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For most part, young guns have misfired

Aaron Baddeley never imagined it would take this long to win on the PGA Tour.

Golf seemed easy when he was an 18-year-old amateur who caused such a sensation with his victory in the 1999 Australian Open that the Masters and US Open gave him exemptions, and Tiger Woods called him a better ball-striker than he was at that age.

His swing was fundamentally sound.

And when Baddeley refused to flinch against Colin Montgomerie and Greg Norman to win the Australian Open seven years ago, he had a clear vision of where he wanted to go, how to get there, and whom he had to beat.

''My goal is to become better than Tiger," Baddeley said at the time. ''If Tiger is the best player in the world, and I want to be the best player in the world, then I have to be better than Tiger. He's the benchmark, and I want to get better than the benchmark."

Instead, Baddeley has become another statistic.

His victory in the Verizon Heritage Sunday was cause for celebration. The seven-year journey to a PGA Tour title ended with a 7-foot par putt that curled in the right side of the cup on the final hole for a one-shot victory over former US Open champion Jim Furyk. And the way Baddeley raised his arms and closed his eyes showed this was as much about relief as sheer satisfaction.

''I feel like I've been out here forever," he said. ''And I'm only 25."

In a peculiar way, though, his victory was another reminder that youth continues to fall short of expectations.

Baddeley joins a list of other young players who were billed as the next challenger to Woods, but who have not done anything to merit further consideration.

''I've worked hard since I first started playing the game at age 7, and that's always been my goal to be the best player in the world," Charles Howell said at the Memorial in 2001 during his rookie-of-the-year season. He won a year later, is still sitting on one PGA Tour victory, and is no longer the highest-ranked Howell (that would be David Howell of England).

Justin Rose, who tied for fourth as a 17-year-old at the 1998 British Open, finally has a PGA Tour card, but not a trophy. Adam Scott was 23 when he became the youngest winner of The Players Championship, but he has yet to contend in a major. David Gossett won the US Amateur at Pebble Beach in 1999, shot 59 at Q-school a year later, and won the John Deere Classic in 2001, the first player since Woods to win a PGA Tour event on a sponsor's exemption. Now, he doesn't even have status on the Nationwide Tour.

Has anyone heard from Ty Tryon lately?

Casey Wittenberg?

Before anyone knew of Baddeley, the promising young star was 19-year-old Sergio Garcia, who chased Woods down the fairways of Medinah at the '99 PGA Championship, went 3-1-1 at the Ryder Cup, and embraced a rivalry before he had a driver's license.

''If they compare you with a good player, that means that you have something in your game," Garcia said when he made his PGA Tour debut as a professional in the '99 Byron Nelson Classic.

After winning twice on the PGA Tour, Garcia began 2002 by saying his goal was to become the first player to win the money title on both sides of the Atlantic. And when asked that day whether he was closing the gap on Woods, Garcia replied, ''He's 26. I think that I can be as good as he is at 26 when I'm 26, or hopefully sooner."

Garcia now is 26 and no closer to Woods that he was four years ago, starting with the fact he hasn't won a major.

And he's the best of the young players.

Instead, Woods's challengers are coming from experience.

Vijay Singh was approaching 40 when he set a target of becoming No. 1 in the world at the end of the '02 season. He worked harder than ever on the range and in the gym for two years, and finally took Woods down in 2004 by winning nine times, rising to No. 1 after beating Woods head-to-head on Labor Day at TPC Boston in Norton.

The latest challenge is from Phil Mickelson, who turns 36 during the US Open, where he will be going after his third consecutive major. Mickelson was better than today's young crop of players when he was their age, but it took him winning a major -- now at three straight years winning a major -- for him to be a certifiable threat.

Ernie Els has been part of the picture as long as Mickelson, winning the US Open right after Woods's watershed victory in the '97 Masters, and winning the British Open in 2002 when Woods was going after the Grand Slam. The Big Easy turns 37 in October.

It's not too late for a youngster to emerge as a serious threat to Woods.

Garcia remains the top candidate, and while he struggled at the Masters, he is one victory away from moving into the top five in the world rankings, and one major away from being perceived differently.

There is plenty of attention on rookie J.B. Holmes after he won in Phoenix, and on Camilo Villegas of Colombia with his three top-3 finishes. But until any of them wins consistently against strong fields, or captures a major, who's to say they won't be another David Gossett or Justin Rose?

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