The Rise of the PGA Tour Rookie

By Jason SobelJune 1, 2011, 11:47 am

Jhonattan Vegas had barely clinched the Bob Hope Classic in a playoff, winning a PGA Tour title in his fifth career start, when my phone bleated with a new text message.

It was from a veteran player who has yet to earn any first-place hardware and it was dripping with sarcasm: “Guess winning out here isn’t that difficult after all.”

Little did he know back in January, but rookie triumphs were about to become the hottest thing in golf since titanium drivers. Vegas was followed in the winner’s circle by fellow Nationwide Tour graduates Brendan Steele (Texas Open) and Keegan Bradley (Byron Nelson Championship) – each of whom would be putting together a pretty decent resume for his Rookie of the Year candidacy if it wasn’t for Charl Schwartzel, who simply won a little toonament called the Masters.

That’s four fantastic freshman finishes in the season’s first five months. If that sounds like a lot, well, it is. Last year, only two rookies won all season. The year before? Zero. The year before that? Four, but only one at this point in the calendar.

In the three decades since 1980, first-year Tour members have accounted for more than four victories on only three separate occasions. In the six-year period from 1981-86, there was a total of four rookie wins – equal to the number in the first 23 events this season.

All of which leads to – quite literally – the million-dollar question: Why?

Well, first let’s remove Schwartzel from the conversation. An elite player for years with a half-dozen international victories, his greatest success just happened to coincide with taking up PGA Tour membership this season. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he won, although becoming the first rookie to claim a major since Todd Hamilton seven years earlier certainly wasn’t expected.

The other three were each among the top 14 money leaders on the developmental circuit last year – and they each credit that experience for helping them win so quickly in the big leagues.

“I think this just shows how strong the Nationwide Tour is,” said Bradley, who defeated Ryan Palmer on the first playoff hole outside Dallas to win Sunday. “I was as prepared as I could be. I felt like I was ready and I wanted to contend and have the chance to win.”

“I felt like I was ready, but I didn’t think I would. I thought I’d see more good results before I won,” explained Steele, whose best result other than his victory is a T-17 at the Farmers Insurance Open. “The best explanation I can give is that the levels below the PGA Tour are getting better – college, Canadian Tour, Nationwide Tour – everything is improving. Instead of a few guys coming out of each tour, more and more are that good coming out each year.”

If this was professional baseball, these rookies would be carrying pink Hello Kitty knapsacks to the bullpen. If it was football, they’d be tied to the goalpost at practice and picking up the tab for extravagant dinners.

Instead, the only hazing taking place comes from weather conditions during twilight practice rounds. The rooks have reported nothing but random acts of kindness from their elders. Steele received a congratulatory phone call from Corey Pavin. Bradley got a handshake from Fred Couples. They both teed it up with Phil Mickelson at The Players Championship.

“With the individual nature of the sport, it’s different,” Steele said. “Everyone has welcomed me with open arms, especially after the win. When you first get out here, it’s sort of an uncomfortable feeling; you haven’t earned any respect. It’s nice to get that respect once you’ve earned it.”

It’s all a complete departure from usual rookie strategy: Work hard, grind away, get some experience, hope to play well, try to keep your card. Now these players can hit the ground running filled with confidence.

It doesn’t hurt that there’s a team mentality among the newbies in this ultimately individual pursuit.

“There’s a tightness amongst the 25 Nationwide Tour guys that graduated, no question,” Bradley maintained. “It’s amazing. It’s like we’re in some sort of weird club or fraternity together. It’s good to have out here; it can be lonely out here.”

“You’re almost like a graduating class out of high school or college,” Steele added. “They’re the guys that you know, you’re all in the same boat. I like Jhonny a lot, even though I don’t know him overly well. I’m good friends with Keegan, he’s a great guy and great player. I wasn’t surprised at all by his win; it was only a matter of time.”

All of which leads to the next step: The battle against complacency.

“I want to validate it and I want to validate it quickly,” Steele said. “I don’t want to sit back and enjoy my couple of years with an exemption.”

Sounds like that text message had it all wrong. Considering the moxie and preparedness of the current rookie crop, it’s becoming more difficult than ever to win PGA Tour events.

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Reed: 'Back still hurts' from carrying Spieth at Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 10:48 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Friday’s marquee match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play between Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, who are both undefeated in pool play, just keeps getting better and better.

Following his 1-up victory over Charl Schwartzel on Thursday, Reed was asked what makes Spieth, who defeated HaoTong Li, 4 and 2, so good at match play.

“I don't know, my back still hurts from the last Ryder Cup,” smiled Reed, who teamed with Spieth at Hazeltine National.

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The duo did go 2-1-1 at the 2016 Ryder Cup and have a combined 7-2-2 record in Ryder and Presidents Cup play. Reed went on to explain why Spieth can be such a challenging opponent in match play.

“The biggest thing is he's very consistent. He hits the ball well. He chips the ball well. And he putts it really well,” Reed said. “He's not going to give you holes. You have to go and play some good golf.”

The winner of Friday’s match between Spieth and Reed will advance to the knockout stage.

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Reed vs. Spieth: Someone has to go

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 10:11 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The introduction of round-robin play to the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was a necessary evil. It was needed to stem the tide of early exits by high-profile players, but three days of pool play has also dulled the urgency inherent to match play.

There are exceptions, like Friday’s marquee match between Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, which is now a knockout duel with both players going 2-0-0 to begin the week in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.

That the stars aligned so perfectly to have America’s most dominant pairing in team play the last few years square off in a winner-take-all match will only add to what promises to be must-see TV.

