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Nick Watney leads youthful leaderboard

The only number that matters at the U.S. PGA Championship is on the scorecard, not the birth certificate.

Golf has been trending toward youth over the past several years, and on a Saturday at Whistling Straits, the final major of the year turned out to be a showcase of the next generation.

Leading the way was Nick Watney, who fired off five birdies in the opening seven holes, leading the 29-year-old American to a 6-under 66 and a three-shot lead.

Right behind were 26-year-old American Dustin Johnson and 21-year-old Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland. Both had left their marks in the majors already this year, Johnson as the 54-hole leader in the U.S. Open, McIlroy for tying a record with a 63 at St. Andrews in the opening round of the British Open.

Of the top six on the leaderboard—five of those players in their 20s— none has won a major. The last time the top six contenders were this green in the PGA Championship was in 1992 at Bellerive, which Nick Price won for the first of his three majors.

“There’s some really good players that haven’t won a major,” Watney said. “And all the guys that have, at one point they hadn’t won, either. So you’ve got to start somewhere. And hopefully, tomorrow will be my day.”

Watney only struggled on the last, when he went from deep rough on the right to deep rough in the side of a hill left of the green. He did well to make a bogey and finish three long days at 13-under 203.

Johnson found enough accuracy to go with his awesome power for a 67, giving him a shot at redemption. He had a three-shot lead at the U.S. Open, only to lose it all on the second hole on his way to an 82.

He figures that will only help him.

“Any time you can be in that situation and know what to expect, you’ve definitely got a leg up on the other people,” Johnson said. “Because not everyone has been in that situation of being in the lead in a major. So I’m pretty confident. And I’ve been playing really well this week. I’m looking forward going into tomorrow.”

McIlroy also had a 67 while playing with Johnson, and while he made six birdies, he saved his round with a number of par putts from the 6-foot range that could easily have dropped him down the leaderboard.

Is he ready at age 21 to become the youngest major champion since John McDermott was 20 when he won the 1911 U.S. Open?

“The players are just getting so much better at a younger age,” McIlroy said. “Their confidence is so high that they can take on shots that other guys just might not have thought they could. I don’t know if that’s because most of the guys swing it better out here now or whatever, but it does seem the younger guys are coming out and they’re just a lot better and more ready to win.”

And there are a lot of them, especially at Whistling Straits.

Jason Day, the 22-year-old Australian, had a 66 and was in the group at 9-under 207 that included Martin Kaymer, the 25-year-old from Germany who has top 10s in the past two majors. Kaymer shot 67.

The only player among the top six not in his 20s was the biggest surprise of all—Liang Wenchong, a 32-year-old from China who set the course record with a 64. He didn’t start playing the game until he was 15.

Some of these guys already were dreaming of winning majors at that age.

As for Tiger Woods? His only hope is to shoot his best round of his strange season on Sunday and try to earn a Ryder Cup berth.

Woods scrambled brilliantly in the morning to finish off the second round with a 70 and get within five shots, but had to rally for a 72 in his third round on a day when the average score was 71 in soft conditions and relative calm.

Woods wound up 10 shots behind. He likely will need to finish at least in seventh place alone to make the Ryder Cup team.

“I just want to play a good round and see where that puts me,” Woods said.

Five of the last six major champions had never won one before, the exception Phil Mickelson this year at the Masters. To see so much inexperience at the top — not to mention youth—is not nearly as surprising in a year in which 27-year-old Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open at St. Andrews, and 30-year-old Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland won at Pebble Beach.

“I guess you could say the younger guys are starting to play a lot better,” Johnson said. “We’re starting to contend in majors. We’re definitely moving forward, that’s for sure.”

Major championship experience is lurking.

Former Masters champion Zach Johnson shot a 69 and was in a group at 8-under 208 that included former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk (70) and former PGA champion Steve Elkington (67).

The course was such a pushover that 19 players shot in the 60s. But at least everyone could see, ending two days of fog delays that forced some to play 30 holes on Saturday.

Mickelson continued to hit tee shots all over the course, and it finally caught up with him in a round of 73 that put in a tie for 48th.

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