Monday Scramble: Snedeker's toughness stands out

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 1, 2016, 11:00 pm

Brandt Snedeker waits and wins, Torrey Pines becomes a wind chamber, Jordan Spieth completes his fortnight abroad, Ryan Ruffels cashes in and more in this week's edition of the Monday Scramble:

Sure, Brandt Snedeker needed a lot of help to win the Farmers Insurance Open. 

He needed the cut line to hold at 1 under. He needed treacherous, final-round conditions to keep the leaders in check. He needed a remarkable round to give himself a chance. And then on Monday, when play resumed and the final group had eight holes remaining, he needed the wind to switch directions and limit the number of birdie opportunities coming home. 

“It kind of fell in line perfectly,” he said.

But that doesn’t make this title any less sweet. 

Snedeker isn’t often mentioned as one of the game’s elite players, perhaps because he’s not a basher off the tee, a preeminent ball-striker or a flashy 20-something. But one of his greatest (and most surprising) qualities is his toughness, which helps explain why half of his eight PGA Tour titles have come when he trailed by five or more shots heading into the final round.

This victory – after watching and waiting nearly 24 hours, after having everything fall in line – may have been his most impressive. 


1. Snedeker was giving an interview outside the scoring area Sunday when the horn sounded for the third and final time. He groaned.   

“I want them to be out there going through the misery that I had to go through,” he said. 

At the time, Snedeker’s point was well-taken. Tour officials would only send out players when the conditions were more favorable, which, in theory, would give them a better opportunity to post a score lower than Snedeker’s 6-under 282.

Turns out it was Sneds who got the lucky break. 

On Monday, the wind wasn’t as fierce but it came out of a different, more difficult direction. The last eight holes played predominantly into the wind; three times K.J. Choi hit driver-3 wood into a par 4 and came up short. On Sunday afternoon, that same stretch played downwind or from the left, allowing Snedeker to hit five drives of 300-plus yards. 

In the end, that was the difference between him winning and coming up just short.  

2. The ultimate measure of a great round is how it compares to the field average that day. 

It's worth noting that Snedeker's closing 69 at Torrey Pines was 9.119 strokes better than field average when play was called for the day Sunday. He described it as "playing a British Open on a U.S. Open setup." 

When all 71 players had finished, his round was nearly nine shots better than the field average (77.903).

Viewed another way: 

  • There were two rounds of par or better
  • There were 23 (!) rounds of 80 or worse

"I couldn't do it again," Snedeker said afterward. "I don't know how I did it."



3. For the sake of comparison, these were the top five rounds of 2015 in terms of best score versus the field, according to stats guru Mark Broadie: 

  1. J.B. Holmes, 62 in Round 1 at Doral (11.4 strokes better than the field)
  2. Rory McIlroy, 61 in Round 3 at Quail Hollow (10.2)
  3. Hiroshi Iwata, 63 in Round 2 at Whistling Straits (9.9)
  4. Charley Hoffman, 67 in Round 1 at TPC San Antonio (9.7)
  5. Jordan Spieth, 63 in Round 1 at Augusta National (9.4)

4. Just how nasty was it for players? The final-round scoring average (5.9 strokes over par) was the second-most difficult non-major round on Tour in the past 25 years. 

The only round tougher: The third round of the 1999 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which averaged 7.38 strokes over par. 

Tweeted Shane Lowry, who grew up with plenty of wicked weather playing amateur golf in Ireland:



5. The mission, under normal circumstances, was straightforward: Play the last eight holes in even par to win. 

Except Jimmy Walker soon realized it wouldn’t be quite that simple. 

His first tee shot Monday hooked way left, leading to a bogey, and he dropped three more shots coming home while playing into a penal wind. 

“We got out there and all of a sudden the wind started blowing again,” Walker said. “It would have been nice to play the last couple of holes downwind.” 

