Woods Eyes Grand Slam

By Associated PressJanuary 22, 2008, 5:00 pm
2007 Buick InvitationalSAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Three weeks into the PGA TOUR season, Tiger Woods finally arrived with expectations larger than ever.
 
The difference this year is that he created them.
 
First came a comment toward the bottom of a story on his Web site earlier this month when he was asked about the possibility of winning the Grand Slam in a calendar year.
 
'I think it's easily within reason,' he said.
 
Then came a five-week break over the holidays that was filled with hours spent on the range.
 
'It's the first time he didn't go skiing,' swing coach Hank Haney said Tuesday after watching his pupil play nine holes on the North Course at Torrey Pines, followed by a one-hour session on the back end of the practice range.
 
'He is really working hard,' Haney said. 'Last year was tough on him, and then it turned around at the end. When your mind is not 100 percent there, it's harder. But now you see the work ethic that he has always had, and the determination. He is 100 percent locked in to what he wants to do.'
 
Woods makes his 2008 debut Thursday at the Buick Invitational, where he is the three-time defending champion. Most would be surprised if he doesn't make it four in a row.
 
Rust shouldn't be a problem.
 
Woods took a 10-week break after the TOUR Championship, then won his Target World Challenge by seven shots. But it wasn't long after a few celebrations -- Christmas, birthday parties for him (Dec. 30) and his wife (Jan. 1), that he was back to work.
 
'I felt like I made some improvements this winter,' Woods said Monday at his Tiger Woods Learning Center. 'I solidified things I was working on toward the end of last year. At Target, I wasn't quite there the last two days. I went back and looked at it, figured out a few things and was working on that. I'm excited to play again.
 
'I'm really excited about starting out the year, and then my preparations toward Augusta.'
 
Some don't believe the golf season starts until Woods shows up, and there's two things wrong with that thinking. One, it's a disservice to Daniel Chopra, K.J. Choi and D.J. Trahan, winners of the first three PGA TOUR events.
 
Besides, the golf season really doesn't start until the Masters.
 
That would be the first leg of the Grand Slam, and everyone knows how Woods feels about that.
 
'I think it's easily within reason.'
 
That comment spoke more to Woods' confidence in his game than the odds of winning all four majors in a calendar year.
 
Take a sample of sound bites over the years on the Grand Slam, and Woods sounds like a politician constantly changing his position.
 
When he won the Masters in 1997 by 12 shots in his first major as a pro, and Woods was asked about winning the Grand Slam, he reasoned that Phil Mickelson had won four PGA TOUR events the year before.
 
'If you win the right tournaments four times, then you have the slam,' he said, making it sound easy at age 21.
 
Four months later, after being an also-ran at the U.S. Open and British Open, he was asked again about the Grand Slam. Woods said it was tough to even get into contention at four majors in one year.
 
'Realistically, it's almost next to impossible to win all four,' he said before the '97 PGA Championship.
 
A decade later, there is proof it can happen.
 
Over 294 days that connected 2000 to 2001, Woods became the first player to hold all four major titles, from his 15-shot victory at the U.S. Open to his two-shot victory at the Masters.
 
And when he won the Masters and U.S. Open in 2002, Woods wondered why there was such a fuss.
 
'It's certainly doable, because I've done it before,' he said after winning the U.S. Open at Bethpage. 'To win all four in a calendar year would just be different. Because at that one time, in my household, there was all four major championships right there. And no one else in the world had them but me.'
 
The starting line for a calendar slam is the Masters.
 
While he is a four-time champion, Woods has won only once in the last five years. That was in 2005, which featured the magical chip-in for birdie on the 16th and a playoff victory over Chris DiMarco. Inevitably, the question came up that day about when he starts thinking about the Grand Slam.
 
'I don't know -- when we go to IHOP or something,' he said.
 
Maturity has come to his game and his speech over the years, and that's why it was mildly surprising to hear him speak so boldly about a calendar slam, something that has never been done at the professional level.
 
Reminded of his various comments about the Grand Slam on Monday, Woods shrugged his shoulders.
 
'I've gotten better as a player,' he said. 'The last four, five, six years, I been in contention in more majors than when I first started out. Put that into more chances, and probably over the last two or three years, I've given myself a chance in just about every major. And that's the whole idea.'
 
