ORLANDO, Fla. – Forget, if you can, the top-5 player in the world comment.
Ten of the 16 winners this season are in their 20s. They are the same players who grew up watching the most dominant golfer ever, the one in the red shirt, the guy stepping on the throats of his competitors and racking up titles and raking in millions and becoming one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet. It was impactful television.
“We grew up watching the great players and Tiger, what he’s done, and that has pushed us harder to want to reach our goals,” Reed said Tuesday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “We want to basically play the game how he’s done and the dominant fashion that he’s done.”
These days, in the absence of a dominant star, there exists a whoever-plays-best mentality that permeates the PGA Tour. Any given week it might be Patrick Reed, 23, winning at Doral. Or Russell Henley, 24, at the Honda. Or Jordan Spieth, then 19, at the John Deere.
“In my eyes,” Reed said, “whoever shows up at an event nowadays has a chance to win.”
Fans may marvel at the meteoric rise of these young studs, but they didn’t take the Tour by storm on accident. They cut their teeth in big-time college and amateur events, making lots of birdies, learning how to win, developing a self-confidence and belief that can’t be found on the couch of some sports psychologist.
Reed, after all, was a two-time NCAA champion at Augusta State. Henley was a four-year All-American at Georgia and the 2010 Haskins Award winner (for top male collegiate golfer). Spieth was a three-time winner in his lone full season at Texas and arguably the top player in the country. To find the next big star, simply check out the top 10 in the current college rankings. They’re all there, hungry.
With the advances in technology and coaching, the uber-talented 20-somethings already enjoy an accelerated learning curve on the pro circuit. Sure, they still have to learn how to travel and how to put together four good rounds. But what was long the biggest hurdle for young players – the sense of belonging – becomes lower and lower with each peer that comes along and wins.
Consider 26-year-old rookie Chesson Hadley, who two weeks ago won in Puerto Rico. Admittedly, he was surprised that he notched his first victory so soon, just seven months into his PGA Tour career, because, he said, “I’ve always had to kind of pay my dues, kind of eat a little dirt before I get that success.”
When Jim Furyk played his first full year on Tour, in 1994, “no one knew who the heck I was.” “I could float under the radar,” he said.
In his second start, at the familiar Tucson National, he held a share of the 54-hole lead but eventually finished seventh. Afterward, his father, Mike, told him that with a “little more seasoning,” he could have won the event.
“There were a lot of people who believed that I belonged on the PGA Tour,” Furyk recalled, “but I was starting to get a feel at that point that I really do, too.”
Charles Howell III was the NCAA champion, the next big thing, when he turned pro in 2000. He played practice rounds with Nick Price, Jesper Parnevik and other veterans. He tried to learn the ropes. He watched how to be a pro.
Howell said he didn’t really feel as though he truly belonged on Tour until he won his first tournament, in 2002. That Sunday afternoon in Virginia he played with Corey Pavin, who “helped me through the whole day, honestly,” Howell said.
“My heart rate probably didn’t think I was ready to win,” he added. “Once you get it done the first time, the confidence grows and you say to yourself, ‘I’m OK in that situation.’”
Before simply chalking up the influx of 20-something winners to the Tiger Effect, the myriad benefits of college golf or the cockiness of a few hotshots, also remember this:
“These are really, really good players,” Howell said. “They’re coming out and thinking, ‘Hey, I’m good enough to win right now.’”
Note his choice of words: Thinking.
Reed doesn’t regret his heat-of-the-moment hubris, even after two weeks of social-media backlash. He believes he’s a top-5 player and verbalized it.
“When it comes down to it,” he said, “that’s what I believe in. That’s how I see myself as a pro. You have to have that belief in yourself. If you don’t then you’re not going to play like it, and you’re definitely not going to be contending on Sunday.”
No doubt, this is a new breed of player – a red shirt with an open microphone.