Golf: Rumford latest arrival as the amateurs take centre stage

Following the success of Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia golf enters the new millennium with youngsters no longer intimidated by the professional spotlight.
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THE REPERCUSSIONS from Aaron Baddeley's victory in the Australian Open last month, when aged 18 he became the youngest winner of the country's premier title in its 95-year history and the first amateur champion for 39 years, will not stop for a while yet. One of them, however, came about unexpectedly the following week.

Brett Rumford, fully four years Baddeley's senior, also had to turn down the winner's cheque and settle for the trophy when he won the ANZ Players' Championship. Rumford, who won a four-hole play-off, gave some of the credit to Baddeley. "He inspired me and spurred me on," Rumford said. "It was like breaking the four-minute mile barrier. You should see a lot more amateurs winning now."

Rumford added: "We went out to dinner on Friday night and Aaron was waiting for me in the bar, surrounded by five women. I thought that was really good. During dinner people came up to him and asked for autographs while I sat there, twiddling my thumbs. There is also the respect that is given when you achieve such a feat."

Kids, these days, they want it all. Respect for their elders, maybe, but awe? Hardly. Baddeley had Greg Norman, a hero to every young Aussie golfer, breathing down his neck and played the final round at Royal Sydney alongside Colin Montgomerie, the world No 3. He might have been playing for his club in a local league match so unruffled was he.

As an amateur - and in the aftermath of his victory he said he had no plans to turn professional until after next August's Eisenhower Trophy - Baddeley, who was born in America but grew up in Melbourne, had to turn down the pounds 75,000 first prize. He did get to keep the Stonehaven Cup, which features the names of Norman, Nicklaus, Thomson, Player, Palmer, Locke and Watson. "As long as I'm holding that," he said, "it's not a problem.

"I've been dreaming about this for the last couple of months," Baddeley added. "It is great to actually do it. The course suited my game, and I was very confident coming here this week because I knew my game was ready. I always felt I could win. I played my best, and it was good enough."

The game, it seems, is heading into a brave new millennium with the thrilling prospect of a host of new young stars to savour. We have only just drawn breath from the stunning introduction into the professional ranks of Sergio Garcia, while the world's best player, by a country mile at the moment, Tiger Woods, is only 24 later this month.

It is a little early to talk of Woods, Garcia and Baddeley as great a triumvirate as Nicklaus, Palmer and Player, but the game is no longer the preserve of the Pringle-sweatered thirtysomethings who appeared to dominate the tours over the last couple of decades.

Golf has always thrown up its young prodigies, going right back to Young Tom Morris, who won four successive Opens before, following the death of his wife, he died, it is said, of a broken heart on Christmas Day 1875 at the age of 24. Francis Ouimet was 20 when he won the US Open at Brookline in 1913 and Gene Sarazen the same age when he won both the US Open and USPGA in 1922. Woods won the Masters in '97 at 21, taking the record for Augusta from Seve Ballesteros.

Bobby Jones had won four US Opens and three Opens by the time he retired at the age of 28 in 1930. Jones, a successful lawyer, would not recognise today's amateurs. Rather than golf being a hobby outside of work, the game is all they know. Golfing bodies as well organised as the Australian Golf Union and the Swedish Federation give their youngsters all the opportunities they need to play and practice without having to earn a living. After his win, Rumford, a West Australian, said: "That's what it's all about. That is what practising eight hours a day is for. I owe a lot of my experience to the Australian Golf Union. They have given me the opportunity to play in events like this."

In some ways, these kids are better off than the pros, who rarely have an chance to practice for eight hours a day for long periods. There is always a corporate day, a course to design, business meetings to attend, not to mention all the travelling around the tours.

Justin Rose showed how hard it is to adapt when he missed the cut in his first 21 tournaments as a professional. Rose, who quit the amateur ranks after finishing fourth in the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale, struggled for 18 months before earning his card for next season at the European tour school last month. England's Luke Donald is the current NCAA champion in the States and has elected to finish his college degree, as did Matt Kuchar after grinning his way to high finishes at the Masters and US Open in 1998.

College stars have not always fulfilled their potential. Scott Verplank was the reigning US Amateur champion when he won the Western Open in 1985 but has had to go back to the Qualifying School in recent years. Phil Mickelson won the Tucson Open in 1991 as an amateur and has been a frequent winner on the US tour but has yet to earn a major.

Mark O'Meara was the US Amateur champion in 1979 but had to wait until aged 41 before winning the Masters and Open last year. O'Meara saw Baddeley win on television in the States. "The young players today, there's not a whole lot of intimidation," he said. "They believe that they can win at a very early age and Aaron obviously proved that.

"You have to have a totally different outlook as an older player and realise just how talented the young players are, and how mature they are. I think back to the old days, and there was the intimidation factor and the learning process, all those things."