In his last 12 majors, since confidence caught up to his swing changes, Woods has finished out of the top four only twice. He missed the cut at Winged Foot in the '06 U.S. Open in his first tournament since his father died, and he tied for 12th at the British Open last year.
 
'That's what I've been the most proud of over the last couple of years,' he said. 'I've really given myself a chance, sometimes only after two or three days, but I'm in the mix. Sometimes I'm on the periphery of contention, like the British last year, where you need to make a couple of putts to change things, and I just didn't do it.
 
'But if that's the worst I can do, that's not too bad.'
 
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  • Titleist's Uihlein fires back at Davis over distance

    By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 21, 2017, 12:59 am

    Consider Titleist CEO Wally Uihlein unmoved by Mike Davis' comments about the evolution of the golf ball – and unhappy.

    In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, the outlet which first published Davis' comments on Sunday, Uihlein took aim at the idea that golf ball distance gains are hurting the sport by providing an additional financial burden to courses.

    "Is there any evidence to support this canard … the trickle-down cost argument?” he wrote (via Golf.com). “Where is the evidence to support the argument that golf course operating costs nationwide are being escalated due to advances in equipment technology?"

    Pointing the blame elsewhere, Uihlein criticized the choices and motivations of modern of architects.

    "The only people that seem to be grappling with advances in technology and physical fitness are the short-sighted golf course developers and the supporting golf course architectural community who built too many golf courses where the notion of a 'championship golf course' was brought on line primarily to sell real estate," he wrote.

    The Titleist CEO even went as far as to suggest that Tiger Woods' recent comments that "we need to do something about the golf ball" were motivated by the business interersts of Woods' ball sponsor, Bridgestone.

    "Given Bridgestone’s very small worldwide market share and paltry presence in professional golf, it would seem logical they would have a commercial motive making the case for a reduced distance golf ball," he added.

    Acushnet Holdings, Titleist's parent company, announced in September that Uihlein would be stepping down as the company's CEO at the end of this year but that he will remain on the company's board of directors.

    Class of 2011: Who's got next?

    By Rex HoggardNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

    The sprawling legacy of the Class of 2011 can be traced to any number of origins, but for some among what is arguably the most prolific class ever, it all began in June 2009.

    The 99-player field that descended on Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., for the AJGA’s FootJoy Invitational included Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and so many others, like Michael Kim, who up to that moment had experienced the weight of the ’11 class only from afar.

    “It was that year that Justin won the FootJoy Invitational and that got him into [the Wyndham Championship]," Kim recalled. "That was my first invitational and I was like 'these guys are so good’ and I was blown away by what they were shooting. I remember being shocked by how good they were at that time.”

    Tom Lovelady, who like former Cal-Berkeley Bear Kim is now on the PGA Tour, remembers that tournament as the moment when he started to realize how special this particular group could be, as well as the genesis of what has become lifetime friendships.

    In the third round, Lovelady was paired with Spieth.

    “We kind of hit it off and became friends after that," Lovelady recalled. "The final round I got paired with Justin Thomas and we became friends. On the 10th hole I asked [Thomas], ‘Where do you want to go to school?’ He said, ‘Here. Here or Alabama.’ My first reaction was, ‘Don’t go to Alabama.’ He’s like, ‘Why?’ I wanted to go there. I knew the class was strong and they only had so many spots, but that’s where I really wanted to go.”

    Both ended up in Tuscaloosa, and both won an NCAA title during their time in college. They also solidified a friendship that endures to this day in South Florida where they live and train together.

    While the exploits of Thomas, Spieth and Daniel Berger are well documented, perhaps the most impressive part of the ’11 class is the depth that continues to develop at the highest level.

    To many, it’s not a question as to whether the class will have another breakout star, it’s when and who?



    There’s a good chance that answer could have been found on the tee sheet for last week’s RSM Classic, a lineup that included Class of ’11 alums Lovelady; Kim; Ollie Schniederjans, a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech; Patrick Rodgers, Stanford's all-time wins leader alongside Tiger Woods; and C.T. Pan, a four-time All-American at the University of Washington.

    Lovelady earned his Tour card this year via the Web.com Tour, while Schniederjans and Rodgers are already well on their way to the competitive tipping point of Next Level.

    Rodgers, who joined the Tour in 2015, dropped a close decision at the John Deere Classic in July, where he finished a stroke behind winner Bryson DeChambeau; and Schniederjans had a similar near-miss at the Wyndham Championship.