Sport doesn’t always follow the script, but the pre-match subtext on this one is too good to dismiss. In one corner, professional golf’s “Golden Child” who has used the Match Play to wrest himself out of the early season doldrums, and in the other there’s the game’s lovable bad boy.

Where Spieth is thoughtful and humble to the extreme, Reed can irritate and entertain with equal abandon. Perhaps that’s why they’ve paired so well together for the U.S. side at the Ryder and Presidents Cup, where they are a combined 7-2-2 as a team, although Spieth had another explanation.

“We're so competitive with each other within our own pairing at the Ryder Cup, we want to outdo each other. That's what makes us successful,” Spieth said. “Tiger says it's a phenomenon, it's something that he's not used to seeing in those team events. Normally you're working together, but we want to beat each other every time.”

But if that makes the duo a good team each year for the United States, what makes Friday’s showdown so compelling is a little more nuanced.

The duo has a shared history that stretches all the way back to their junior golf days in Texas and into college, when Reed actually committed to play for Texas as a freshman in high school only to change his mind a year later and commit to Georgia.

That rivalry has spilled over to the professional ranks, with the twosome splitting a pair of playoff bouts with Reed winning the 2013 Wyndham Championship in overtime and Spieth winning in extra holes at the 2015 Valspar Championship.

Consider Friday a rubber match with plenty of intrigue.

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Although the friendship between the two is genuine, there is an edge to the relationship, as evidenced by Reed’s comment last week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he was denied relief on the 11th hole on Sunday.

“I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said.

While the line was clearly a joke, Reed added to Friday’s festivities when he was asked what makes Spieth such a good match play opponent. “I don't know, my back still hurts from the last Ryder Cup,” smiled Reed, a not-so-subtle suggestion that he carried Spieth at Hazeltine.

For his part, Spieth has opted for a slightly higher road. He explained this week that there have been moments in the Ryder Cup when his European opponents attempted some gamesmanship, which only angered Reed and prompted him to play better.

“I've been very nice to [Reed] this week,” Spieth smiled.

But if the light-hearted banter between the duo has fueled the interest in what is often a relatively quiet day at the Match Play, it’s their status as two of the game’s most gritty competitors that will likely lead to the rarest of happenings in sport – an event that exceeds expectations.

Both have been solid this week, with Speith winning his first two matches without playing the 18th hole and Reed surviving a late rally from Charl Schwartzel on Thursday with an approach at the 18th hole that left him a tap-in birdie to remain unbeaten.

They may go about it different ways, but both possess the rare ability to play their best golf on command.

“I’m glad the world gets to see this because it will be special,” said Josh Gregory, Reed’s college coach who still works with the world No. 23. “You have two players who want the ball and they aren’t afraid of anything. Patrick lives for this moment.”

 Where Reed seems to feed off raw emotion and the energy of a head-to-head duel, Spieth appears to take a more analytical approach to match play. Although he admits to not having his best game this week, he’s found a way to win matches, which is no surprise to John Fields, Spieth’s coach at Texas.

“Jordan gave us a tutorial before the NCAA Championship, we picked his brain on his thoughts on match play and how he competed. It’s one of those secret recipes that someone gives you,” Fields said. “When he was a junior golfer he came up with this recipe.”

Whatever the secret sauce, it will be tested on Friday when two of the game’s most fiery competitors will prove why match play can be the most entertaining format when the stars align like they have this week.

It was a sign of how compelling the match promises to be that when asked if he had any interest in the Spieth-Reed bout, Rory McIlroy smiled widely, “I have a lot of interest in that. Hopefully I get done early, I can watch it. Penalty drops everywhere.”

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Watch: Bubba casually hits flop shot over caddie's head

By Grill Room TeamMarch 22, 2018, 9:20 pm

We've seen this go wrong. Really wrong.

But when your end-of-year bonus is a couple of brand new vehicles, you're expected to go above and beyond every now and then.

One of those times came early Thursday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, where Bubba Watson’s caddie Ted Scott let his boss hit a flop shot over his head.

It wasn’t quite Phil Mickelson over Dave Pelz, but the again, nothing is.

And the unique warm-up session paid off, as Watson went on to defeat Marc Leishman 3 and 2 to move to 2-0-0 in group play.

Hey, whatever works.

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Spieth explains why he won't play in a 'dome'

By Rex HoggardMarch 22, 2018, 9:01 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – No one at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play was as excited about Thursday’s forecast as Jordan Spieth.

Winds blew across Austin Country Club to 20 mph, which is typical for this time of year in Texas, and Spieth put in a typical performance, beating HaoTong Li, 4 and 2, to remain undefeated entering the final day of pool play.

The windy conditions were exactly what Spieth, who never trailed in his match, wanted. In fact, demanding conditions factor into how he sets his schedule.

“I have, and will continue to schedule tournaments away from a dome, because it's just unusual for me. I like having the feel aspect,” said Spieth, who attended the University of Texas and played Austin Country Club in college. “Places with no wind, where it's just driving range shots, it's just never been something I've been used to. So I don't really know what to do on them.”

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Spieth used the CareerBuilder Challenge as an example. The Coachella Valley event rarely has windy conditions, and as a result he’s never played the tournament.

“I played in a dome in Phoenix, and I didn't strike the ball well there. Actually I've had quite a few this year, where we didn't have very windy conditions,” said Spieth, who will face Patrick Reed in his final pool play match on Friday. “I don't go to Palm Springs, never have, because of that. Look at where you can take weeks off and if they match up with places that potentially aren't the best for me, then it works out.”