A Lot More Company

The Year in Retrospect

This should not have been a surprise, not the kind where Dustin Johnson slips down the stairs on the eve of the Masters and withdraws with a back injury, or Tiger Woods has a fourth back surgery only to return at the end of the year looking as healthy as he has in five years. Golf is getting younger. It’s been that way for a few years now, going back to 2015 when Jordan Spieth won two majors at age 22 and Lydia Ko was No. 1 in women’s golf a few months before her 18th birthday. Turns out Spieth had more company — a lot more company — that anyone might have realized.

Go back to the fall of 2013. The Presidents Cup at Muirfield Village in Ohio featured Spieth, at 19 the youngest American to play in the matches, and Hideki Matsuyama, the 21-year-old from Japan who was finishing up college and already had four victories on the Japan Golf Tour. Across the Atlantic one week earlier, there wasn’t much of a crowd around the first tee on the Old Course at St. Andrews. Justin Thomas had just turned pro and received a sponsor’s exemption to play in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, a pro-am over three courses. His amateur partner was Seth Waugh, the chief executive of Deutsche Bank Americas. “My first tee shot as a pro was at St. Andrews,” Thomas says fondly. He didn’t know much about the other professional in his group, a 22 year-old from England who was still searching for his first European Tour victory. His name was Tommy Fleetwood.

Fast forward to 2017 and they ruled their tours on either side of the Atlantic. Thomas won five times last year, captured his first major at the PGA Championship, won the FedExCup and its $10 million bonus and was voted PGA Tour Player of the Year. Fleetwood won two of the stronger events on the European Tour schedule — the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and the HNA Open de France — and won the Race to Dubai. He was awarded the Seve Ballesteros Trophy as the best player on the European Tour determined by a vote of its members.

Complete records on the PGA Tour only date to 1970, although current numbers made it clear how golf is trending. Players who had not reached their 25th birthday at the time of their victories captured 18 titles on the PGA Tour in its 2016-17 season. That shattered the previous mark of 10 set in 2000. And that previous record probably should include an asterisk because Tiger Woods (age 24) won nine of those events. Players in their 20s won 28 times on the PGA Tour last season, nearly 60 percent of the time. Youth was just as evident in Europe, where players in their 20s won 21 tournaments that were primarily sanctioned by the European Tour. At the Presidents Cup this year, both the American team and International team had six players in their 20s.

“It’s such a young game right now,” Thomas said. “I was also thinking, ‘Is it going to stay young?’ We’re going to be in our 30s at some point. But if we can keep playing well, stay competitive, keep pushing each other … I feel like there’s a good chance that all of us — or at least four or five of us — will continue to play on a lot of these teams for consecutive years.

But there’s going to be a lot of others coming out of college who are going to want to take our place.”

Getting most of the attention in America was the high school graduating class of 2011 that featured most prominently Spieth, Thomas, Daniel Berger and Emiliano Grillo of Argentina, who graduated from the IMG Academy in Florida. Still trying to win for the first time were Ollie Schniederjans and Patrick Rodgers, both with glowing college achievements. Also in that group was Xander Schauffele, the kid hardly anyone knew. He went to two colleges in California, the last one San Diego State. He didn’t travel the junior circuit as heavily as his peers and was an unknown who came off the Web.com Tour until he tied for fifth at the U.S. Open on 10 under par. That was no fluke. The 24-year-old Californian won the Greenbrier Classic a few weeks later with a pitching wedge into three feet for birdie on his final hole, and then he outlasted Thomas to win the Tour Championship at East Lake. Going into the weekend at that tournament, Thomas was asked what he knew about Schauffele and replied apologetically, “Nothing, really.” Indeed, there are so many good young players that not even they know who everyone is.

