Younger players have the mental makeup to win now

By Jason SobelJanuary 14, 2013, 1:37 pm

Charles Howell III is a congenial kind of guy, the type who appreciates the give and take of some playful banter. So when I saw him on the practice green at Waialae Country Club for the first time last Wednesday, it wasn't long after we exchanged Happy New Year greetings that I tried to give him a little grief.

'You're looking old,” I jabbed. “What is this, like your 17th year out here?'

'Nope,' he answered. 'Only my 14th.'

The response floored me. I had picked a number large enough – or so I thought – that it would exaggerate his age for the sake of the joke. Do the math, though, and you'll find that, yes, it really has been that long since Howell first broke onto the scene with 13 starts back in 2000.

The conversation instantly reminded me of another one I had with him at the Sony Open. It was six years ago when Howell appeared primed to win this tournament, only to get lapped on the back nine by Paul Goydos. Afterward, he characteristically sat down and answered some tough questions, shouldering the blame for the defeat. But when I suggested that his loss was serving as a microcosm for the inadequacy of young American golfers, he chafed at the notion that there was even any issue.

'I think it's ridiculous' he said at the time. 'I think American golf under 30 is fine. If you look across the board, if you look at the guys playing nowadays, I don't buy into that, no.'

This despite the fact that only three American 20somethings had won the year before (J.B. Holmes, Troy Matteson and D.J. Trahan), only two owned multiple career victories (Ben Curtis and Jonathan Byrd) and only one was ranked in the world’s top 50 (Lucas Glover). It doesn’t take a golf historian to realize that despite a few major wins in that group, none of those players developed into a superstar.

The story is relevant today because we’ve seen a seismic shift in the early success of U.S.-born golfers. Dustin Johnson has won in each year since graduating college. Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson are already major champions. And on seemingly a weekly basis, baby-faced kids who were carrying their bags in college tournaments not long ago are not only competing with the world’s best on the PGA Tour but contending for titles.

And winning them. Russell Henley is the latest – and maybe greatest – example of a player finding prosperity so soon after leaving campus. His final round at the Sony Open, one of three 63s he posted during the week, included five birdies to close. Ask the question of why times have changed so quickly and the simplest answer may be staring back from atop the leaderboard: Because they’re really talented.

That may be true, but it’s a copout. Just five-10 years ago, players coming out of college were really talented, too, yet the results weren’t nearly as immediate. So what’s the real reason? Ask Henley and he cites everything from the increasing competitiveness of junior golf to motivation from friends like Harris English, who kept his card after a strong rookie campaign last year.

“I think more guys want it,” Henley explained. “It's just getting more and more competitive. If everybody could just get out of their own way a little bit, including me a lot of time – the majority of the time – everybody could play some good golf out here. Everybody is very talented.”

He isn’t wrong about any of that, of course, though his answer serves as only a broad explanation. In fact, go back and read it again. If Howell had offered that comment back in 2005 as a reason for less success rather than Henley using it now as a reason for more, it still would have served that dual purpose.

As if to only further the point about young golfers making the jump to the most elite level, Scott Langley also contended throughout the weekend at Waialae. Like Henley, he is a 2011 college graduate – and like Henley, he never seemed like he was lost in the moment, even when his hot putter grew cold on Sunday.

“Guys are really good at every level – junior golf, amateur golf and mini-tours everywhere,” Langley reasoned when faced with the question. “I think the instruction is really good. That definitely helps. Guys are getting better technique younger. But then also I think as far as me and my peers, we've helped each other a lot, just push each other to be better. 

“Our little group of guys has played together for 10 years probably. We just always kind of have tried to make each other better. If I see Russell playing really good, I want to play really good. I want to beat him. And same with if [fellow rookie] Luke Guthrie is playing great; I want to go out there and play well. We push each other, and I think we kind of feed off each other.”

We’re getting warmer. Quality players have always been around, but a higher quantity of quality players competing in the junior, amateur and collegiate ranks basically traveling the world as unpaid professionals speaks volumes as to why the comfort level comes more readily these days.

