ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – It’s a rite of sports to tease rookies.
Even Tiger Woods when he first arrived on campus at Stanford in 1995 wasn’t immune, with teammates teasing him on days he’d wear glasses instead of contact lenses by calling him, “Urkel,” and making the freshman carry the bags to the team van.
But in recent years in professional golf the notion that first-year players are required to pay their dues before breaking through on the game’s biggest stage has largely become an archaic concept.
Consider the 54-hole dance card at this week’s RSM Classic. Mackenzie Hughes continued to roll on Day 3, making birdie on two of his first three holes to pull four strokes clear of the field before his first miscue of the week, a triple bogey-7 at No. 11, forced him to scramble late for a 16-under total and a one-stroke lead.
Just behind Hughes on the Sea Island scorecard are C.T. Pan (T-2) and Ollie Schniederjans (T-9). What this group has in common, other than an affinity for the idyllic views adjacent the Seaside Course and a thirst for victory, is that they are all rookies this season on the PGA Tour.
Hughes’ domination in just his fifth start would be headline-worthy if it hadn’t become such a common occurrence in the big leagues.
Hughes’ play this week was preceded by newcomer Cody Gribble’s victory last month at the Sanderson Farms Championship. The 26-year-old played his last eight holes in 5 under par to win by four strokes in just his second start as a Tour member.
But even that wasn’t a surprise, considering that at this point last season two rookies, Emiliano Grillo and Smylie Kaufman, had already joined the Tour’s champion’s club with victories at the Frys.com Open and Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, respectively.
Perhaps there’s still a measure of good-natured teasing, but the idea that a young player needs a few years of seasoning before they can be considered serious contenders has become a distant memory.
Part of this evolution is the level of competition rookies have already faced before they arrive on Tour.
“I don't think there's any gap [between the Tour and the Web.com circuit],” explained Wesley Bryan, this year’s Web.com Tour player of the year. “The best players on the Web.comTour, if you put their best game against the best in the world out here, I don't think you're going to get more than a shot or two difference. The shot or two’s going to come if one of the top-5 players in the world gets really hot.”
That gap is probably larger at other events, like majors and World Golf Championships, but at your normal, off-the-shelf Tour starts like this week at Sea Island Resort there is something to be said for golf being nothing more than the sum of its parts, regardless of the purse size or how many World Ranking points are up for grabs.
There are 25 rookies this year on Tour, the most since 2013, and those who pay attention to such things will tell you at least 10 of those first-timers have the game to win immediately.
Much of that ready-for-primetime ability is born from a college golf landscape that nurtures a more Tour-ready game, and the Web.com Tour has become a fine-tuned proving ground for future stars which leads to a confidence that isn’t dictated by the number of fans watching on Sunday or TV ratings.
“I won in Missouri [on the Web.com Tour] and I feel like the win there translates to being able to win out here,” Hughes said. “The margin is so small that the things I did on that weekend to win that tournament are the same things I'll have to do Saturday and Sunday to win this tournament.”
It’s an unabashed fearlessness that would have seemed out of place just a decade ago. Just ask Charles Howell III, who won the Tour’s Rookie of the Year Award (2001) when Hughes was still in grade school in Canada.
“I wish I would have had that kind of fearlessness,” Howell said. “I came out slow and wanting to learn. I picked a ton of veteran’s brains. I had the view my career was a marathon, not a sprint.”
There is no apprenticeship for the uninitiated on today’s Tour, just a genuine desire to do what they’ve always done – win.
“I want to win,” Bryan said flatly. “I want to tee it up in the Masters. I want to see what a major feels like and I want to see what a major feels like on Sunday in contention, so those are kind of my goals.”
Spoken like a true (modern) rookie.