at an earlier age. These teens also had a chance to flourish on the women's side because the talent pool was not as deep as it is in men's golf. But make no mistake about it: Paula Creamer has won LPGA events not because of any deficiencies in the competition, but because of her own skills. Pressel and Wie have more than held their own on tour for the same reasons. They have special gifts.

And, in case you missed it in a weekend overpowered by J.B. Holmes and overwhelmed by the Super Bowl, a 16-year-old amateur, Amy Yang, won the ANZ Ladies Masters in Australia against a field that included Karrie Webb, Laura Davies, Rachel Hetherington and other multiple winners of women's professional tournaments. Two other amateurs -- 16-year-old Ya-Ni Tseng and 19-year-old Tiffany Joh -- finished tied for third. These youngsters are coming along not just with formidable athletic ability, but also with a rock-solid belief they can win.

As further proof that Holmes is likely not an isolated freak, but rather a foreshadowing of things to come, he was not the only youngster putting on an impressive performance at the FBR Open. Camilo Villegas, 24, tied for second place. The young man from Colombia, by way of the University of Florida, first popped onto radar screens when he shot a 64 in the second round of the Sony Open while paired with Michelle Wie earlier this year. He got into the FBR Open on a sponsor's exemption, and rewarded that kindness by shooting all four rounds at TPC Scottsdale in the 60s.

Both Holmes and Villegas have what the PGA Tour needs: Compelling marketability. Holmes has his length and his country-boy charm. Villegas is a handsome young man who dresses with a little more edge than most on tour, and who had the poise to chat up Wie in an almost flirtatious way when they played in Hawaii.

But the most important thing that both Holmes and Villegas bring to the table is that they can play. In addition to his victory Sunday, Holmes has finished T-10 at the Sony and T-28 at the Buick Invitational, and has already won nearly $1.1 million this year. As it was a decade ago when Woods turned pro, the PGA Tour is again presented with a player who will prompt people to turn on the tube and watch.

The fact that Holmes slapped several tee shots more than 350 yards, and was able to drive a par-4 hole with a 3-wood, will have people talking. Not everything that will be said will be positive, but the point is people will be talking.

That's what happened when Nicklaus came along 40 years ago, and when Woods came along 10 years ago. They got people talking, and they pushed golf from the back of the sports section to the front. Holmes brought that sort of energy and attention to the tournament last week.

No matter what you think about players hitting the ball 350 yards these days, one thing is indisputable: There was something enormously mesmerizing about watching Holmes play. Even when the tournament was no longer in doubt after Ryan Palmer made a triple-bogey 8 on No. 15, I couldn't turn the TV off. I wanted to see what Holmes would do on the drivable 17th hole. And when he did drive the green -- with a 3-wood -- it was thrilling.

It felt a lot like watching the first act of a play that will run forever.

As Holmes laced mammoth drives and hit deft wedge shots at the FBR, I could not help but imagine where he would hit the ball at Augusta National. And I could not help but hope that he qualifies for The Masters, which he can do either by being in the top 10 on the PGA Tour money list at the cut off, or by working his way into the top 50 in the World Ranking.

I also could not help wondering what it will be like the first time he and Tiger Woods are paired together. What will it be like for Tiger -- the father of this new generation -- to watch someone fly it past him?

And, by the way, Woods won this weekend in Dubai. He's two-for-two this year. Is this season going to be fun or what? And it is just the beginning of what could very well be a whole new era in the game.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine. His book, Every Shot Must Have a Purpose: How GOLF54 Can Make You a Better Player, written with Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, is now available.