There’s more to it, though. Langley’s explanation could serve as to why more young players are faring well, but it doesn’t necessarily address why it’s collegians as opposed to elite international players who have often played five years of professional golf by the time they turn 23. For that, I asked someone who has not only witnessed the transformation firsthand. He prodded it along.

“We want guys who want a great education, but want to play professional golf when they get out,” said University of Illinois head coach Mike Small, who coached both Langley and Guthrie. “They're coming to get their games better. I think the mindset is that you should get that degree, but you might as well become as you good as you can at golf while you’re here.'

Now we’re getting somewhere. Small has a unique perspective in making the jump to the highest level thanks to his own background. He not only succeeded in reaching the PGA Tour, he failed at sustaining his time there, a contrast he sees as a benefit to his players.

“This isn't fun-and-games daycare. I treat them and train them like Tour players,” he added, acknowledging that such treatment has changed in recent years. “These players aren't scared anymore. The golf courses we play are harder; the coaches are expecting more.

“I want to win championships as much as anyone, but if you coach these guys and convince them they're not going to reach their peak until 35 or 40, they’re going to lose that dream when they’re 22 or 23. I want my guys to want to play on Tour someday. I'm not going to force them, but I want them to have that dream.”


Whether it’s Small at Illinois or Chris Haack – Henley’s coach at the University of Georgia, which is churning out Tour players annually – or any number of college coaches who have been at the forefront of such change, it’s the mindset being instilled in players from Day 1 on campus that is making the biggest impact. No longer are college golfers being warned to respect their elders and informed that – with a heaping dose of luck spooned on top of their talent – maybe they can someday succeed on the PGA Tour level.

Sure, we can credit equipment as a technical assistance to these players and specialized instructors as a physical aid. In sport’s ultimate mental pursuit, though, there are now greater concessions being made toward that part of the game, if not with specific mental gurus and psychologists, then at least with a nod toward the power of positive thinking.

College students are taught to dream big and though it’s been a gradual shift, college golfers are now taking that notion to an extreme level. It’s one that should only serve to feed off itself in coming years, too; just as Henley received motivation from English, kids still living in dorms right now are deriving inspiration from Henley’s victory, believing that if he can win right away, well, so can they.

Six years ago, when I explored this topic with Howell, his retort was, 'I think American golf under 30 is fine.” He probably wasn’t wrong about that, but “fine” turned out to be underwhelming. The impressive exploits of young, U.S.-born golfers recently easily exceeds “fine,” which is exactly what they’ve been taught for years.

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Thomas donating to hurricane relief at East Lake

By Jason CrookSeptember 19, 2018, 9:20 pm

Much like in years past, Justin Thomas is using his golf game to help with relief of a natural disaster.

The world No. 4 announced on Twitter Wednesday that he’d be donating $1,000 per birdie and $5,000 per eagle at the Tour Championship to a charity benefiting the victims of Hurricane Florence, which ravaged the Carolinas last week.

At a fan's suggestion, Thomas, who has averaged 4.35 birdies per round this season, also pledged to donate $10,000 for a hole-in-one.

Hurricane Florence made landfall on Friday just south of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and has left much of the area flooded and without power. At least 37 people have died in storm-related incidents.

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Rose realizes his No. 1 ranking is precarious

By Rex HoggardSeptember 19, 2018, 8:18 pm

ATLANTA – Asked how he would like to be identified when he was finished playing golf, Justin Rose didn’t hesitate – “major champion, Olympic gold medalist, world No. 1.”

He’s had only a week to enjoy the last accomplishment, but the Englishman is aware of what it means to his career to have finally moved into the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking.

“It's a moment in your career that you always remember and cherish,” said Rose, who overtook Dustin Johnson with his runner-up finish two weeks ago at the BMW Championship.

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Rose said he took some time last weekend with family and friends to relish the accomplishment and will play his first event this week at the Tour Championship as the world’s best, but he also understands how tenuous his position atop the ranking is at the moment.

“I accept it's really tight up top. It could easily switch this week,” he said. “I just feel that if I go to [No.] 2 or 3 this week, if Dustin and Brooks [Koepka] both play well, I have an opportunity the week after and British Masters, and going to China and Turkey, there's going to be opportunities to get back there.”