6. There is no way to sugarcoat this: The final round at Torrey Pines was an unmitigated disaster for Scott Brown.

Tied for the 54-hole lead with K.J. Choi, Brown shot a career-worst, 15-over 87 and plummeted to a T-49 finish. It’s the highest final-round score by a leader in the last 10 years (by five shots!). 

Brown made 11 bogeys and two doubles. Before his par on the last, he had dropped at least one shot on 11 consecutive holes. 



7. What to make of Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson’s early exit at Torrey Pines? Each case should be examined differently. 

JASON DAY

Level of concern: Extremely low 

Day’s caddie Colin Swatton said Day had great practice sessions in Palm Springs as he geared up for his title defense. Then he and his family caught the flu. He made two trips to the hospital on Tuesday and picked up a club for the first time in five days an hour before his Thursday tee time. His only worry now: a lack of competitive reps heading into Augusta.

RICKIE FOWLER

Level of concern: Extremely low 

Because of his sponsorship deal with Farmers, Fowler flew 17 hours across 12 time zones after an impressive victory in Abu Dhabi. Once play started, he was far from the only player who struggled on the bumpy seaside poa annua greens. He’ll be just fine.

JUSTIN ROSE

Level of concern: Low

Torrey was his first tournament in two months, and he wasn't particularly sharp from tee to green. Then again, he doesn't have a top-20 finish at Torrey in seven tries. Why doesn't he begin his year elsewhere? 

PHIL MICKELSON

Level of concern: Medium-Low 

His Friday 76 on the North Course came out of nowhere; in 26 prior rounds, he averaged 68.77 and had only one over-par score (73). It continued the strained relationship between Lefty and his hometown event, which he has won three times but not in the past 15 years. The South Course was renovated in 2003 by Rees Jones, who wanted to beef up the course in advance of the U.S. Open; Phil has seriously contended there only once since. Throw in his failed bid to redo the North Course – he was a victim of head-scratching politics – and you get the sense that all of those warm, fuzzy feelings are gone. This week’s Phoenix Open – another event in which Mickelson has enjoyed success – should serve as a more accurate barometer of his uneven game.



8. Jordan Spieth’s first visit to Singapore turned out to be much more extensive than a simple brand-building trip. 

His agent doubled as his caddie. Multiple weather delays led to early mornings and long days. And finally, on Sunday, while lining up a make-or-break 5-footer on the last, the horn blew for the final time. Spieth couldn’t hide his disgust as he walked off the green, knowing that it meant another night in Singapore – and one less night at home, before he continues his busy early-season schedule at Pebble Beach and Riviera. 

Despite earning some extra cash for the trip to Singapore – and it was reported that he received a $1.3 million appearance fee – Spieth admitted that his world tour came at a cost.

"What I've learned," he said, "is that I won't bounce back and forth from the States over here as often as I did. It's just tough." 

At 22, he's already ahead of the learning curve. As usual. 

9. Perhaps, in retrospect, Dustin Johnson’s curious trend of weekend retreats started at the U.S. Open, where he handed the title to Spieth with a three-putt from 12 feet on the 72nd hole.

Is there scar tissue?

  • Because in his next start, at the Open Championship, where he held the halfway lead, he closed with back-to-back rounds of 75.
  • Because in his next start, at the WGC-Bridgestone, where he was tied for second heading into the weekend, he went 75-76 and disappeared.
  • Because at the end of the year, at the World Challenge, where he was four shots behind, he played the weekend in only 1 under and got lapped.
  • And because it happened again last week, at Torrey Pines, where he trailed by one, and then blew up with rounds of 74-80.

DJ’s reputation as a closer is getting even shakier after these bizarre backtracks.  

10. Jim Furyk has finally relented and undergone surgery on his ailing left wrist. It’s an issue that has bothered him since September, though he was optimistic that his wrist would heal without going under the knife. Not so, apparently.

The three-month timetable for a recovery puts Furyk’s appearance at the Masters in jeopardy – he hasn’t missed the year’s first major since 2004 – as well as his title defense at the RBC Heritage, his only victory in the past six years.

