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Sunday, May 15, 2011
PGA Tour needs youngsters to step up

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- K.J. Choi won the Players Championship, which is super great for the Choi family, caddie and bank account. But the PGA Tour got its golf shorts pulled down Sunday.

Don't get me wrong. It was a $1.71 million playoff finish, won by a respected grinder and decided on the coolest hole this side of Shaun White. I had to ice down my goose bumps.

But on the tour's biggest stage, played on its pride and joy TPC Sawgrass, Choi's victory won't do much for what the tour fears most: life after you-know-who.

(Hint: He was last seen driving out of the clubhouse parking lot in his white Mercedes.)

K.J. Choi
With his victory at the Players Championship, K.J. Choi moved to 15th in the world rankings.

This is the supposed "fifth major," but the guy who won it hasn't cashed a tour victory check since the 2008 Sony Open. The guy he beat, David Toms, hasn't won on tour since the 2006 Sony. And the guy who finished third, Paul Goydos, hasn't won since the 2007 Sony.

PlayStations for everybody!

Choi turns 41 this Thursday. Toms is 44. Goydos is 46. It was like the Champions Tour Lite.

In fact, Toms actually mentioned that a win here Sunday would have given him a five-year exemption on the big boy tour -- almost long enough, he said half-kiddingly, to get him to age 50 and the Champions Tour.

It would have been a wonderful story had Toms left here with the $1.71 million first prize. As golf adversity goes, he has overcome a shag bag full of physical ailments and even the thoughts of quitting tournament play. He arrived at TPC Sawgrass with a tour winless streak that had reached triple digits.

If Toms wouldn't have gobbled hero vitamins and tried to reach the par 5, 16th hole in two (he rinsed the shot and ended up with bogey), or missed his 36-inch-ish, par playoff putt on the cruel 17th hole, he might have beaten Choi. At the very least, the playoff would have moved to the No. 18 tee box.

Instead, he toe'd the putt on No. 17 and that was that. Choi didn't make the same mistake.

There is nothing not to like about Choi. The South Korean is a favorite of his peers and, of course, of Choi's Bois -- the six T-shirt-wearing, Nashville guys who have adopted Choi as one of their own.

Choi, who began the week ranked 34th in the world, is a worker bee and earned every Washington in that winner's check. But he isn't going to help the tour transition to the eventual post-Tiger Woods era. He isn't telegenic enough or, more important, young enough. It isn't Choi's fault, but it matters.

Toms started the tournament ranked 75th in the world rankings. Goydos was ranked 212th. Even with the third-place finish at the Players Championship, Goydos is still outside the top 100 (113, to be exact).

Goydos does have personality. His post-round interview with NBC's Jimmy Roberts was an instant classic. When Roberts asked him about the fatigue factor of having already played 24 holes Sunday, Goydos deadpanned: "I'm a professional athlete, you know." Then, turning to the camera, "I'm just kidding, America."

Goydos is a beaut, but he's not going to transform the game or its viewership. At some point you have to win something.

Meanwhile, Woods isn't going to be around forever. Depending on the outcome of some recent medical exams, he might not be around for the U.S. Open or beyond. We're waiting for the injury news from the Tiger compound in Orlando. So is the tour, though it won't actually admit it's nervous about the outcome.

"I don't know," said Tim Finchem of Woods' health. "I don't think anybody knows. I'm not sure he does. I just don't know what his future is."

But Finchem does know that younger is better than older. And just below Choi, Toms and Goydos on the leaderboard were the likes of 20-somethings Nick Watney, Jason Day, Hunter Mahan, J.B. Holmes and Alvaro Quiros (though he's not a member of the PGA Tour.)

"The other thing is Tiger has been finishing well in advance of finish time this year and our television ratings are up virtually across the board," Finchem said. "… Clearly the fans are engaging with and focusing on these other players, and that's good news for the future."

That's nice, except that golf also craves superstars who win majors and dominate tournaments -- and the tour doesn't have one of those right now. And Finchem's Players Championship couldn't even attract Lee Westwood, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, or Rory McIlroy, No. 6 in the rankings.

Why does any of that matter? Here's why: The tour's television contracts expire after 2012.

A playoff finish was exciting stuff Sunday, but the tour needs more, much more, than a 40-year-olds convention at its premier event. It needs the next Tiger.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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