A PGA Tour youth movement is no longer on the horizon, it has officially arrived
From Justin Thomas to Xander Schaueffele, the youngsters are taking over golf
Every professional sport prides itself on its youth. From the NFL to MLB, leagues are seemingly getting younger and better with each passing year. Golf is no different. As the effects of what Tiger Woods did to the sport (namely, inject it with a lot more money) start to reverberate, not only is , its stars are getting younger as well.
Empirically, this is true. Every week I watch golf it seems as if a different 20-something is cruising to his second or third or 11th win. Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and Daniel Berger are just a few of the names under 25. And we're not even including grandpas like Rory McIlroy (28), Rickie Fowler (28) and Brooks Koepka (27).
Even with this knowledge, some of the stats will astound you. According to Justin Ray of Golf Channel, the 2016-17 PGA Tour season had more winners under the age of 25 than any other season ever ... by eight.
Here is the list.
3 (before turning 25)
Si Woo Kim
This is an embarrassment of talent that has provided golf with what the NFL has thrived on for so long: parity. That word is often associated with a lack of interest, especially in individual sports like golf. But when you have great characters -- like Spieth, Thomas, Rahm and DeChambeau -- it can be a great thing.
That's partly because of the high-level golf being played and partly because these players have developed friendly rivalries throughout the years. Confidence begets confidence, which is supreme in this wave. Thomas talked about friendly rivalries recently, but if you read between the lines, you can see that trophies and titles are an expectation with this crop of players, and they always have been.
"We all played against each other when we were 15, 14, and we're 16, 18, we're 20, and now we're just at the top and we're under the scope all the time," said Thomas, the FedEx Cup winner, while at the BMW Championship. "We're competing against each other, and we're having just as much fun now as we were then. Like I said, we're out on tour and battling out to win tournaments and majors."
There is an expectation within the young players that they will win and win often at a young age. It's hard to say the effect this is having on the sport -- we likely won't understand that for another decade or two -- but it feels like it is changing the ethos of professional golf from the inside out.
No longer will the PGA Tour be a lifelong trek. Instead, players will likely have shorter, hotter careers. Some will play forever, no doubt, but not everybody. And with the amount of money at stake in the game today ($34 million was distributed at the Tour Championship this year), the sport likely has a few levels still to rise.
"I guess I have to accept the role of a veteran at this point," said Henrik Stenson, 41, who won the Wyndham Championship this year. "I think competition is as fierce as it's ever been.
"It's always hard to predict winners in golf but probably even more so in these days, and someone is always playing well, someone is always making those putts and you got to play extremely well if you want to win golf tournaments. It's exciting, and as one of the older guys, I try to my hardest to keep the youngsters at bay and try to compete with them."
One of those youngsters was Schauffele. At the start of the year, he was ranked No. 299 in the world. Now, with wins at the Greenbrier Classic and Tour Championship (where he became the first rookie to win it), he's all the way up to No. 32. He took home $6 million this year for his efforts.
"I mean, it's not just the three of us [Spieth, Thomas and Schauffele], really," said Schauffele at East Lake after the Tour Championship victory. "I think I've always been on the outside looking in. You've got Justin, you've got Jordan, you've got Daniel Berger, you've got Emiliano Grillo, and Hideki's also young. Jon Rahm's even younger than us. It's not just the two of us or three of us. Like I said, it's kind of weird being in their company. I said I got annoyed of talking about them so much before, but yeah, they push me, and I can't thank them enough."
The future is built upon what Schauffele touched on at the end. They push me, and I can't thank them enough. So much success in golf is based on self-belief. Players think, Wait, I beat that guy in junior golf all the time ... why can't I do it again out here? This is how the structure of an industry gets upended, and Spieth and Thomas have unlocked a limitless future for the next generation.
Whether they take advantage of it remains to be seen, but the message is clear: Golf is no longer an experienced player's sport. You can win big, and you can win now. And lots and lots of players are doing just that.
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