Alas, it’s already shaping up as a possible lost year for the soon-to-be 46-year-old. 



11. Branden Grace offered yet another reminder last week that a major breakthrough could be imminent.

Grace, who had top-20s at the final three majors last year, including a tie for fourth at the U.S. Open after sharing the lead on the 70th hole, earned his seventh career European Tour title in Qatar. Only Rory McIlroy, with 12, has more Euro Tour titles under the age of 30. 

The biggest improvement in Grace’s game is his consistency. He missed only two cuts all last year and now has run off six consecutive top-10s worldwide. If he keeps this up, he won’t even be considered a sleeper for the majors. 

12. So it seems Stacy Lewis’ new year is off to a familiar start – with a close call.

Winless in the past 18 months, the top-ranked American in the world tied for second in the Bahamas to record her NINTH runner-up finish since her last victory.

As much as Lewis might try to put a positive spin on another near miss – “I just feel things are in a better place” – it’s a maddening stretch of golf for one of the game's fieriest competitors. 

13. Paula Creamer revealed last week that she has shaken up her team for the first time in more than a decade, hiring Gary Gilchrist to look after her swing. It’s a major change but also a much-needed one, her game having gone stale after winning just once since her breakthrough U.S. Open title in 2010. It remains to be seen whether she still has the talent and drive to keep pace with the world’s best, but at least Creamer is willing to take a risk in hopes that it rejuvenates her game. Her season began with a T-5 in the Bahamas, so maybe her arrow is pointing up again.


Last week, Phil Mickelson was asked an innocent question about Ryan Ruffels, the 17-year-old Australian phenom who was making his pro debut at Torrey Pines.

“You’ve been such an inspiration for younger players,” the reporter started. “Talk about Ryan Ruffels and your relationship with him.”

That’s it. It was a softball question.

Mickelson could have taken the high road. He could have discussed how much talent the kid has. He could have said how excited he was to see his career progression. Instead, he lashed out, because of an article that appeared recently in an Australian newspaper, a cute story in which Ruffels said that he received 2-to-1 odds against Lefty, birdied six of the last seven holes and won $5,000.

That Lefty chastised the young player for embellishing details of the bet – “high school stuff” – was likely less about the wager itself and more because it unintentionally suggested that Phil’s brother, Tim, the head coach at Arizona State, might have committed an NCAA violation. 

Both sides were at fault here, the veteran and rookie:

Mickelson should have handled the situation differently, approaching Ruffels in the locker room to discuss the story instead of publicly shaming the kid and becoming a top headline.

And Ruffels shouldn’t have disclosed the amount to a reporter – that's one of golf’s unwritten rules, though, to be fair, it's also a rule with which he likely was unfamiliar because Ruffels is, well, of high school age.

It's safe to say the kid won't make that mistake again. And by the way, he earned more than $20,000 in his pro debut.

This week's award winners ... 


This Week in PGA Tour Politics: Thomas Pieters' hair. Camp Ponte Vedra's "vender" overcropped the 24-year-old Belgian's moptop, which was apparently too unruly for Tour standards. The Tour did offer a funny kicker, though: "We think he has a great head of hair." 

Not Just a Trick-Shot Artist: Wesley Bryan. Yes, he can hit drives, chips and putts toward normal targets, too. He tied for seventh in the Web.com Tour’s season opener. 

Albatross Alert: Jason Gore and Ha Na Jang. Gore’s came on the par-5 18th hole at Torrey Pines, while Jang’s was even more impressive – holing her 3-wood tee shot on the 218-yard eighth hole at the Ocean Club on Paradise Island, the first 1 on a par 4 in LPGA history. Great reaction, too: 



Sent to the DL: Michael Greller. Jordan Spieth's caddie tweaked his ankle while dropping into a bunker at Tiger's tournament in December and reaggravated the injury on the hilly terrain at Kapalua. He was diagnosed with a second-degree ankle sprain, according to Golf Channel insider Tim Rosaforte, and hopes to return for the Pebble-Riviera double dip. Spieth's agent, Jay Danzi, filled in for Greller in Singapore.

