An Eventful Year on PGA Tour

By Sports NetworkDecember 22, 2003, 5:00 pm
PGA Tour (75x100)For a year that had all the billings for increasing social arguments and never ending debates over men and women and the sport, 2003 boiled down to a relentless barrage of brilliant golf and one of the most exciting campaigns in recent memory.
 
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
 
We all knew who it was going to be, although one could easily justify giving the award to Tiger Woods or Vijay Singh. In the end Woods walked off as the player of the year for the fifth straight season, but without a major, Woods made his case by simply winning tournaments.
 
The year started out from a different vantage point for Woods: rehab. Woods underwent knee surgery at the end of the 2002 season that would seemingly keep him out of action throughout the early months of 2003. Woods made a relatively quick recovery, however, and chose Torrey Pines as the site of his first tournament of the year.
 
Woods put all questions about his health aside and cruised to a four-shot victory at the Buick Invitational. Two weeks later, Woods ousted David Toms, 2 & 1, in the 36-hole final of the WGC-Match Play Championship to complete a career sweep of the World Golf Championships events.
 
At the Bay Hill Invitational, Woods was more than human and battled through a stomach ailment and heavy rain to post an 11-shot victory and capture the event for the fourth consecutive season.
 
Woods had won three of his first four events and tied for 11th at the Players Championship heading into the season's first major.
 
While Augusta was crawling with protestors, a few Elvis impersonators and a guy who had been booted from the KKK, the networks prepared to air The Masters commercial free, upstaging Martha Burk's plan of getting the sponsors involved in the debate over female membership at Augusta National.
 
Woods wasn't a factor at the tournament and finished tied for 15th. His play wasn't any better at the U.S. Open, where he finished tied for 20th.
 
While Woods had already racked up three victories, the first half the 2003 season was nothing like the year before. Woods had already completed the first half of the single season grand slam but now he was being upstaged by the likes of Mike Weir and Jim Furyk at the tournaments Woods lived for.
 
Woods quieted those who made it a point to publicly criticize his clubs with a victory at the 100th Western Open before heading to Royal St. George's where he was in contention at the season's third major.
 
Woods tied for fourth at the British Open, his best showing in a major in 2003, and traveled to Oak Hill for the PGA Championship where he posted his worst finish of the season, a tie for 39th.
 
So what was wrong with Woods? For one, his driver, or lack of it. But really, Woods wasn't having a bad year. But after you do what Woods had done throughout his career, no major victories leads to talks of a slump.
 
Woods got back to business at another WGC event and walked away with a victory at the American Express Championship.
 
And what about Singh?
 
Singh was crucified early in the season for speaking out against Annika Sorenstam's appearance at the Colonial. However, the Fijian, who isn't exactly a media darling, was on his way to the best season of his career.
 
He picked up his first victory of the year at the Phoenix Open and added another one at the Byron Nelson, after which he promptly pulled out of the Colonial.
 
Singh was determined and played tournament after tournament, raking in the cash. He finished strong with victories at the John Deere Classic and FUNAI Classic at The Walt Disney World Resort.
 
Singh unseated Woods and took home the money title, so the debate was open for player of the year. Woods, who did not win a major or the money title, and Singh, who played in significantly more events, were the unanimous finalists.
 
Woods took the award because in addition to his five victories, he finished first in stroke average, again.
 
What to expect in 2004, hasn't 'more of the same' with regards to Woods been uttered before?
 
THE MAJORS
 
Since Woods didn't win one, here's a little bit on the four guys who did.
 
Mike Weir won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic early on in what would be an incredible season for the Canadian.
 
He knocked off Charles Howell III in a playoff to take home the Nissan Open and carried that momentum into the Masters.
 
Weir was as solid as they come and with ice pumping through his veins he stood on the 18th green at Augusta National with a single putt remaining to force a playoff with Len Mattiace.
 
Weir drained the putt and became only the second left-hander to win a major as Mattiace bogeyed the first playoff hole.
 
A lefty winning a major. Now that Weir has done it, who knows if Phil Mickelson ever will.
 
The model of consistency in 2003 was Jim Furyk. The man with the awkward swing ran off nine top-10 finishes through his first 14 events before heading to Olympia Fields.
 
Furyk was stellar throughout the week at the U.S. Open and walked away with his first major title on Father's Day.
 
Picking Weir and Furyk as major winners wasn't a stretch. If not this year you would think that the two would break through eventually, but there was no way to predict what happened at the following two majors.
 