Johnson, Koepka and Justin Thomas could unseat Rose atop the ranking this week depending on their finishes at the Tour Championship.

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Likely ROY Wise not looking past 'special' East Lake

By Rex HoggardSeptember 19, 2018, 8:05 pm

ATLANTA – Much like the PGA Tour Player of Year Award, voting for the Rookie of the Year Award is very much a rubber stamp this season.

Brooks Koepka is a lock to win the Jack Nicklaus Trophy after winning two majors - the U.S. Open and PGA Championship - despite missing a portion of the season with an injury. Similarly, Aaron Wise, who won the AT&T Byron Nelson, is the only rookie this year to advance to the Tour Championship, which is normally the threshold players use for voting for Rookie of the Year.

“I knew with the rookie class that we had it was going to be tough, and the players still have to vote but it’s definitely something that was important to me,” he said on Wednesday at East Lake. “My focus is just finishing strong this week and giving them a reason to vote for me.”

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For Wise, who had four top-10 finishes this season and begins the week 21st on the FedExCup point list, the chance to win the award is gratifying, but being among the best 30 players on Tour, and securing his spot in all four major championships next season, is an accomplishment worth savoring.

“To win Rookie of the Year you have to have a solid season, but to make it to East Lake, so many guys don’t get this far. You really have to have a special season and this is really special,” Wise said.

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Stanford returns home to share Evian celebration

By Randall MellSeptember 19, 2018, 5:33 pm

Angela Stanford’s eyes welled with tears when her flight touched down at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in her return from winning the Evian Championship.

When she lands from the south, as she did Monday, she always looks for the towering grain elevators in her Saginaw hometown. She also always looks for downtown Fort Worth’s skyline.

She got teary with the replica of the Evian Championship trophy in her carry-on in the luggage bin above her seat, knowing she wasn’t bringing it home just for her.

But for her mother, Nan, who’s battling a second bout with breast cancer.

For her father, Steve, who got her started in the game.

For other family and friends.

For Shady Oaks, the club Ben Hogan made famous, where she is a member.

And for TCU, her alma mater.

She realized how empty she felt in so many returns from major championships.

She’s 40 now.

She won in her 76th try in a major.

For so long, Stanford believed she had what it took to win a major, but that only made the string of disappointments harder.

“So I remembered what it felt like coming home from so many disappointments, but not this time,” Stanford said. “This time I got to bring something home for everyone to see.”

When Stanford got off the plane, her parents were among a group of family and friends waiting to greet her. So was her TCU coach, Angie Larkin, who brought along the Horned Frogs mascot, Superfrog.

Tour pros Kristy McPherson, Dori Carter, Kendall Dye and Emory University coach and former tour pro Katie Futcher were all in Fort Worth helping Stanford celebrate.

“It was pretty cool,” Stanford said. “Of course, I asked them all if they wanted to see the trophy.”

She pulled it out of her carry-on and never put it back.

“It’s a heavy trophy, but I told them I’m carrying this everywhere,” Stanford said.

There was a celebration dinner with family and friends Monday night, and another celebration with friends on Tuesday.

“I think it’s just the start of many celebrations with more friends to see,” Stanford said.

Stanford went to work with a new swing coach about a year ago, Todd Kolb, from Sioux Falls, S.D. In her flight home, she thought about how grateful she was for all the help poured into her game, not just the good work Kolb is doing, but the foundation important figures in her life helped to lay. She thought about the lessons and wisdom Amy Fox, Mike Wright and Joe Hallett passed along.

“I’m still using things I learned from my first instructor,” Stanford said. “Amy Fox is a huge reason I’m playing on tour. Mike Wright is a huge reason why I’ve won on tour. Joe Hallett helped me navigate through a tough time in my career.

“They were all important to my winning Sunday. They all gave me building blocks, and they’ve all helped lay the foundation to what I’m learning now from Todd.”

Stanford said being able to share her gratefulness made her return home special.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” she said. “It’s been everything you could imagine it would be.”