    To those who have been conditioned by nearly a decade of play, it’s no surprise that the class has embraced a next-man-up mentality. Nor is it any surprise, at least for those who were forged by such an exceedingly high level of play, that success has seemed to be effortless.

    “First guy I remember competing against at a high level was Justin. We were playing tournaments at 10, 11 years old together,” Rodgers said. “He was really, really good at that age and I wasn’t really good and so he was always my benchmark and motivated me to get better.”

    That symbiotic relationship hasn’t changed. At every level the group has been challenged, and to a larger degree motivated, by the collective success.

    By all accounts, it was Spieth who assumed the role of standard-bearer when he joined the Tour in 2013 and immediately won. For Rodgers, however, the epiphany arrived a year later as he was preparing to play a college event in California and glanced up at a television to see his former rival grinding down the stretch at Augusta National.

    “Jordan’s leading the Masters. A couple years before we’d been paired together battling it out at this exact same college event,” he laughed. “I think I even won the tournament. It was just crazy for me to see someone who is such a peer, someone I was so familiar with up there on the biggest stage.”

    It was a common theme for many among the Class of ’11 as Spieth, Thomas and others emerged, and succeeded, on a world stage. If familiarity can breed contempt, in this case it created a collective confidence.

    Success on Tour has traditionally come slowly for new pros, the commonly held belief being that it took younger players time to evolve into Tour professionals. That’s no longer the case, the byproduct of better coaching, training and tournaments for juniors and top-level amateurs.

    But for the Class of ’11, that learning curve was accelerated by the economies of scale. The quality and quantity of competition for the class has turned out to be a fundamental tenet to the group’s success.

    “Since the mindset of the class has been win, win, win, you don’t know anything other than that, it’s never been just be good enough,” Lovelady said. “You don’t think about being top 125 [on the FedExCup points list], you think about being as high as you can instead of just trying to make the cut, or just keep your card. It’s all you’ve known since you were 14, 15 years old.”

    It’s a unique kind of competitive Darwinism that has allowed the class to separate itself from others, an ever-present reality that continues to drive the group.

    “It was constantly in my head motivating me,” Rodgers said. “Then you see Jordan turn pro and have immediate success and Justin turn pro and have immediate success. It’s kind of the fuel that drives me. What makes it special is these guys have always motivated me, maybe even more so than someone like Tiger [Woods].”

    The domino effect seems obvious, inevitable even, with the only unknown who will be next?

    “That’s a good question; I’d like for it to be myself,” Lovelady said. “But it’s hard to say it’s going to be him, it’s going to be him when it could be him. There are just so many guys.”

    Class of 2011: Origin of golf's great group

    By Ryan LavnerNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

    Years before they became inextricably linked, before the photo of them together went viral, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas sat next to each other on a transatlantic Swissair flight.

    They had met three months earlier, in April 2007, at a junior event in Spieth’s backyard. Tied for the lead heading into the final round at Walnut Creek outside Dallas, Spieth dusted his fellow 13-year-old by five shots in his first AJGA start. Now, they were part of a U.S. foursome that was headed to France for the inaugural Evian Masters Junior Cup, an international mixed competition in which the top three finishers earned a spot in the pro-am prior to that week’s LPGA event.

    During their weeklong trip, the boys shared a one-bedroom unit, noshed on chocolate croissants, toured the Olympic Museum and jostled for a spot next to Paula Creamer in photos. (Spieth, 1 up.) Determined to win the friendly exhibition, they skipped a white-water rafting excursion for a few more hours in the short-game area, much to the chagrin of the adults in the group. “I thought, Man, that would be so much fun!” recalls the AJGA’s Beth Dockter, who accompanied the team. “But they were both very intense and very competitive – even at that age.”

    Skinnier than his 6-iron, Thomas finished third and played the pro-am with Juli Inkster. Spieth served as Thomas’ caddie, but they were stewing after the Americans took bronze.

    “They were really driven. I remember them feeding off each other,” says U.S. teammate Grace Na. “You could tell they wanted to beat each other, even though they were on the same team. They motivated each other to bring the best out of themselves.”

    A decade later, not much has changed.

    That same combination of talent, camaraderie, ambition and ego produced a pair of global superstars, but Spieth and Thomas have made an even bigger impact on their peers, inspiring a once-in-a-generation class that overwhelmed the PGA Tour this year.

