Golf: Something major about being over 30: Robert Green reports on the dearth of young hopefuls as the last Major of the season approaches

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The Independent Online
THE US PGA Championship, the fourth of the four majors in terms of both order and prestige, is often imbued with an atmosphere of after the Lord Mayor's Show, coming as it does just a month after the Open. In the wake of his heroics at Sandwich, Greg Norman has given it a harder act than normal to follow.

The PGA starts at the Inverness club, in Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday. By next Sunday, it will probably have been won by an American golfer. It usually is. And it will almost certainly have been won by a golfer aged 30-something. Like all major championships, it usually is.

Since Seve Ballesteros announced the era of the present batch of world-class golfers by winning the 1979 Open at the age of 22, golfers between 30 and 40 have won 37 of the 59 majors contested. Golfers in their twenties have won just 15, Ballesteros having accounted for four of those.

Ten years ago, when Europe alone had players of the calibre of Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Sandy Lyle in their mid-20s - all of whom were tipped to be leading players and all of whom duly delivered the goods - it was easy to see from where the next generation of champions would emerge. But who are their successors?

John Daly, 27, and Lee Janzen, 28, are the only two golfers now under 30 to have won a major championship - respectively, the 1991 US PGA and this year's US Open - and there is not an excess of candidates with the obvious potential to join them. On the US tour, only nine golfers under 30 have won at least two tournaments, a group headed by the 28-year-old Davis Love with seven wins. Love has never finished in the top 10 in any major. In Europe, the equivalent list runs to just six players, with the 27-year-old Jose Maria Olazabal, with 13 victories, comfortably ahead of Ronan Rafferty (seven wins), David Gilford (four), Peter Baker and Paul Broadhurst (three each) and Steven Richardson (two). Olazabal, incidentally, is also one of the two-time winners in the United States.

Olazabal has long been touted as the best under-30 golfer in the world, but Nick Faldo, at present the best golfer in the world, period, has long had reservations about the Spaniard's technique.

'His grip is weak and he tends to reverse-pivot pretty seriously,' Faldo says. 'He puts a lot of stress on his body, and I think he is holding himself back technically. If I were him, I would be looking to alter my swing. He is practising to maintain his game rather than practising to improve it. I don't know that he is ready to win a major at the moment.'

Faldo, of course, restructured his swing in the mid-1980s in order to make the progression from tournament winner to championship winner. He won his first major, the 1987 Open, on the day after his 30th birthday, and he is reluctant to identify any specific individual as the likeliest sub-30 golfer to be the next to make the major breakthrough. 'You're looking at a pretty small list,' he says. 'It requires more than having a good technique. It's about character as well. I don't know that you can put your finger on exactly what it takes to climb up to that level. And I don't know that you can easily see it from the outside. It's hard to tell whether a particular player has the necessary qualities within him.'

One player who has impressed Faldo is Peter Baker, who won the Scandinavian Masters last weekend. Aged 20, Baker beat Faldo in a play-off for the Benson & Hedges International in 1988. He then struggled for five years before winning the Dunhill Masters by seven shots two months ago after a closing 63. In Sweden last week, he won despite taking six at the last hole.

'He's worked on his game,' Faldo says, 'and he's come good. The way he played on the two Sundays that he's won this year was impressive - shooting 63 from the front at Woburn, and then winning in Sweden after taking that six. That could be a positive, learning experience for him. Things often don't go like they're supposed to in golf. It can be good for you to win that way.'

In what is hardly a propitious remark with the Ryder Cup in prospect, Faldo surveys the field of young aspirants and declares: 'Certainly the Americans have more depth than we do.' And certainly they will have more players in the field this week.

Faldo and Olazabal - and also Gilford, although not Baker - will be among 12 European challengers (it was 13 until Ballesteros withdrew on Thursday for 'personal reasons') seeking to deprive Nick Price of the title he captured 12 months go. It will not be an easy mission. Price has won the last three tournaments he has played on the US tour. But the initial centre of attention this week will be the gregarious Norman, as he returns to the scene of the first serious golfing outrage to be perpetrated against him, when Bob Tway sank a bunker shot at the last hole to snatch the 1986 US PGA championship from the jaws of the self-styled Shark. That was the start of a sequence which saw Norman on the sharp end of some of the greatest miracles since the loaves and fishes.

As Norman, now 38, again goes to Inverness as the reigning Open champion, he will be hoping that fate has taken a sabbatical from contriving any further torments for him. It should save that stuff for the young guys and leave him to work on winning another major before he joins the 40-somethings.