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Fred Funk's win highlights lack of young US talent

Fred Funk's victory at the prestigious Players' Championship in Florida on Monday struck a timely blow for golf's 'forty-somethings' but also underlined the dearth of quality emerging players in the American game.

Funk, at 48, became the oldest winner of the lucrative PGA Tour event widely regarded as the sport's 'fifth major' and has rocketed 37 places to 22nd in this week's official world rankings.

That makes him one of 22 U.S. players in the world's top 50 but only three of those -- Tiger Woods, Zach Johnson and Charles Howell III -- are aged under 30.

World number two Woods and 37th-ranked Johnson, who tied for eighth at the Players', are both 29. Howell, the world number 38, is 25.

While the next generation of top-rank American players is not immediately obvious, golf fans in Britain, Australia, South Africa and Spain have every reason to face the next five to 10 years with plenty of confidence.

The game's most promising twenty-something players are Spaniard Sergio Garcia, Australia's Adam Scott, Britons Luke Donald, Paul Casey, Graham McDowell and Ian Poulter and South Africans Tim Clark and Trevor Immelman.

Of those, the swashbuckling Garcia, the immensely gifted Scott and the ice-cool Donald are the likeliest to convert rich potential into major victory.

Garcia, the most precocious talent in the modern game, burst on to the world scene by finishing runner-up to Woods in the 1999 U.S. PGA championship at Medinah, closing with a 71 that featured a stunning second shot at the 16th hole.

Despite several close calls in the majors since then, the world number seven has not yet managed to break through. However, aged just 25, he has plenty of time on his side.

Scott, 24, has been tipped by many as a future world number one and clinched the biggest title of his career at the Players' Championship last year.

He won his maiden PGA Tour title at the 2003 Deutsche Bank Championship, having signalled his rich promise earlier that year when losing to eventual winner Woods over 20 holes in the semi-finals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

Like Garcia, time is on his side. It seems most unlikely the Australian, regarded as virtually unbeatable when on top of his game, will end his career without at least one major under his belt.

Englishman Donald, who spends most of his time on the PGA Tour, is renowned for his accuracy from tee to green and also for his mental strength.

An outstanding amateur who went on to represent the triumphant European team at last year's Ryder Cup, he has won titles on both sides of the Atlantic.

His course management is among the best in the game and, should he put himself in a position to win a major over the next year or so, is almost certain to handle the pressure coming the stretch with aplomb.

In contrast, the most likely American hopes of a major winner in their current crop of twenty-somethings -- Woods apart -- are Howell and possibly the 22-year-old Ryan Moore.

Howell shot his first sub-70 tournament round aged just 10, when he first started being coached by world-renowned instructor David Leadbetter.

A Presidents Cup player for the U.S. in 2003, he won his first PGA Tour title at the 2002 Michelob Championship at Kingsmill but has not yet managed to lift his game consistently to a higher level.

Moore, still an amateur, will be playing at the U.S. Masters next week, having last year swept the board with victories at the NCAA, U.S. Amateur Public Links, Western Amateur, U.S. Amateur and World Amateur events.

Beyond that, though, the American cupboard seems to be relatively bare with regard to emerging major winners of the future, a fact which is not lost on Leadbetter.

"There's a big-time lack of 20 to 30-year-old Americans," the Florida-based coach told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper in an interview.

"If you had an under-25 team, there wouldn't be too many Americans in it," added Leadbetter, who is best known for his role as coach to former world number ones Nick Faldo and Nick Price.

"Junior golf over here costs an awful lot of money and America is full of fancy golf clubs that kids cannot join unless their parents are members.

"In Britain, clubs have junior sections and plenty of coaches attached to the union or federation.

"America has a phenomenal college programme, but there are now a large number of foreigners on the college team."

For the moment, though, American fans will just have to celebrate the success of a golfer who is on the brink of joining the Champions Tour for players aged over 50.

 

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