    Spieth secured the third leg of the career Grand Slam.

    Thomas won a Tour-best five times, including his first major, to sweep the end-of-season awards.

    Even Xander Schauffele – such an outsider that some college coaches didn’t realize he was in the same gilded class – capped a breakout season with Rookie of the Year honors.

    “I always joked with my buddies that it’s not cool to be 23 on the PGA Tour anymore, since everyone that’s been 22, 23, 24, they’re all winning,” Schauffele says. “I guess kudos to them for pushing me along.”

    The youth movement on Tour isn’t just an intriguing storyline; it’s a competitive reality. Last season was the first that the average winner was younger than 30 (28.9). And to Schauffele’s point, his season-ending victory was the 18th by a player 25 or younger – eight more than the next-best year.

    But of all that promising young talent, no collection of stars figured more prominently this year than the members of the Class of 2011, a group whose rise was so meteoric that they’re recognized not by their graduation year from college, but from high school.

    Most of them can’t rent a car, and yet they factored nearly every week on the PGA and European tours. They played key roles in the majors, the playoffs and the Presidents Cup. In all, a whopping 11 members of the ’11 class own a PGA Tour card this season.

    How has that particular group – born 13 months apart, from every corner of the country – grown so close, and been so successful, so quickly?

    Thomas offered one simple theory – “I just think we’re all good” – but the origins of this fabled class are much more complex.


    2009 AJGA First Team, including: Grillo (top, third from left), Spieth (right of Grillo), Alison Lee (bottom left), Jessica Korda (bottom, third from left) & Lexi Thompson (right of Korda) (AJGA).

    Click here for a look at images from the Class of 2011 during their AJGA days


    PLAYERS TODAY ARE BETTER younger for a multitude of reasons – advancements in technology and coaching, increased focus on fitness and nutrition, the Tiger Effect – but perhaps the most significant development has been the evolution of the country’s premier junior-golf circuit.

    In 2003, the AJGA created a Performance Based Entry system to fill out its tournament fields. It’s essentially a miniature version of the PGA Tour. Roughly a thousand local, state and regional events are entered in the AJGA database, and with good results players gain status through performance stars – think of them as FedExCup points – that allows them to compete throughout the year. Players with enough performance stars qualify for the invitational tournaments that bring together the best juniors in the country nearly a dozen times a year.

    The upshot? The top high school quarterback and pitching prospect don’t face elite competition every game, but these wunderkinds are tested at each event.

    “That’s what made it so easy to transition from junior golf to college to the pros,” Spieth says. “We were already playing against the best talent level, and that stayed relatively similar moving forward. We didn’t see anybody at that level that we hadn’t seen before.”

    The fraternal vibe – now viewed as an integral part of Team USA’s success – was ingrained early, too. If a player’s parents couldn’t travel to an event, the AJGA set him up with another junior’s family. With his father, Shawn, at work and his mom, Chris, at home with his two young siblings, Spieth traveled alone to nearly half of his tournaments from 2007-10. That’s when most of these friendships were formed.

    At night, there always was a function for players to attend – a group dinner, a sponsor meet-and-greet, a clinic – while parents mingled and swapped stories. There were glow-in the-dark putting contests and balloon tosses and leaps into Poppie’s Pond, all while they downed milkshakes and danced to music.

    “It was like a PG-rated college experience,” Spieth says. “We were able to build close relationships other than our friends at home. It was a weird, two-life thing that continues today.”

    Not only did his core group of friends (Thomas, Patrick Rodgers, Emiliano Grillo, Ollie Schniederjans) often stay together on the road, but they spent countless hours after their rounds in the practice area, competing in extravagant putting and flop-shot contests for quarters.

    “If there was a snot-blowing contest, by gosh, one of them would have the most snot,” says Baylor coach Mike McGraw. “They’re so competitive. That’s really what drove this generation.”

    And so they racked up invitational titles. They bonded on Junior Ryder Cup, Canon Cup and Walker Cup teams. They played for national championships, with Spieth joining Woods as the only players to win multiple U.S. Juniors.

    By the time they prepared to make their college decisions, three members of the class had already made the cut in a Tour event: Thomas at the 2009 Wyndham Championship; Spieth at the 2010 AT&T Byron Nelson; and Anthony Paolucci at the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open. Several others boasted decorated amateur résumés.

