SAN DIEGO, Calif. – The comment doesn’t seem so absurd anymore.
Two amateurs named Harris English and John Peterson had just finished 1-2 at a then-Nationwide Tour in 2011 when Peterson, the NCAA champ, woofed:
“The top guys in college, the top 20 or 30 guys, can beat the top 20, 30 guys on the PGA Tour. Maybe with the exception of two or three guys who are constantly up there, those top 20 college guys will beat those top 20 or 30 PGA Tour guys, if given the opportunity. They just don’t have the opportunity.”
Was he overly giddy at the high finish? Of course. Was he young and brash? Sure.
But 2 1/2 years later, it’s clear that Peterson knew of the impending storm. English has two Tour wins in the past eight months, while Peterson finished T-4 at the 2012 U.S. Open, made the cut in the Masters, and blitzed through Web.com Tour Finals to secure his playing privileges this year.
That golf is in the midst of a youth movement is no new revelation, yet this season it is one of the earliest and most intriguing story lines. So far, five of the eight winners have been in their 20s. Last year, in 40 events, there were 14 20-something champions.
Compare that to the past 10 years, and you can see where the game is headed. In 2009, in 46 events, there were only six wins by players in their 20s, including just two under 25. In 2004, in 48 events, there were just 10 20-something winners.
Last week, Patrick Reed, 23, started with three consecutive rounds of 63 to set the Tour scoring mark en route to his second win in his last nine starts. His decisive victory at the Humana moved Reed into elite company, joining Rory McIlroy, 24, and English, 24, as the only players under 25 with multiple Tour titles.
Of course, Reed’s peers knew of his talent. He was a two-time NCAA champion at Augusta State, where in back-to-back years he knocked off both Peter Uihlein and English in singles to earn the pivotal points for his team.
“Kids come out and they’re ready to win,” said two-time winner Jimmy Walker, who needed 188 starts to break through on the PGA Tour. “I don’t think I was as good as Jordan Spieth was. He’s 20. It takes longer (for some players).”
Not long ago, there was only one answer – Rory – to the question of the best player in the world under 30. Now there are myriad choices, from Spieth (20) to Hideki Matsuyama (21) to English (24) to Keegan Bradley (27) to Dustin Johnson (29, for a few more months at least). Twenty-somethings occupy eight spots in the world’s top 30, but there are dozens more uber-talented prospects in the pipeline.
“I think everybody is just feeding off each other,” said Russell Henley, 24. “Obviously it’s gotten way more competitive and more and more guys are playing out here. And it’s going to keep happening, too.”
So, what happened?
Sure, equipment has helped narrow the playing field, shortening the gap between elite and very good. But college stars also play a demanding schedule against elite competition on tough tracks all season long, preparing them for the grind of tour life. What’s more, amateurs are being given more opportunities in pro events, which provide not only a chance to test their game but also their nerves.
Henley played in two U.S. Opens and a handful of Nationwide events while he was in college at Georgia. During his junior and senior years, he watched as Rickie Fowler splashed onto the scene at just 20 years old, nearly winning the 2009 Frys and, a year later, earning a spot on the Ryder Cup team.
When it came time for Henley to jump to the pros, he hardly seemed fazed – he won the Sony Open in his first start as a PGA Tour member.
“I think you’d be lying if you said it didn’t motivate you to see your friends playing really well,” Henley said. “It’s a great thing, though. It’s exciting for me to know that the same guys I’ve been playing in tournaments with forever are doing well. I know that I can do it again, too.”
Which brings us back to Peterson’s point. Finally given an opportunity, the 20-somethings are proving that, yes, they can beat the 20 or 30 best Tour players. And there are more on the way.