2006: Young and restless
About the same time his prodigious progeny was beginning his climb to golf immortality, Earl Woods offered the world a bit of insight – or was it a warning? – on the future of the game.
Eldrick’s elder talked of the “superkids” who would change the face of golf.
“I have seen them, and they are coming,” Earl Woods said.
When you’ve groomed a singular talent to the heights the younger Woods was heading, people tend to listen like you’re E.F. Hutton barking into a Texas-sized megaphone. So for almost a decade the world waited for these American superkids to turn the ancient game into a pitch-and-putt exhibition.
But with every wunderkind washout, every can’t-miss kid that crashed, the promise of American young guns became more of a pipe dream.
Rising stars seemed to flame out faster than an Olympic downhill skier who missed a turn.
Potential phenoms came and went with surprising regularity. David Gossett won in his 12th start as a professional, but is in a funk so deep he has not made a cut since early 2004. Ty Tryon, the fearless teen who earned his Tour card and his driver’s license at about the same time, played two lackluster years in the Bigs – one on a medical extension. Both are awash in the unsheltered waters of the minor leagues.
Tiger Woods has been America’s lone superkid since the Clinton Administration. Where this drought has been the most glaring is on the U.S. Ryder Cup teams. Woods has been the youngest member on the past four U.S. squads, dating to 1997.
But that was before the 2005 Q-School and Nationwide Tour classes began to fill the ranks of the Tour’s twentysomething crowd, and before the implementation of a redesigned U.S. team selection system, which doles out five times the points in the actual Ryder Cup year.
At December’s Q-School, a group led by a long-hitting, claw-putting machine from Kentucky named J.B. Holmes turned golf’s most demanding test into a pop quiz.
Holmes took medalist honors at the Fall Classic by three strokes. Nicholas Thompson and Jeff Overton joined him in the graduating class. Ryan Moore, who earned his card via grit and sponsor exemptions and skipped the Q-School fun, also made the jump directly from the classroom to center stage. All came straight from college.
Bubba Watson joined the foursome via the Nationwide Tour.
All total, 21 players 27 years old or younger began the season with PGA Tour status. And many of these young stalwarts have proved capable of living up to high expectations.
Holmes, 23, won last month’s FBR Open by seven strokes. Lucas Glover, 26, earned his breakthrough last year by winning Disney. And Sean O’Hair, 23, was the 2005 Rookie of the Year thanks to his John Deere Classic victory.
Enter the superkids.
That the Tour’s age ceiling crumbled like the Berlin Wall seemed inevitable considering the game’s growing popularity. But why it is occurring now, after so many near misses, seems to be a combination of swelling confidence and changing times.
Slap-the-dimples-off-the-ball power appears to be the common theme among the young crop. Of the 21 newcomers, eight rank inside the top 50 in driving distance, and five – led by Watson (No. 1 with a 320.9-yard average) – are among the circuit’s 30 most prodigious. Phil Mickelson respectfully calls the new breed “long drive guys who can play.”
“That’s what we are seeing in J.B. Holmes and Bubba Watson and (Camilo) Villegas, they have great touches with wedges and putting and short game,” said Mickelson. “They are very difficult to beat, and as they continue to get more experience and get better . . . they are going to be the guys that are going to be the top players in the world as we transition.”
Nine members of the 27-and-under crowd earned their ticket to the Show via Q-School, which was staged at two courses with little rough and set up for the long at heart.
“Orange County National (near Orlando, Fla.) was really long (the shorter of the courses measured 7,460 yards), and there wasn’t as much demand on hitting the ball straight, like the year before at PGA West,” said 24-year-old Tour rookie and 2001 U.S. Amateur champ Bubba Dickerson. “That’s why you saw a lot of younger guys get through.”
In Phoenix last month, Holmes at times put on a long-driving show. He ranked 13th in the field with a 307.9-yard driving average, and he sealed his victory with a 302-yard 3-wood to 30 feet to set up an easy two-putt birdie at the par-4 17th Sunday.
“Every golf course John plays is a par 69,” said Dan Utley, a player manager with Octagon and former assistant at the University of Kentucky who coached Holmes for two years.
But launching dimpled spheres into adjacent area codes is only part of the youthful equation. Many of these young guns are quiet, unassuming and exceedingly focused. One longtime observer went so far as to describe many of them as introverts, oblivious to the circus that surrounds pro golf at its highest level.
This would certainly explain how Holmes, and Moore to a slightly lesser extent, were able to beat the odds when so many before had failed. Whereas inexperience may lead some to shrink from pressure, this group seems to thrive when the air is measured by the square inch.