    “I preach to recruits all the time that you want to go somewhere that you’re going to be pushed,” says USC coach Chris Zambri. “With Spieth and Thomas playing the way they were, that’ll push you. Go shoot 210 in a tournament and lose by six when you’re 14 years old, that’ll get you to practice harder.”

    But it wasn’t just the quality of their scores that turned heads. “The common denominator was their mental approach,” says Stephen Hamblin, the AJGA’s executive director. He recalled the frenzy following Spieth’s stunning debut at the Nelson, where he tied for 16th as a 16-year-old high school junior. The following week, Spieth played against kids his own age and lost by nine, but there was so much media attention that the AJGA organized a news conference. “He articulately went through why he felt like he had a great week and, without sounding conceited or arrogant, said, ‘Now that I’ve had this experience, I know for certain that I can go out and compete on the PGA Tour,’” Hamblin says. “That’s how it was with these guys.”

    Sure, success in pro and amateur events at a young age is usually a strong predictor of success, but nothing was guaranteed. Hotshot prospects had fizzled out each of the previous few years. College coaches were intrigued, but also wary.

    “Honestly, we knew there were a lot of good players,” Zambri says, “but at the time none of us were thinking that this was the chosen class.”

    Oh, how wrong they were.



    ZAMBRI IS STANDING IN his son’s bedroom, staring down at his desk.

    Preserved under the glass is a USC recruiting questionnaire, filled out by a 15-year-old Jordan Alexander Spieth. Zambri begins scanning the water-stained page.

    “5-foot-11, 140 pounds.”

    “Nickname is Spiethy.”

    “GPA is 4.0.”

    “Schools considering is TBD. … Smart.”

    Then he pauses.

    “Interest in us is extreme,” he reports.

    “Well, not extreme enough.”

    College coaches possess an uncanny ability to recall where they were when they received the dreaded call from a prized recruit. The office. The bathroom stall. The Best Buy parking lot. When Spieth phoned Zambri in fall 2010, the USC coach had just hopped on the 101 northbound.

    Even without Spieth onboard, Zambri was still “stoked” about his incoming class, which included top-ranked Paolucci. That group just didn’t work out – for three years, the Trojans didn’t finish better than 15th at NCAAs. The questionnaire is a cool memento for Zambri’s 15-year-old son Joey, but it’s also a painful reminder of how the past few years could have been different.

    McGraw, too, is tinged with regret. Then the coach at perennial power Oklahoma State, he first watched Spieth and Thomas as seventh-graders. “Those two guys had a look about them,” he says. “They competed really hard. They were supremely confident. Very animated. And they had an intensity about them, too. They looked like mini pros. The personality you see them play with today, it was there then.”

    Believing they were program-changers, McGraw put on the full-court press and got burned in recruiting. Neither star came to Stillwater, nor did any of the other boldfaced names.

    “This was quite the class, and it was slim pickings,” he says. “If I’d been smarter, I would have realized that I wasn’t going to get any of those guys and focused elsewhere.” McGraw’s underwhelming 2011 class didn’t pan out, either, clearing the way for Texas and Alabama’s three-year run of dominance.

    Longhorns coach John Fields had been sold on Spieth early, after watching him play as a 12-year-old at a junior event in Ardmore, Okla. On the second hole, Spieth drew a gnarly lie on a downslope behind the green, but his majestic flop shot trickled within 6 inches of the cup. “No one else in the field could do that,” Fields said.

    That he eventually persuaded Spieth to stay in state was a testament to the program he had built. Sizing up his options, Spieth coveted two things: a shot at a national title and fierce, intra-squad competition, which Cody Gribble and Dylan Frittelli – now winners on the PGA and European tours, respectively – helped provide.

    They steamrolled into the NCAA Championship, setting up a 1-vs.-2 final against Alabama, which featured its own freshman sensation.

    Scott Limbaugh had made dozens of trips to Bowling Green, Ky., to watch Thomas play. As a youngster, he was easy to spot – the son of a club pro, he often wore khaki slacks – and popular among his peers, befriending many of the other juniors.

    “I always remember how much Justin respected the other guys’ games,” says Limbaugh, then an Alabama assistant. “He could do all the flashy stuff, driving it longer than you think he should and hitting 3-irons that landed like feathers. But he always admired Rodgers’ putting and Spieth’s wedges. With him, it was an I’ve-gotta-get-there type of thing.”