One player who joined the fray who really needed no introduction was Jon Rahm, who spoke no English when he came to America from the northern Basque region of Spain and still managed to get his degree from Arizona State in four years. He tied for fifth in the Phoenix Open when he was still in college. He won the individual portion of the World Amateur Team event. He won the Jack Nicklaus Award as the best player in college. He was low amateur at the 2016 U.S. Open. And then he turned pro, and Rahm needed only four starts on the PGA Tour to earn a card. His breakthrough victory was in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, when he closed with a 65 by making a 50-foot eagle putt from the back of the green. Add another one to the list.
Si Woo Kim might not have received as much attention even though he made it through the final version of the PGA Tour’s qualifying school in 2012 when he was 17, creating an odd set of circumstances because the PGA Tour had a minimum age requirement of 18 for its members. Not to be forgotten, Kim spent two years on the Web.com Tour after his rookie season, and then won the Wyndham Championship in 2016 when he was just 21. The real acclaim was in May, when he played bogey-free on the final day on the Stadium Course at the TPC Sawgrass and became the youngest winner in the 44-year history of The Players Championship.

The list goes on. Some of the young winners already were known among the golfing public — Branden Grace, Daniel Berger, Tyrrell Hatton, Mat- thew Fitzpatrick and Cameron Smith, who had won the Australian PGA Championship at the end of 2016 and teamed with Jonas Blixt in the Zurich Classic. Some were a little more obscure, such as Grayson Murray, Renato Paratore and Julian Suri, the latest American to establish himself first in Europe. Most of them, particularly in America, grew up together and were motivated by the others’ success.
“I wasn’t mad, but it was maybe a little frustrating sometimes seeing some friends and peers my age do well,” Thomas said. “Not because I wasn’t cheering for them, but because I felt like I was as good of them. It’s just immature of me. The fact of the matter is, over the course of a long career, we’re going to beat other.”

Spieth, already with the upper hand in experience even before he added the third leg of the career Grand Slam at The Open Championship, couldn’t be more excited for Thomas. “I think it’s potentially floodgates opening,” Spieth said after Thomas won the SBS Tournament of Champions at Kapalua. “He’s going to be tough to beat next week, too.” They were in the same group four days later at the Sony Open when Thomas opened with a 59.

While three of the major champions had youth on their side — Brooks Koepka (U.S. Open), Spieth (The Open) and Thomas (PGA Championship), there was room for experience. Dustin Johnson still feels young, and at age 33 he was the dominant force for most of the year, slowed only by that slip down the stairs that wrenched his back and slowed his momentum. He took over at No. 1 with his victory in the Genesis Open at Riviera on February 19, and he stayed there the rest of the year. Sergio Garcia turned 37 at the start of the year and finally won a major at the Masters, along with titles in the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and the Andalucía Valderrama Masters. Justin Rose, part of that trio born in 1980 that includes Garcia and Adam Scott, came on strong at the end of the year with victories in the World Golf Championships – HSBC Champions, the Turkish Airlines Open and the Indonesian Masters. Rose ended the year with 10 consecutive finishes in the top 10.

But this year was all about youth. That much was reflected by the World Money List. All but three players — Johnson, Rose and Marc Leishman — were still in their 20s. Thomas led the money list with $10,300,894, which doesn’t include his $10 million bonus for capturing the FedExCup.

Thomas had only two victories going into the year, which was nothing to sniff at except compared with what Spieth had already accomplished. They were linked through a friendship that began a decade earlier when Thomas, the son of a Kentucky club professional, traveled to Texas for an American Junior Golf Association event. Spieth walked over to him on the practice range and introduced himself because they were in the final group. Spieth, who grew up in Dallas, shot 71 and won by four shots over Thomas and two others. That was the start of a friendship more than a rivalry. They competed all summer until both were selected to represent the United States in the Evian Masters Junior Cup in France. Thomas got the best of Spieth and earned a spot in the Evian Masters pro-am with Juli Inkster. Spieth caddied for him.

Thomas had yet to win in the United States — both his victories were at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. But his parents were around at Kapalua when Thomas drove the 14th green and made an eagle that carried him to a two-shot lead, pulled away from Matsuyama early in the final round, and then finished him off with an eight iron to three feet over a deep ravine on the 17th hole of the Plantation Course. It was a great start to the year, especially being in Hawaii, and the best was still to come.


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