An unknown from Ohio named Ben Curtis traveled to Royal St. George's to make only his 16th career start on the PGA Tour.
 
Curtis, who was ranked 396th in the world before that fateful week, made sure he was near the top of the leaderboard as the days went on while bigger names faltered on the difficult English layout.
 
Thomas Bjorn opened the door for Curtis with his remarkable collapse on the 16th on Sunday and Curtis converted the winning putt before the tournament was even over.
 
As he prepared himself for a possible playoff, Curtis was notified that he had in fact won the British Open, becoming one of the most improbable winners in the history of the majors.
 
The closing holes of the PGA Championship were outstanding with Shaun Micheel and Chad Campbell battling it out down the stretch.
 
Micheel held a one-shot lead with one to play as his drive at the 18th found the unforgiving rough at Oak Hill that had brought players to their knees, but the ball kicked out and nestled securely in the first cut.
 
The shot of the year followed as Micheel played the seven-iron of his life and watched as the ball stopped within inches of the cup to solidify the win.
 
STORY OF THE YEAR
 
As the speculation increased last year on whether or not the top player in women's golf would play a PGA Tour event if she were invited, Annika Sorenstam revealed more and more that she would play.
 
It didn't take long for the invitations to start lining up and Sorenstam chose the Colonial as the tournament where she would become the first woman in 58 years to compete with the men of the PGA Tour.
 
The frenzy picked up steam as the weeks approached and everyone was asked their opinion on the matter. Some spoke favorably of Sorenstam's desire, some didn't speak at all, and perhaps others wish they hadn't.
 
Vijay Singh was the most vocal and others like Nick Price joined him in opposing Sorenstam's participation in the Colonial.
 
No matter what was said, Sorenstam was playing with the men.
 
Would she make the cut?
 
Not many thought she would, but she had people wondering after a remarkable opening round of one-over-par 71. Although she missed the cut after a second- round 74, Sorenstam had showed that whether or not she played the weekend wasn't really that important.
 
How would she deal with the pressure?
 
Pressure is nothing new to Sorenstam and she dealt with it brilliantly at the Colonial. She played to the crowd and had the thousands that were there in attendance pulling for her every swing.
 
She later broke down in a press conference and the emotions poured out as she stated that she had accomplished a dream.
 
Sorenstam was only the first of many women who would test their game against the men in 2003.
 
Suzy Whaley earned a spot in the Greater Hartford Open through a regional qualifier and quickly became a fan favorite.
 
Michelle Wie, the young phenom who recently turned 14, teed it up on both the Nationwide Tour and the Canadian Tour.
 
Se Ri Pak made the cut at a men's event, the Korean Tour's SBS Super Tournament. Jan Stephenson played alongside the men on the Champions Tour and Laura Davies also tried her luck against the men at the Korean Open.
 
Sorenstam started the trend and it will likely continue in 2004 as the presence of these women in men's tournaments will continue to attract fans, and increased media coverage, to the events that are more than happy to invite them.
 
THE PRESIDENTS CUP
 
Who says Woods doesn't really care about these international team competitions? One only has to go as far back as the ridiculous playoff between him and Els at this year's Presidents Cup to see that the fist-pumping is always there.
 
The Internationals took an early lead at The Links Course at Fancourt Hotel & Country Club Estates in South Africa but the Americans battled back to square the match after Friday morning's fourballs.
 
In the afternoon, the U.S. took control of the championship and led 9 1/2 - 6 1/2 heading into the weekend.
 
The Internationals weren't ready to roll over, however, pulled off an unprecedented sweep of the Americans on Saturday to regain the lead.
 
With everything coming down to Sunday's singles, U.S. captain Jack Nicklaus left two of his bug guns, Woods and Love, in the final two matches and who would have known that they actually made a difference?
 
Several dramatic matches ensued like Kenny Perry's 1-up victory over Nick Price and the Americans began to claw back.
 
In the final match, Love held a 1-up lead over Robert Allenby with one to play but the American struggled on the closing hole. Allenby won the 18th to square the matches at 17 and, with daylight fading, it was off to the envelopes.
 
It was no secret when Woods and Els were revealed as the captain's pre- tournament choices for a playoff and finally the two, who were pitted early in the season to duel it out throughout the year, got a chance with the sun setting in Els' backyard.
 
The matches came down to the third playoff hole, the par-three second, where both players were left with incredibly long birdie attempts.
 
Woods had outwards of 100 feet to the hole and rolled his putt 15 feet past the cup. Els left his putt inside Woods' at seven feet.
 