    Limbaugh and head coach Jay Seawell were at the team facility when Thomas made his decision between Alabama and Florida State. That single call altered the trajectory of the program.

    “We went absolutely crazy,” Limbaugh says, “because you just knew.”

    The decision paid almost immediate dividends.

    In a taut singles match at Riviera, and with the overall result hanging in the balance, Spieth holed an approach shot on the 15th hole to defeat Thomas and earn a critical point for the Longhorns, who captured their first national title in 40 years. He still needles Thomas about that shot, and that outcome, texting him a photo from the course each February.

    At least Thomas didn’t leave empty-handed – he edged Spieth for national Player of the Year honors, then claimed his own NCAA title a year later, the first of back-to-back championships for the Tide.

    As usual, Spieth and Thomas led the way, but the one-upmanship among classmates continued around the country.

    Rodgers matched Woods’ school record of 11 wins at Stanford.

    Schniederjans rose to No. 1 in the world while at Georgia Tech.

    Cheng-Tsung Pan set a Washington record with eight career victories.

    Michael Kim became the first Cal player to win the Haskins Award.

    Daniel Berger paced Florida State as a two-time All-American.

    And even though he turned pro after high school, Grillo won in his native Argentina, then again in the PGA Tour’s 2015 season opener in Napa.

    “The belief in who they were, that’s what stands out,” Fields says. “There are a lot of guys with talent, but their ability to dream and to get out of the way and allow those things to happen, that’s monumental.

    “And to have all of those guys in one class, well, that’s just the sun and the moon and the stars lining up.”



    IN THE PRO SHOP at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Ky., hangs a display rack that is filled with more than 130 golf balls, each marked with a tournament name and date.

    They’re from all of Thomas’ victories, both large and small, a collection that began while he was in elementary school. Every scenario was different – needing a late rally, going wire-to-wire, scraping it around without his best stuff – but the end result was the same.

    “It’s uncomfortable to win, but he became very comfortable and very experienced in that position,” says Thomas’ father, Mike. “Winning is winning, and he got that mindset started early.”

    That’s why Limbaugh wasn’t surprised by the text he received after he congratulated Thomas on winning the FedExCup.

    “Winners win,” Thomas replied.

    “That may sound arrogant,” Limbaugh says, “but that’s all they’ve known. Winners win, and these guys have won all their freakin’ lives.”

    Spieth just happened to win first on the big stage.

    Leaving Texas after three semesters, he began 2013 with no status on any major tour. He ended that year – what would have been his sophomore season in college – with a victory, a Tour Championship berth and a Presidents Cup uniform. His near-instant success had a seismic impact on his peers, leading to even more early defections and erasing any lingering doubts about whether they belonged.

    “They probably didn’t know it at the time,” Mike Thomas says, “but they were pushing each other. Jordan having success was the start of it. Guys were saying, ‘Hell, I’ve played with this guy since he was 12. I’ve beaten him before.’ That spurred everyone on to think they can do this, too. They said, ‘I guess I’m next.’”

    But those outsized expectations can also test a player’s patience and create competitive friction.

    No one was obscured by Spieth’s considerable shadow more than Thomas, whose good play, invariably, tied back to Spieth. Though their friendship elevated his profile among fans, Thomas has understandably grown weary of the overblown, best-buddies storyline.

    Indeed, even after a Player of the Year campaign, he still can’t escape the Spieth connection. Last month, after winning the CJ Cup in South Korea, Thomas was asked by a reporter if he would convince “his good friend” to play in next year’s event, implying that his presence alone wasn’t enough.

    “I don’t care what he does,” Thomas sniffed.

    The dynamic of their relationship changed forever at the PGA Championship. A week that had been dominated by Spieth's quest for the career Grand Slam ended with Thomas winning his first major. The message was clear, and afterward Mike Thomas couldn’t overstate its importance. “This is huge,” he said. “This lets Justin know he can do this.”

    And so it’s easy to see how Thomas’ banner year now will motivate the next wave of 2011ers – his sublime play acting like a vortex, pulling in more talent.

    “When there’s a confluence of really great players who have played a lot against each other and beaten each other and are not afraid of a challenge, it just drives better golf, for everyone,” McGraw says. “They push each other to different heights.”

    “The rest of the guys always saw what great was,” adds Limbaugh. “You get some guys in there like Jordan and Justin that set the bar. They’ll drag some along, but they’ll leave some of them behind, too.”

