Newsmaker of the Year, No. 5: The Youth Takeover


When Justin Thomas penned his brief Twitter profile, he didn’t lead with the fact that he plays on the PGA Tour. He didn’t even open by pointing out the national title he won while at the University of Alabama.

Instead, the first line on Thomas’ page harkens back to his high school days: “St. X grad ’11.”

The current state of affairs on the PGA Tour isn’t just a youth movement; it’s a youth takeover. And it’s one that has been led by the decorated “Class of 2011,” a crop of prospects who have seamlessly transitioned to the professional ranks while many of their peers are still writing in blue books.

It is a group led by 22-year-old Jordan Spieth, a once-in-a-generation wunderkind, but the Class of ’11 runs much deeper than his personal trophy case. There’s Thomas, who will tee it up alongside Spieth next month in Kapalua. That winners-only field will also include Emiliano Grillo, who earned his stripes in Europe before picking up a pair of trophies in October.

There’s Daniel Berger, the reigning Rookie of the Year, and there’s Patrick Rodgers, whose Stanford career equaled that of some guy named Tiger Woods. The list goes on, each player as equipped as the last, and it even includes the likes of Ollie Schniederjans, who just last week breezed through Q-School to earn his Tour card after turning pro in June.

“Our graduating class, 2011, has probably eight or nine tour players that will come out of it,” Spieth said in January, an estimate that should prove to be rather accurate. “We should still be in school. It’s cool to see peers we grew up with for a while all making the transition pretty easily.”

And therein lies the difference with this most recent group. There are always rising stars, guys who cut their teeth more quickly than others. But these players more closely resemble hired guns than fresh-faced rookies – equal parts eager to challenge and ready to win.

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The same players who were vying for AJGA hardware when Charl Schwartzel won the Masters are now taking home PGA Tour trophies with an alarming frequency. After capturing the CIMB Classic at age 22, Thomas was asked if he expected to win so quickly.

“I expected to win a lot sooner than this, honestly,” he said. “So, obviously, it’s a win, whatever, just a couple tournaments into my second year is great, but it would have been nice to win a couple last year, too.”

The insatiable quest to win quickly, of course, is instilled by the leader of the pack. Spieth’s meteoric rise won’t be challenged anytime soon, but it offered a tantalizing barometer for players who remember facing – and beating – him in junior and college events just a few short years ago.

Consider it confidence by proxy.

“Basically the only player I look up [to] is Jordan,” Grillo said after his Open victory. “I played a lot with him. He’s my age, he’s a bit younger than me. Makes you think, if he can do it, I can do it. That’s been my thought in the last year, two years.”

The other, undeniable factor in the recent rise of youth is the Tiger effect. Woods has been out of commission for essentially the last two years, but it’s more than just his recent on-course performance – or lack thereof.

It’s the fact that a typical Class of ’11 grad was 4 years old when Woods stormed Augusta National for the first time, 8 years old when he completed the Tiger Slam and 15 years old when he won his last major.

For them, there is no PGA Tour without Tiger.

The shock and awe that helped Woods steamroll his competition for more than a decade simply doesn’t exist with this group, which grew up eyeing his records just as Woods grew up chasing Jack Nicklaus.

The youth movement, though, is not limited to the men’s game. The LPGA has always trended younger than its male counterpart, but that pattern was accentuated this year as 17-year-old Brooke Henderson burst onto the scene and 18-year-old Lydia Ko became the youngest man or woman to win a major before successfully defending her Race to the CME Globe title.

In fact, the average age of the top 10 players in the Rolex Rankings is barely over 23. World No. 2 Inbee Park may seem like an elder statesman, having won her fourth different major this past summer, but at age 27 she is younger than Jason Day and only a few months older than the former standard bearer for the youth movement, Rickie Fowler.

As both Day and Fowler elevated their respective games, it seemed for much of the year that trophies were handed out exclusively to 20-somethings. Players like Woods, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els – names that in large part defined the early 2000s – all went winless.

In their stead rose the likes of Thomas and Grillo and Berger, all seemingly ready to step out of those sizeable shadows and establish their own names, one trophy at a time.

Led by their top-ranked ringleader, it appears they’re here to stay.

“They want to beat me as bad as I want to beat the next guy, and it’s cool to see the transition of guys in my class,” Spieth said. “I can’t imagine there’s been a class that has had this before at our age. It just speaks to what we’ve all done for each other growing up, pushing each other to get better and better.”