The Kids Are All Right: 20-somethings rule PGA Tour in 2017

PGA Tour 2017 Golfweek Illustration

The Kids Are All Right: 20-somethings rule PGA Tour in 2017

PGA Tour

The Kids Are All Right: 20-somethings rule PGA Tour in 2017

Want to know the most dominant narrative of the PGA Tour in 2016-17? Well, first you need to check all curfew rules and position a bouncer at the door. We’ll be checking IDs.

This PGA Tour season was all about youth. Tournament victories mostly arrived in three flavors: Young, Younger and Really Young. The last three majors of the year were won by players in their 20s. A 21-year-old, Si Woo Kim of South Korea, won The Players. A 22-year-old from Spain, Jon Rahm, won two tournaments (Farmers, Irish Open) and emerged as a top-5 player and new global star.

In all, there were 28 victories earned by 19 players in their 20s this season, a PGA Tour record; four years ago, that number was 11.

On the final green of the final FedEx Cup playoff event, the day’s two biggest trophies (FedEx Cup, Tour Championship) were held by a 24-year-old (Justin Thomas) and a then-23-year-old (Xander Schauffele). Thomas started his season in October 2016 with one PGA Tour victory. He now owns seven (having already won in 2017-18, in South Korea).

5 Events of Note in 2017

That’s how quickly this group works. Young players, their tanks topped off past the brim with confidence, are stepping in and getting results.

Why is this? From where does this universal blanket of uber-confidence derive? Look no farther than the heralded Class of 2011 valedictorian, Jordan Spieth, who, before his 24th birthday in July already had collected 11 PGA Tour victories. (Only Tiger Woods, with 15 wins, had won that many titles by 24.) Spieth will start 2018 in Hawaii having already crossed $35 million in career earnings. And with his incredible play in 2016-17, Thomas now joins Spieth in running point on the youth surge.

“Jordan and Justin are extremely special players,” said Ollie Schniederjans, another player out of a 2011 high school class that’s proving stronger than iodine. “It seems that our class has just believed that, from Jordan leading it off and Justin coming along, we believe that if we are doing everything we can to maximize what we are capable of doing … we can do some big things. I think a lot of guys in our class feel that way.”

These guys move fast, and take big strides. Schauffele, who earned a PGA Tour card at the 2016 Web.com Tour Finals, had yet to meet many of the players in the 30-man Tour Championship field when he got to Atlanta, Spieth and Thomas included. That’s not to say he hadn’t been inspired by them.

“I always just point my finger to Jordan Spieth,” Schauffele said. “Even if he doesn’t have his best stuff, he always finds a way to win, or keep himself in contention. It’s an attribute that Tiger had, and all the greats before him, obviously, but in my era, Tiger and Jordan now. He just has that edge. Everyone my age looks to him and says, ‘Wow, he’s really doing this.’ He doesn’t look like he’s too freaked out about it.

“He set the bar extremely high, and did so properly and professionally. We’ve been sitting back on the couch watching him do it all, and it’s like, ‘You know what? Why don’t we give that a shot?’ ”

With Tiger Woods battling health issues (at 41, he already has had four back surgeries, finished only three rounds in 2017, and faces an uncertain road ahead), we no longer spend sleepless nights wondering about the game’s future. It’s here.

Justin Thomas poses with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship golf tournament at the Quail Hollow Club Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Justin Thomas joyously holds up the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the PGA Championship in August.  (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

“I mean, I have a hard time seeing it, or choosing a class, that’s any better than ours,” Thomas said.

He is not boasting, just stating fact. Consider the accomplishments by the Class of 2011:

• Thomas won five tournaments in ’16-17, shot 59 at the Sony Open, shot 9-under 63 (a record in relation to par) in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, won his first major (PGA), first playoff event (Dell Technologies), and first FedEx Cup title. He was named PGA Tour Player of the Year.

• Spieth improved his ballstriking and posted three victories, including the British Open at Royal Birkdale, where a late birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie burst was enough to edge veteran Matt Kuchar and give him three legs of the career Grand Slam.

• Daniel Berger, 24, won his second PGA Tour title (defending his crown at FedEx St. Jude) and earned the clinching point at the Presidents Cup at Liberty National.

• Schauffele made it through U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying to get to Erin Hills, finished fifth, then went on to win at Greenbrier and the Tour Championship. He became the fourth member of the 2011 class to earn PGA Tour rookie of the year honors (joining Spieth, Berger and Emiliano Grillo, an Argentine who trained at the IMG Academy in Florida).

There are young, promising players standing in line: Schniederjans, 24, finished 60th in FedEx points as a rookie this season and was a runner-up at the Wyndham; Patrick Rodgers, 25, like Schniederjans a former No. 1 amateur in the world, could be poised to break out. Patrick Cantlay, 25, who was a year ahead of the ’11 class, has battled through injuries to earn his first Tour victory Nov. 5 at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. The list goes on. Golf is in a strong place.

Having young players not only show up, but taste great successes, can produce a ripple effect across the game. What stands out to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan as he looks across the landscape of young talent these days?

PGA: The Presidents Cup-Day Four

The U.S. Presidents Cup team’s core could be together for another two decades. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

“I would say just the vibrancy, the pure vibrancy on the ground at our tournaments, in our broadcasts, in our social media platforms,” Monahan said at the Tour Championship. “Look at the number of young people that are out here over the course of this week. Look at the way that they’re engaged in what’s happening.”

The makeup of the Tour has shifted. In 2010, the average age of a PGA Tour player finishing in the top 125 was nearly 35 (34.5), and there were nearly as many players in their 40s (25) as in their 20s (27). Last season, the average age of those finishing top 125 in the FedEx Cup standings was closer to 32 (32.2). Forty-nine players were in their 20s, nearly triple the number of those in their 40s (17).

But it’s not only the fact that these young players simply have cards and are there for the team picture. No, the young players are playing terrific golf, and winning, and making an impact. The ages, in order of finish, of the top five players from the season-ending FedEx Cup: 24 (Thomas); 24 (Spieth); 23 (Schauffele); 33 (Dustin Johnson); 22 (Rahm). Three other players 28 or younger (Rickie Fowler, Hideki Matsuyama, Brooks Koepka) finished in the top 10.

The twentysomethings on Tour will continue to push and prod and inspire one another to keep working hard, and keep winning tournaments. They share a unique bond, and are there to support one another, but Thomas did admit that watching Spieth’s early success made him “jealous.” He certainly answered the call. There is more of his type on the way.

“There’s so many young guys that haven’t quite won yet, haven’t quite broke out,” Thomas said, “the Patrick Rodgers and Ollie Schniederjans, and we have a lot of guys that have come through the Web that are playing this year. It’s just crazy, it really is, and we just continue to push each other so hard, and we’ve done it for so long, it’s just now we’re at the top of the top in terms of the level of golf.

“It’s pretty cool that we get to do it on the world’s biggest stage.”

Yes, in a post-Tiger tour, the game is fine. Pretty cool indeed. 

(Note: This story is one in a series reviewing the year in golf. It appears in the November 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

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