    Including the class’ No. 1-ranked player.


    L to R: Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas, Anthony Paolucci (winner), Gavin Hall, Franco Castro at the 2010 Thunderbird International. (AJGA)


    GROWING UP IN DALLAS, Anthony Paolucci was a ready-made rival for Spieth.

    When they were 10, Spieth played his first Legends Tour event, got waxed by Paolucci and wondered whether he should stick with baseball. Paolucci continued to impress over the next few years, reaching the final of the 2007 U.S. Junior, making the cut in the Tour event at Torrey Pines and dazzling prospective coaches with his crisp ball-striking.

    “They had a really nice rivalry going,” says Zambri, and for a while there was legitimate debate about who was the better prospect.

    But with his career starting to take off, Paolucci moved with his family from Dallas to San Diego before the start of his junior year of high school. Unlike Spieth and Thomas, who have kept the same instructors and equipment, Paolucci began working with Dave Phillips at the Titleist Performance Institute.

    “There was a disruption there, and it was at a critical moment,” says Texas coach John Fields, who recruited Paolucci. “The potential for change is so significant that it can upset that delicate balance within a player.”

    Signed by USC to be a difference-maker like Spieth and Thomas, Rodgers and Schniederjans, Paolucci won only one event and was a solid, but unspectacular, contributor before turning pro after his junior season.

    While the rest of his heralded classmates graduated to the PGA Tour, earning major victories and millions in endorsements, Paolucci, 25, has battled a shoulder injury and toiled for the past few summers on the mini-tours. This year, he banked $17,915 in Latin America and failed to advance past the second stage of Q-School.

    His career at a crossroads, Paolucci has moved back to Dallas. He still runs into his former junior rival on occasion, but how much the growing divide gnaws at him remains unclear. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

    “Jordan is kicking ass and taking names, and I would guess it probably wasn’t easy for Anthony,” Zambri says. “That probably added to some of the pressure being felt by not playing his best golf. As much as them being great as youngsters may have pushed him, it may have made things a little more difficult now.”

    Even without the highest-ranked player, this high school class is unlike any we’ve seen recently.

    Of the top 30 players in the 2011 rankings, 10 are currently on Tour. To put that figure in perspective: None of the previous four classes have more than six of the top 30 on Tour, even now, with more time to establish themselves in the big leagues.

    And that figure doesn’t even include Schauffele, the Tour’s reigning Rookie of the Year, who was ranked 45th, nor does it account for those who are apprenticing on the Web.com circuit, or the class members who have played in the Masters (Matias Dominguez) or represented the U.S. at the Walker Cup (Hunter Stewart) or topped the Mackenzie Tour Order of Merit (Kramer Hickok) or won on the European and Challenge tours (Paul Dunne, Lucas Bjerregaard and Thomas Detry).

    “Honestly, I don’t know why our class was so deep,” Spieth says. “Maybe it’s dumb luck. Or maybe we had top-heavy players where adjustments needed to be made because it was such a high level – a few guys jumped out early and made the others work hard and set the bar even higher.

    “I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but it’s amazing.”


    Thomas, Spieth at the 2007 Evian Masters Junior Cup


    GRACE NA IS “80 PERCENT” certain that she snapped the viral photo.

    By now, you’ve probably seen it – the candid shot from the 2007 Evian Masters Junior Cup in which Thomas sits on the grass with a hamburger stuffed in his mouth as Spieth looks on, unfazed.

    It’s adorable, sure, but the image endures because of what it represents – the beginning of a friendship, a rivalry and a revolution that has come to define American golf.

    Na and Erynne Lee have played hundreds of tournaments since then, and yet the memories of that particular trip, a decade later, remain as vivid as ever.

    They remember that Spieth was fiery, becoming so upset after missing a putt that he snatched his hat and smacked his knee, drawing blood. And they remember that Thomas was feisty, contending despite his slight physique. And they remember that Dockter, the AJGA rep, had to prepare the team uniforms, because the kids didn’t know how to use an iron.

    Even now, they’re asked in pro-ams whether they know the boys. They smile and then share stories about where it all began.

    “Erynne and I still talk about it,” Na says, “about how crazy it is to see where the guys are now, what they’ve become.”

    Not just multimillionaires and major champions, teammates and community leaders.

    They’ve become sources of inspiration – the headliners of a remarkable 2011 class that, somehow, keeps getting stronger.