Fun with Rankings: Jason Day/Rory McIlroy, Patrick Reed/Branden Grace. No. 2 Day missed the cut at Torrey Pines and fell behind McIlroy, who was idle. Reed withdrew after the third round and moved to No. 9, while Grace won for the seventh time in his European Tour career and remained at No. 11. 

It's Good to Be No. 1: Lydia Ko. The 17-year-old posted last week that Lexus sent her a RC F Sports Coupe, a car valued at $75,000. It's her first vehicle. Mine was a 2002 Nissan 200SX with 75,000 miles that literally imploded three years later. 

Rotten Luck: Ollie Schniederjans' final round. The former No. 1-ranked amateur was inside the top 30 and on pace to pick up some much-needed FedEx Cup points with only two more sponsor exemptions remaining this season. Instead, he played in the worst of the conditions, shot 81 and crashed to T-49. 



Random Thought of the Week: Why did fans even bother to show up Sunday at Torrey? The forecast called for cold temperatures, howling winds and blinding rain, and, yep, that's exactly what happened, along with significant tree damage.

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Bill Haas. He had missed only one cut in 11 tries at Torrey Pines, and that was 10 years ago. He had top-20s five of the past seven years, and he was coming off a T-9 in Palm Springs. Sigh. 

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: For some, the struggle is real

By Will GrayNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

They all have stories.

Tales about the time that they went toe to toe with a future major champ, or maybe even clipped him by a shot. Memories of walking the range just a few short years ago and viewing some of golf’s brightest stars simply as peers.

The Class of 2011 continues to expand its collective footprint on the national stage, but it extends beyond names like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. In almost every field at every level of professional golf, there are players from that prodigious class, each still straddling the divide between memories of the past and dreams for the future.

Once junior competitors, they are now young men entrenched in their mid-20s. And while some of their former classmates have already piled up long lists of achievements, dozens more are still fighting for status on the various echelons of golf’s meritocracy.

Their common goal remains a simple one: join former classmates on the big stage as soon as possible.


Michael Johnson at the 2016 Barbasol Championship (Getty Images)


Michael Johnson gets asked about it a couple times per year.

When The Players Championship rolls around in mid-May, his phone lights up with calls or texts about the time that he topped an elite field on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

It was the 2010 AJGA Junior Players Championship, and its leaderboard could pass for a current-day PGA Tour event. Spieth was a runner-up alongside Emiliano Grillo, while Patrick Rodgers was seventh. Daniel Berger and Ollie Schniederjans tied for eighth.

But the man with the trophy was Johnson, who also ended up sixth in the final AJGA/Polo recruiting rankings for the Class of 2011 – ahead of the likes of Grillo, Berger and Schniederjans.

“Obviously that Junior Players is something I look back on, and it puts a smile on my face,” Johnson said.

He went on to have a successful career at Auburn, including first-team All-American honors his senior year. A hip injury led to a redshirt season and dropped him a year behind his classmates, but he graduated in the summer of 2016 and quickly turned pro.

Johnson’s PGA Tour debut revealed just how thin the margin can be between the fast track to stardom and a more arduous battle. Playing on a sponsor invite at the Barbasol Championship, he finished third.

Officials told him that based on the non-member FedExCup points he earned, Johnson could expect a spot in the Web.com Tour Finals that fall and a chance to play for a PGA Tour card. At worst, he’d lock up Web.com status for 2017.

But the numbers didn’t pan out as expected, and even after Monday qualifying for the season-ending Wyndham Championship, Johnson knew he had work to do. But he missed the cut by a shot.

With the top 200 in points qualifying for the Finals, Johnson finished 201st.

“It was pretty tough, honestly,” he said. “I was on such a high that whole summer and came crashing down pretty quickly.”

Instead of a shot at the PGA Tour, Johnson tumbled all the way down to the ground floor: the first stage of Web.com Tour Q-School.