Woods drained his putt but Els was able to match him and halve the hole. It was then determined that there was not enough light to continue that Sunday, and the vast majority was clear that they did not want to come back the following day to finish off what had been an intense week of international team match play competition.
 
Nicklaus quickly threw out the fact that since the U.S. had won the event in 2000 that the Americans would retain the cup, but that didn't really fly with International team captain Gary Player.
 
It was ultimately decided that the matches would end in a tie.
 
PLENTY OF LIFE AFTER 40
 
Kenny Perry was off-the-hook great in 2003. The Kentucky native led a group of 40 somethings who had a resurgence on the PGA Tour this year.
 
After the hype died down over Annika at the Colonial, Perry appropriately captured the spotlight and never let it hit the ground.
 
He dazzled the crowds with a remarkable round of 61 on Saturday and closed out the win with a 68 in the final round. The next week at The Memorial, Perry was at it again.
 
Perry carried his momentum from the previous week in Jack's tournament and opened with rounds of 65-68 en route to his second consecutive victory of the season.
 
Perry then tied for third at the U.S. Open and took home the Greater Milwaukee Open title shortly after that for his third victory in four starts.
 
That remarkable summer was enough to lift Perry past the $4 million mark and up to sixth on the 2003 PGA Tour money list.
 
Fred Couples returned to the winner's circle for the first time since 1998 with an emotional victory at the Houston Open.
 
The University of Houston grad missed only one cut in 2003, and the victory at the Houston Open brought back signs of the Freddy of old.
 
Peter Jacobsen, who was chosen as the PGA Tour's comeback player of the year in 2003, also returned to the realm of the winning this season.
 
Jacobsen, who will turn 50 in March, rekindled some magic at the Greater Hartford Open and captured the title for his first PGA Tour victory since 1995.
 
Although Jay Haas didn't win in 2003, he was the most consistent of the 40 somethings. Apologies to Mr. Haas, who has since turned 50.
 
Will Haas make time for both the PGA Tour and the Champions Tour next year?
 
Craig Stadler did, and he won on both in 2003.
 
GOOD YEARS
 
Davis Love III had one of his best years to date in 2003. The former PGA Champion got rolling in his second event of the season and birdied the final hole of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am to win the event for the second time in his career.
 
Love had another stellar Sunday in store at The Players Championship and fired an eight-under 64 to come from behind and win the prestigious event by a six- shot margin.
 
Love was among the favorites heading to Augusta but managed only a tie for 15th at The Masters.
 
He got back to his winning ways the very next week with a playoff victory over Woody Austin to capture The Heritage for a fifth time.
 
Love then went wire-to-wire in the modified Stableford format to cruise to his fourth victory of the season at The International.
 
He finished third at the WGC-NEC Invitational for another sizeable check and found himself in the race for the money title as the season began to wind down.
 
Love, who was also in the running for player of the year, missed the cut at the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro but ran off a string of top-10 finishes over his last three events to finish third on the money list behind only Singh and Woods.
 
Chad Campbell will be remembered for his thrilling loss to Shaun Micheel at the PGA Championship this season, but that really isn't a bad thing.
 
Campbell transformed into a legitimate contender in 2003 and redeemed himself at the season's final event.
 
Campbell qualified for the Tour Championship ahead of the likes of Phil Mickelson (who will be mentioned later) and captured the event to become the first player to make the Tour Championship his maiden PGA Tour victory.
 
BAD YEARS
 
Every new year carries with it the possibility of Phil Mickelson finally winning a major championship, and 2003 was no different, but this year Lefty truly disappointed.
 
It started well for Mickelson with four top-10 finishes in his first five events and a remarkable birdie outside of 80 feet on the second hole of the final day at The Masters. He finished third at Augusta and that would be the highlight of Mickelson's season.
 
His next top-10 came four months later at The International and he added a tie for ninth at the Las Vegas Invitational for his last top-10 of the season.
 
Mickelson finished 38th on the money list and failed to qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time since 1992.
 
It is somewhat unfair to put David Duval in this category because there is something seriously wrong with the guy.
 
The 2001 British Open champion missed cut after cut but showed some signs of a recovery with a sizzling 62 in the second round of the FBR Capital Open. Duval struggled over the weekend, however, and finished tied for 28th, his best finish of the season.
 
Duval missed the cut at Royal St. George's and later pulled out of the PGA Championship after an opening-round 80.
 
The former top-ranked player in the world finished 212th on the PGA Tour money list in 2003.

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.