    Class of 2011: The groups before The Group

    By Mercer BaggsNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

    We’ve been grouping things since the beginning, as in The Beginning, when God said this is heaven and this is earth, and you’re fish and you’re fowl.

    God probably wasn’t concerned with marketing strategies at the time and how #beastsoftheearth would look with a hashtag, but humans have evolved into such thinking (or not evolved, depending on your thinking).

    We now have all manner of items lumped into the cute, the catchy and the kitschy. Anything that will capture our attention before the next thing quickly wrests said attention away.

    Modern focus, in a group sense in the golf world, is on the Class of 2011. This isn’t an arbitrary assembly of players based on world ranking or current form. It’s not a Big Pick A Number.

    There’s an actual tie that binds as it takes a specific distinction to be part of the club. It’s a group of 20-somethings who graduated from high school in the aforementioned year, many who have a PGA Tour card, a handful of who have PGA Tour wins, and a couple of who have major titles.

    It’s a deep and talented collective, one for which our knowledge should continue to expand as resumes grow.

    Do any “classes” in golf history compare? Well, it’s not like we’ve long been lumping successful players together based on when they completed their primary education. But there are other notable groups of players, based primarily on birthdate, relative competition and accomplishment.

    Here’s a few on both the men’s and women’s side:

    BORN IN 1912

    Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
    Feb. 4, 1912 Byron Nelson 52 5
    May 27, 1912 Sam Snead 82 7
    Aug. 13, 1912 Ben Hogan 64 9

    Born six months within one another. Only a threesome, but a Hall of Fame trio that combined for 198 PGA Tour wins and 21 majors.


    BORN IN 1949

    Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
    Sept. 4, 1949 Tom Watson 39 8
    Dec. 5, 1949 Lanny Wadkins 21 1
    Dec. 9, 1949 Tom Kite 19 1

    Only 96 days separate these three Hall of Fame players. Extend the reach into March of 1950 and you'll get two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North.


    BORN IN 1955

    Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
    Jan. 30, 1955 Curtis Strange 17 2
    Jan. 30, 1955 Payne Stewart 11 3
    Feb. 10, 1955 Greg Norman 20 2

    Another trio of Hall of Fame players. Strange and Stewart were born on the same day with Norman 11 days later. Fellow PGA Tour winners born in 1955: Scott Simpson, Scott Hoch and Loren Roberts.


    WITHIN A CALENDAR YEAR, 1956-57

    Birthdate Player LPGA wins Major wins
    Feb. 22, 1956 Amy Alcott 29 5
    Oct. 14, 1956 Beth Daniel 33 1
    Oct. 27, 1956 Patty Sheehan 35 6
    Jan. 6, 1957 Nancy Lopez 48 3

    A little arbitrary here, but go with it. Four Hall of Famers on the women's side, all born within one year of each other. That's an average (!) career of 36 tour wins and nearly four majors.


    EUROPE'S BIG 5

    Birthdate Player Euro (PGA Tour) wins Major wins
    April 9, 1957 Seve Ballesteros 50 (9) 5
    July 18, 1957 Nick Faldo 30 (9) 6
    Aug. 27, 1957 Bernhard Langer 42 (3) 2
    Feb. 9, 1958 Sandy Lyle 18 (6) 2
    March 2, 1958 Ian Woosnam 29 (2) 1

    The best 'class' of players Europe has to offer. Five born within a year of one another. Five Hall of Fame members. Five who transformed and globalized European golf.


    WITHIN A CALENDAR YEAR, 1969-70

    Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
    Sept. 12, 1969 Angel Cabrera 3 2
    Oct. 17, 1969 Ernie Els 19 4
    May 12, 1970 Jim Furyk 17 1
    May 12, 1970 Mike Weir 8 1
    June 16, 1970 Phil Mickelson 42 5

    Not a tight-knit group, but a little more global bonding in accordance to the PGA Tour's increased international reach. Add in worldwide wins – in excess of 200 combined – and this group is even more impressive.


    BORN IN 1980

    Birthdate Player PGA Tour wins Major wins
    Jan. 9, 1980 Sergio Garcia 10 1
    July 16, 1980 Adam Scott 13 1
    July 30, 1980 Justin Rose 8 1

    Could be three future Hall of Fame members here.

    Editor's note: Golf Channel's editorial research unit contributed.