Young talent more ready than ever to win right away

By Rex HoggardNovember 17, 2015, 11:17 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – As Jay Seawell gazed down the picturesque range at Sea Island Resort on Tuesday, he could have easily mistaken the occasion for hundreds of similar meetings back home in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

In order, Justin Thomas, Trey Mullinax, Bobby Wyatt and Dru Love were warming up – just like they did in the old days when all four would get ready for one of the ubiquitous qualifying rounds at the University of Alabama.

“I’m sitting on the range today and there’s Bobby and Trey and Justin and Dru, and I’m thinking these guys qualified against each other every day,” said Seawell, Alabama’s head golf coach turned caddie this week at Sea Island Resort. “You do that every day, all the time, that’s how you get better.”

The only difference was that instead of playing for a spot in Alabama’s lineup, the foursome were preparing to play for a $1 million winner’s paycheck at the RSM Classic, and if recent history is any indication, it isn’t as farfetched as it may have once seemed.

Although trends come and go on the PGA Tour, a move to a younger demographic appears to be the new norm with victories already this season by Emiliano Grillo (23 years old), Smylie Kaufman (23 years old) and Thomas (22 years old).

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The common thread between those champions, other than their age relative to the rest of the Tour, is that just two years ago Kaufman and Thomas were playing for pride in college, and yet have made the transition to playing for purses as a professional appear easier than one would have thought.

Last year as a rookie on Tour, Thomas narrowly missed advancing to the Tour Championship and Kaufman cruised through his first year as a professional on the Tour and finished 10th in his first start as a Tour member at the Open last month.

There is no shortage of reasons behind the dramatically reduced learning curve for Tour newcomers.

“The way they set up the courses [at college events] it teaches us that you have to be a little more on your game,” Thomas said. “Before, 10, 15 years ago the courses weren’t set up as difficult as they are now, so we come out here it’s a little more comparable to what we play.”

There’s also something to be said for better practice facilities for players at most colleges that helps speed the developmental process, but the biggest difference between today’s freshly minted pro is the level of competition they’ve already faced.

“The competition in college is so good,” Thomas said. “There’s just no fear. Particularly now, guys are seeing players like Jordan [Spieth] and myself playing well who are close to their age and they are like, why can’t I do that?”

Seawell, who is serving as Mullinax’s caddie this week, said he began to see the transition when Rickie Fowler joined the Tour in 2010.

Players like Bud Cauley who had competed, and beaten, Fowler in college and at amateur events were drawn to the unavoidable conclusion that perhaps the next level wasn’t that far away.

“Rickie Fowler was probably the era were you started to see young guys after young guys start to play at a high level,” Seawell said. “When Rickie did it that’s when it seemed to get Bud [Cauley]. I know when Rickie turned pro and had some success what impact that had on Bud.”

Similarly, when Spieth joined the Tour in 2013 and won the John Deere Classic, Thomas couldn’t resist bolting Alabama early for his turn.

“It was totally Jordan,” Seawell laughed. “[Thomas] saw what Jordan did and it made him itch. Justin is thinking I can do that, I competed against him.”

Thomas has now become a part of that domino effect, inspiring players like Love, who was a freshman at Alabama when Thomas played his last year in Tuscaloosa, to aim higher.

Until 30-year-old Russell Knox won the WGC-HSBC Champions earlier this month, the previous four Tour events had been won by players 23 or younger, and there is no shortage of fellow 20somethings – like Patton Kizzire, who finished T-2 and T-4 in his first two starts as a rookie – looking to continue the trend.

“The young guys have one thing over the older guys, they have enthusiasm. That’s what the younger guys have to learn is to continue to have that enthusiasm,” Seawell said. “They come in with this great energy.”

Whatever the reasons, players now reach the Tour with a drastically increased ability to compete at the highest level that wasn’t there just a decade ago.

“I didn’t know what I was doing when I came out on Tour,” said Davis Love III, this week’s host at Sea Island Resort. “I watched [Sea Island director of fitness] Randy Myers a few weeks ago and he had two brothers, think they were 11 and 9, in the gym working out. They’ve already figured it out by the time they reach high school.”

If the current trend is any indication, by the time the modern college player reaches the Tour they are ready to make their own mark.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.