“It was kind of funny,” he said. “I’d be on the range and my friends would be like, ‘Why are you here?’ I’d be like, ‘Well, I’ve got to go through Q-School, just the same as you.’”

Johnson played his way up, one level at a time, before ultimately earning his Web.com card for 2017 and retaining it for the upcoming season. This fall he watched on TV as several of the players he beat that memorable week at TPC Sawgrass competed at the Presidents Cup.

Johnson still awaits his next opportunity, and the confidence that he’ll soon join former classmates on a full-time basis hasn’t wavered.

“I would say that people, they don’t know how hard it is,” Johnson said. “People are just confused, thinking golf is just a recreational sport and you’re out there having fun. But it’s just like any other sport in that it’s so hard to get into the big leagues.”


Morgan Hoffmann, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Byron Meth at the 2015 Masters (Getty Images)


For Byron Meth, the questions always trace back to the 2015 Masters.

That’s when the winner of the final U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship made his Augusta National debut. As he soaked in the azaleas, Meth asked to join Morgan Hoffmann for a Tuesday practice round. Hoffmann told him simply to turn up to the 10th tee to see who they were facing.

Their opponents for the day turned out to be Spieth and Brooks Koepka.

“It was a little reminiscent of our AJGA days, but more so our college practice rounds,” Meth recalled. “We were just hitting shots and telling stories. Just kind of hung out and embraced the day.”

Five days later, Meth watched the kid from Texas he had known for years slip into a green jacket. Inevitably, reporters wanted to know what sort of spark he had seen from Spieth in their practice round together.

“Jordan didn’t look any different that day than he did when we were kids,” Meth explained. “But the confidence was definitely way higher because of his success.”

Growing up in Southern California, Meth’s duels with reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele date back to their high school days. Meth was 26th in the final recruiting rankings, one spot ahead of current PGA Tour player C.T. Pan, and it was qualifying for the Masters that convinced Meth that his game was strong enough to compete on an elite level.

That belief was quickly reinforced in his first event as a pro, a pre-qualifier for the 2016 Sony Open. He advanced, then went on to Monday qualify for the main event.

It was success beyond anything that he could have anticipated, but it’s a result that now elicits a sigh.

“It kind of sounds strange, but Monday-ing into the Sony might have been one of the worst things that happened to me in 2016,” he said. “I made the mistake of having expectations. I thought it was going to happen like that all the time.”

As many other pros can attest, easy success is either fleeting or entirely non-existent. Meth quickly learned that lesson, and like Johnson became the victim of razor-thin margins. He missed the cut in the first stage of Web.com Q-School by a shot last year, and fell short by the same number this year. In between, he spent his months toiling on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada and now faces a similarly uncertain future in the spring.

The rigors of Q-School do not show favor to former major participants, nor do they offer midseason reprieves for those who fail to advance. Meth is back to the drawing board, fully aware of the uphill battle that awaits.

But he remains imbued with confidence from his week at Augusta National, a brief stint alongside the game’s best where he had a front-row seat for the pinnacle of Spieth’s career.

“I asked him that day, ‘It doesn’t look like you’re doing anything different physically than you did when we were kids,’” Meth said. “He goes, ‘I just had an opportunity to play, and I took advantage of it.’”


Joseph Winslow competing on the 2017 Latinoamerica Tour (Getty Images)


As one of the top junior golfers in the Kansas City area, Joseph Winslow had a keen eye for other Midwest names on the leaderboard. One, in particular, continued to stand out.

“I would look at the standings and saw this kid from Avon, Indiana,” Winslow said. “And I was just wondering like, ‘What’s his deal? Why is he winning, what’s he doing?’”

That kid turned out to be Rodgers, who went on to a decorated career at Stanford and has won more than $4 million on Tour. As the No. 18 recruit in the Class of 2011, according to AJGA/Polo rankings, Winslow saw plenty of Rodgers growing up. But he also ventured south to challenge elite fields that featured Spieth, Thomas and Grillo.

