During these periodic spells when Phil Mickelson swoons and Tiger Woods's only genuine rival appears to be the record books, it is common to speculate about the identity of possible future challengers to his hegemony. Amid grow-ing evidence Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Charles Howell III and all the other bright young things previously mentioned as potential threats do not quite measure up to the task, the search for a serious contender must go beyond the ranks of current pros. More than once during the past decade, Jack Nicklaus himself has pointedly told reporters the man who will really trouble Woods is most likely not even on Tour yet.
Against this background, a record 29 golfers under the age of 18 qualified for the US Men's Amateur championship that teed off in Minnesota last Monday morning. A sure sign of how the talent base in the sport is skewing younger, the pick of the teenage crop may well be 16-year-old Peter Uihlein. As reigning American Junior Golf Association Player of the Year, he carries a title formerly held by Woods (twice), Phil Mickelson (three times), David Duval, Scott Ver-plank and Howell. Most often compared talent-wise to the first two on that illustrious list, he's already been anointed golf's latest wunderkid by Sports Illustrated magazine.
"I've heard so many coaches say that he's the only kid since Mickelson who has all the shots in his bag," said Tim Sheredy, one of Uihlein's coaches at the David Leadbetter/IMG Academy in Florida. "The way Peter can control a golf ball's distance and trajectory is extraordinary."
At 13, Uihlein moved from Massachusetts to the Sunshine State because the lengthy north-eastern winters were re-stricting his development. His mother Tina accompanied him to the place where prodigies juggle regular high school commitments with nurturing their sporting gifts because his father had to stay in his day job. Wally Uihlein is kept kind of busy as chairman and CEO of Acushnet, the company responsible for the Titleist, Footjoy, Scotty Cameron and Co-bra brands. Inevitably, his son is somebody who was reared in the maw of the game.
"Peter couldn't even walk yet when he started swinging," said Tina Uihlein. "He was rolling around in one of those little strollers, and he had one of those plastic Fisher-Price clubs and he'd be whacking those plastics balls around and up on the counters. We could tell right then he wanted to be a golfer."
The story of the toddler's interest in the sport is backed up by home video footage of him swinging a club while still in a walker. Now six foot one and capable of the 300-yard drives (using a Titleist 905T, of course) that are these days regarded as standard in American teenage golf, his biggest challenge has been curbing a tendency to get too angry with himself after bad shots. With his temper under control, he won three tournaments and finished in the top three eight times last year. It helps Uihlein's cause that he has genuine rivals on the junior circuit. Throughout this season, he's been competing for the top three rankings with a pair of bighitting 17-year olds, Philip Francis of Scottsdale, Arizona and Rickie Fowler of Murrieta, California. Both of them are also thought equally good bets to make it to the show some time soon.
"I've got a long ways to go yet to get to where I want to go," said Uihlein. "One of my goals is to one day be out on the PGA Tour. It's tough getting out of my father's shadow, I can tell you. But it's something I want to do. I want to make a name for myself."
Perhaps the most impressive facet of the Uihlein story is the insistence by those around him that he shouldn't be ex-pected among the professional ranks until 2012. That would leave him time to finish high school and to graduate col-lege, furthering his education and honing his golfing skills in the same ultra-competitive environment where even Woods spent a couple of productive years. In the absence of any monetary concerns, there is certainly no need to rush Uihlein's progress and plenty of history to heed.
Five years have passed since a 16-year-old kid called Ty Tryon went from taking lessons at the Leadbetter Academy to becoming the youngest player ever to make a US Tour cut at the Honda Classic. He briefly led the 2001 BC Open, shot 66 on the final day of qualifying school to clinch his card and was the youngest-ever member of the Tour. Subsequently hindered by injuries and weighed down by the burden of inflated expectations, not to mention far too many 'Tiger's next challenger?' headlines, he struggled to find his best form on the big stage. He is currently trying to rebuild a once promising career on the Grey Goose Gateway Tour where his earnings so far this season total $1,719.83.
A cautionary tale for those that come after him.