“You saw that with (Holmes). He got in contention and didn’t back down,” Moore said. “I’m not one of those guys that sits in the fairway thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m one shot back. What am I going to do?’ ”
It’s a fearlessness born from self-confidence and forged at every level of competition. Just getting by doesn’t seem to be a part of the twentysomethings’ mindset.
“It’s a different generation of athlete. They have this athlete’s mentality,” said UCLA men’s coach O.D. Vincent, who led several of these fearless young players – including Holmes, Overton and Michael Putnam – at the U.S.-Japan Collegiate Matches in 2003. “They think only about winning, and how many they are going to win by.”
The members of the youth movement, many of whom spent years dueling at the college and amateur levels, also feed off each other’s success.
When Putnam, who left school last year with Holmes, et al but fell short at the final stage of Q-School, tied for fourth in his first professional start at last year’s Buick Championship, Moore noticed. And when Moore became the first player since Woods in 1996 to avoid Q-School and earn a card straight out of school, his contemporaries took note.
“If one guy can do it, another guy thinks he could do it,” said Tour rookie Troy Matteson, 26. “Obviously J.B. winning puts a lot of confidence in a lot of the young guys. When you see somebody that you played in college tournaments with do really well, that builds confidence in the whole group.”
Three members of this year’s Q-School class – Holmes, Thompson and Overton – also fed off the success of playing on the victorious U.S. team at the 2005 Walker Cup.
“The amount of pressure at that (event) is something we draw upon,” Holmes said at Q-School. “There’s only 10 of you playing, and you want to bring that Cup back.”
In many ways the stage was set for the youth movement in 2005, when the U.S. Golf Association relaxed its rules on amateurs accepting free equipment from manufacturers.
The change all but ended the practice of young rookies over-experimenting with clubs, a phenomenon one equipment rep called the “Candy Store Effect.” Now, most top college players have done their tinkering before leaving campus.
“In college we had every resource available to us to become better athletes,” said Matteson, a three-time All-American at Georgia Tech. “We had all the best equipment. It was amazing, the reps pushing equipment on college players. It’s so much easier to get the right stuff before you turn pro.”
Maybe the most surprising element of the up-and-comers is not when they arrived, but how they got there. The Tiger Woods model of the perfect swing that so many young players emulated seems to be less important than an innate, unquantifyable ability to score.
“Watch John (Holmes) and Jeff (Overton), there’s less swinging a certain way and more ‘getting after it,’” Vincent said. “They have absolutely no fear of failure any more.”
Holmes’ powerful action features a somewhat abbreviated backswing. Moore’s swing has been described as unorthodox and was entirely modeled by his father, a Washington driving range owner.
“It’s all right here and here ,” said Moore, first pointing at his head, then his heart. “Did Arnold Palmer have a textbook swing? Did Jack Nicklaus have a textbook swing?”
The current crop also seems to be unaffected by many of the financial pitfalls suffered by previous phenoms.
Tryon and Barnes reportedly signed lucrative endorsement contracts before trying to establish themselves on Tour. It’s not unheard of for a player with a solid college or amateur pedigree to pen $500,000 to $1 million endorsement contracts before he has played his first event as a pro. Although that’s common in sports such as basketball and baseball, golf always has rewarded performance over potential.
“With all due respect to the players, does wealth create hunger?” said Mike Dunphy, the player-development manager for Cleveland Golf. “If you look at other sports, when has wealth ever created hunger? Seems as though it caused problems in other sports.”
Particularly for the four players who jumped to the Tour directly from college, the focus was on proving themselves, not signing contracts.
Some insiders considered the 2005 class a relatively shallow talent pool. The rap was that after Moore the prospects dropped off quickly. That created a collective chip that some still lug around like a 20-pound weight. In Holmes’ case, it’s a me-against-the-world mentality he has shouldered since he was rebuffed as a high school recruit by most Southeastern Conference schools.
“These young guys carry a bit of chip, and they want to prove themselves,” Utley said. “They probably felt overlooked.”
The new Ryder Cup points system, created in an attempt to identify the hottest players heading into this year’s matches in Ireland, assures the young guns a chance to be noticed.
Holmes ranked as high as ninth on the U.S. points list this year, and there are five players – Lucas Glover (10th), Holmes (14th), Watson (21st), Charles Howell III (36th) and O’Hair (50th) – with legitimate shots at making captain Tom Lehman’s team.
While there are no guarantees, so many young players having access to the PGA Tour is encouraging. Essentially, a Tour card, like a lottery ticket, is full of potential – but only if you play.
“I’m not going to say it’s going to work out for us in the long term, but we’re out here,” Moore said.
It seems Earl Woods’ superkids have arrived.