“I think if you look at the invitationals from late 2010 into 2011, those were probably some of the strongest fields ever in AJGA, junior golf history, when you look at current players today,” Winslow said.

He committed to Iowa, and as freshman tied for 13th alongside Rodgers at the 2012 NCAAs. Days later, Spieth edged Thomas in a memorable match at Riviera while helping Texas win a team national title.

The chilly winter weather led him to transfer to the University of South Florida, and Winslow’s first move after turning pro was to qualify for the Asian Tour. But the status he earned didn’t make the extensive travel worthwhile, so he opted to spend his first summer scratching out checks closer to home on the Adams Pro Tour.

“It was a little bit of culture shock starting out, turning up to golf courses and seeing greens with weeds on them,” he said. “Just stuff that you’ve never experienced before, and that’s part of the life.”

This year Winslow gained a foothold with status on PGA Tour LatinoAmerica, and he’s been giving his passport a workout ever since. A pro for less than three years, he estimates that he’s already teed it up in 21 different countries in search of a path that will earn him another tee time next to Rodgers.

“My goal is to be out there on the PGA Tour, playing with the guys I’ve been playing with my whole life,” he said. “We’re just working our way back up, putting in the time that you have to, and take advantage of your opportunities when you get them.”


Stephen Behr at the 2017 Amateur Championship. (courtesy: Stephen Behr)


Stephen Behr knew that the sound was just different.

It was at the 2010 AJGA Polo Golf Classic that Behr, No. 11 in the Class of 2011, looked around him on the driving range and found all the usual suspects: Spieth, Thomas, Grillo, Schniederjans.

“Berger wasn’t even that good back then,” Behr recalled. “And now he’s a stud.”

Going through his own warm-up routine, Behr took in the sights. But he listened even more intently, focusing on the sounds of future major champions making crisp contact each and every time. Whoosh. Whoosh.

And it was the sound that gave him pause, even at age 17.

“It was just like, it almost made you feel bad about your game,” he said. “You’d watch them hit it and it was like, I’ve got training wheels on and they’re in Ferraris.”

That realization is a big reason why Behr, an accomplished player who earned All-American honors during his senior year at Clemson, now works as a risk consultant with Ernst & Young. His battles with the stars from his graduating class are now entirely in the rear-view mirror, a wistful recollection of time spent in the arena.

“I don’t think I ever beat Spieth,” he said. “I think my record against him is like 0-52. I never beat him because his off weeks, I feel like he still finished third.”

While Behr didn’t turn pro after graduation, his clubs aren’t exactly collecting dust. His amateur ranking based on his final days at Clemson was good enough to gain entry into the British Amateur this summer, and these days the self-described “weekend warrior” carries a plus-3.2 handicap.

“I can still get it around, man,” Behr said. “I’m just not quite as sharp as I used to be.”

Behr excelled both in the classroom and on the course at Clemson. Afforded the option of a promising gig in finance with ample on-course networking opportunities, he happily headed for corporate America while some of his former peers were busy racking up trophies.

“A lot of people, when I tell them that I played with those guys, they think that maybe I just played like in one tournament against them,” he said. “But like, no. I actually played in the same group with them, and competed with them.”

Behr explained that while his time against such top-tier talent created great memories, it also affected his career choice. Perhaps, he admitted, he might have tried the pro golf circuit had he been a member of the Class of 2010 or 2012.

Instead, he was constantly flanked on the range by Ferraris.

Behr still plans to remain active in amateur golf, and next year will take his first crack at the U.S. Mid-Amateur. A win there would earn him a spot in two majors, and perhaps a chance to improve his record against Spieth.

Until then, he’s able to reflect fondly from an office chair on memorable days gone by.

“I’m glad I got into those AJGAs and got to compete against them, and see first-hand how impressive they were,” he said. “I think this 2011 class, I’ll look back when I’m a granddad and be telling my grandkids about some of these guys that I got to play with.”

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.