ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – As Jay Seawell gazed down the picturesque range at Sea Island Resort on Tuesday, he could have easily mistaken the occasion for hundreds of similar meetings back home in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
In order, Justin Thomas, Trey Mullinax, Bobby Wyatt and Dru Love were warming up – just like they did in the old days when all four would get ready for one of the ubiquitous qualifying rounds at the University of Alabama.
“I’m sitting on the range today and there’s Bobby and Trey and Justin and Dru, and I’m thinking these guys qualified against each other every day,” said Seawell, Alabama’s head golf coach turned caddie this week at Sea Island Resort. “You do that every day, all the time, that’s how you get better.”
The only difference was that instead of playing for a spot in Alabama’s lineup, the foursome were preparing to play for a $1 million winner’s paycheck at the RSM Classic, and if recent history is any indication, it isn’t as farfetched as it may have once seemed.
Although trends come and go on the PGA Tour, a move to a younger demographic appears to be the new norm with victories already this season by Emiliano Grillo (23 years old), Smylie Kaufman (23 years old) and Thomas (22 years old).
The common thread between those champions, other than their age relative to the rest of the Tour, is that just two years ago Kaufman and Thomas were playing for pride in college, and yet have made the transition to playing for purses as a professional appear easier than one would have thought.
Last year as a rookie on Tour, Thomas narrowly missed advancing to the Tour Championship and Kaufman cruised through his first year as a professional on the Web.com Tour and finished 10th in his first start as a Tour member at the Frys.com Open last month.
There is no shortage of reasons behind the dramatically reduced learning curve for Tour newcomers.
“The way they set up the courses [at college events] it teaches us that you have to be a little more on your game,” Thomas said. “Before, 10, 15 years ago the courses weren’t set up as difficult as they are now, so we come out here it’s a little more comparable to what we play.”
There’s also something to be said for better practice facilities for players at most colleges that helps speed the developmental process, but the biggest difference between today’s freshly minted pro is the level of competition they’ve already faced.
“The competition in college is so good,” Thomas said. “There’s just no fear. Particularly now, guys are seeing players like Jordan [Spieth] and myself playing well who are close to their age and they are like, why can’t I do that?”
Seawell, who is serving as Mullinax’s caddie this week, said he began to see the transition when Rickie Fowler joined the Tour in 2010.
Players like Bud Cauley who had competed, and beaten, Fowler in college and at amateur events were drawn to the unavoidable conclusion that perhaps the next level wasn’t that far away.
“Rickie Fowler was probably the era were you started to see young guys after young guys start to play at a high level,” Seawell said. “When Rickie did it that’s when it seemed to get Bud [Cauley]. I know when Rickie turned pro and had some success what impact that had on Bud.”
Similarly, when Spieth joined the Tour in 2013 and won the John Deere Classic, Thomas couldn’t resist bolting Alabama early for his turn.
“It was totally Jordan,” Seawell laughed. “[Thomas] saw what Jordan did and it made him itch. Justin is thinking I can do that, I competed against him.”
Thomas has now become a part of that domino effect, inspiring players like Love, who was a freshman at Alabama when Thomas played his last year in Tuscaloosa, to aim higher.
Until 30-year-old Russell Knox won the WGC-HSBC Champions earlier this month, the previous four Tour events had been won by players 23 or younger, and there is no shortage of fellow 20somethings – like Patton Kizzire, who finished T-2 and T-4 in his first two starts as a rookie – looking to continue the trend.
“The young guys have one thing over the older guys, they have enthusiasm. That’s what the younger guys have to learn is to continue to have that enthusiasm,” Seawell said. “They come in with this great energy.”
Whatever the reasons, players now reach the Tour with a drastically increased ability to compete at the highest level that wasn’t there just a decade ago.
“I didn’t know what I was doing when I came out on Tour,” said Davis Love III, this week’s host at Sea Island Resort. “I watched [Sea Island director of fitness] Randy Myers a few weeks ago and he had two brothers, think they were 11 and 9, in the gym working out. They’ve already figured it out by the time they reach high school.”
If the current trend is any indication, by the time the modern college player reaches the Tour they are ready to make their own mark.