January does not mark the start of a new golf season, but it does represent the time and place where golf really begins in earnest for 2023. Most of the best players in the world will be on hand for the Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawaii, and plenty of the next generation of stars and superstars will not be with them.
That's because next year's major winners and 2027's Ryder Cuppers -- at least some of them -- were toiling on the Korn Ferry Tour last year with no chance of earning the win needed to get to Kapalua. Some of those golfers who earned their PGA Tour cards made their way to the big boy circuit in the fall, and some of them even played quite well.
There will always be intrigue surrounding the top players in the world -- the Rory McIlroys, Jordan Spieths and Collin Morikawas. But sport is often built on hope for the future, too. While that's not as rabid in golf as it is some other team sports, it's still pertinent and matters for the future. So while we will give plenty of time and energy to the Tournament of Champions when it rolls around, today we're going to look at a handful of players who were in the minor leagues last year but could have significant years on the PGA Tour starting after the TOC.
1. Justin Suh
I've written about Suh extensively, but I remain fascinated by him. He won the Korn Ferry Tour championship in September and was named Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year in November. If you're looking for some pushback, his best PGA Tour start in seven fall events was a T29 at the CJ Cup, and he only gained strokes ball-striking in one of them (also the CJ Cup). Still, if you look at the list of past Korn Ferry Tour Players of the Year, you're going to find some absolute studs.
- 2020-21: Stephan Jager
- 2019: Scottie Scheffler
- 2018: Sungjae Im
- 2017: Chesson Hadley
- 2016: Wesley Bryan
- 2015: Patton Kizzire
- 2014: Carlos Ortiz
That's a lot of PGA Tour champions. The only question for me is whether Suh is going to be, say, Scheffler or Kizzire. One is a nice PGA Tour player who has won at that level before. The other is a major champion and a former No. 1 player in the world.
2. Taylor Montgomery
His run of play from the middle of April to the end of the season was ridiculous. Eight top 10s in 10 Korn Ferry stars fowllowed by six top 15s in seven PGA Tour stars in the fall. His game, at least statistically, doesn't scream PGA Tour star, but overall Data Golf has him as the highest-rated player in the world (currently No. 28, ahead of Shane Lowry and Hideki Matsuyama and just behind Jordan Spieth) who also recently played on the KFT.
3. Nick Hardy
The former Illinois golfer finished T14 at the U.S. Open in June and had three top 25s on the PGA Tour in June. He has incrementally improved each of the last three years, and a fourth could put him as a top 50 or top 75 player in the world.
4. Carl Yuan
He finished second on the Korn Ferry Tour points list behind Suh. He doesn't project as strongly as Suh (or, to me, even Hardy), but from a production standpoint, he's impossible to ignore. In his last 25 Korn Ferry Tour starts, Yuan has a victory and five other top-five finishes.
5. Will Gordon
Gordon finished off his Korn Ferry Tour year with three top fives in his last five starts and finished second in Korn Ferry Tour Finals points behind Suh. He nearly won the 2020 Travelers Championship, and has had some success on the PGA Tour circuit. At 26, he's certainly not the youngest guy on this list, but he's quite long off the tee, hits the ball well and his Data Golf ranking (No. 84) suggests that his Official World Golf Ranking (No. 134) has some catching up to do.
6. Austin Eckroat
A fellow Oklahoma Stater, Eckroat thrived as the Korn Ferry Tour season played out. He finished fifth in Korn Ferry Tour Finals points, and Data Golf quietly has him as a top-200 player in the world. Similarly to his former teammate, Viktor Hovland, Eckroat can struggle with his short game but is a tremendous hitter of the golf ball, which -- thankfully for him -- is the skill the PGA Tour rewards the most.
7. Davis Thompson
You may remember Thompson as somebody who popped briefly at the 2020 U.S. Open when he was still an amateur at Georgia, but his professional career on the Korn Ferry Tour has been impressive. He finished 18th in points but won in June and then had some nice starts on the PGA Tour in the fall (two top 12s). The pedigree is immense, too. Thompson was a two-time All-American at Georgia, is a former SEC Player of the Year and a former No. 1 player in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.