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'Sneaky good' rookies ready to kick off 2018 at Sony

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Sam Ryder and Stephan Jaeger  - 

HONOLULU – Although the PGA Tour is already nine events into the 2017-18 season, this week’s Sony Open has the feel of Opening Day for this year’s rookie class, a group that rolls 23 players deep and was described by one longtime observer as “sneaky good.”

Compared to last year’s rookie class – which included 12 of 25 players keeping their Tour cards and amassed five victories (including two by Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele) – the group has a tough act to follow, but an unscientific poll this week at the Sony Open suggests they could live up to those expectations.

Veteran Jonathan Byrd, who at 39 regained his Tour card last season on the Tour, had a firsthand look at many of this year’s rookies in 2017 and was particularly impressed with the group’s collective power, which has become a prerequisite for success in the Big Leagues, and the attitude the next generation brings.

“With the social media, it’s a lot more outward confidence, like guys saying I’m going to whoop your butt today. I never came out talking like that. I wanted to, quietly,” Byrd said. “I remember playing with Davis [Love III] at Doral my rookie year and I just wanted to whoop him, he was my favorite player.

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“These guys are just more outwardly making fun of you, ‘I’m going to whoop your butt this week, old man.’ They’re still respectful, it’s just a different mindset.”

In no particularly order, here are nine rookies to keep an eye on this season:

Talor Gooch. The former Oklahoma State standout went on a roll late in the summer to secure his first trip to the Tour, finishing T-11, T-10, second and first in four consecutive events and he’s already 4-for-5 in cuts made this season.

Austin Cook. He already has the class’ first victory at the RSM Classic and will get a chance to leverage his improved status into more solid play, including his first start at the Masters in April.

Sam Ryder. Perhaps the class’ best athlete and exceedingly mature according to various sources, his play in July at the Tour’s Pinnacle Bank Championship was a clinic in domination on his way to an eight-stroke victory following weekend rounds of 62-67.

Stephan Jaeger. He won twice last year on the secondary tour, but his consistency was an issue. Although Jaeger is not as long off the tee as some in the class (he ranked 95th last year in driving distance) he has a sublime short game and was 14th in putting in 2017.

“Jaeger has a nice game, he hits it a little further than I do, but he just has a clean game,” Byrd said.

Aaron Wise. His pedigree is impeccable, having captured the NCAA men's individual title and then helping Oregon win the school’s first championship by going 3-0 in match play. Aggressiveness won’t be an issue for Wise, who led the Tour last season in eagles.

Tom Lovelady. Former teammate and current roommate of Justin Thomas in South Florida, Lovelady is another member of that high school class of 2011 that has rewritten the record books. He has a tendency to run a little hot on the golf course, but he will learn to control that.

“Lovelady has everything you need to be successful out here and a lot of those guys just need to hear that,” Byrd said.

Denny McCarthy. He was a picture of consistency in 2017, finishing in the top 25 in nearly half (11) of his 23 starts. Another solid putter but he also hits it far enough to be a contender any week on Tour.

Keith Mitchell. Another University of Georgia product, Mitchell averaged 321 yards off the tee last season (Tony Finau led the PGA Tour in 2017 with a 336-yard average) and, perhaps more impressive, he hit 63 percent of his fairways. He also has a confidence that will serve him well on Tour.

“I just love his game, his energy, his attitude, how far he hits it,” Byrd said. “He just doesn’t hit it far, he hits it straight.”

Peter Uihlein. The well-traveled Uihlein will be the outlier of the 2018 class. Although technically a rookie, he’d played 30 events on Tour before this season and has already proven himself a winner on the European Tour, where he’s perfected his craft since turning pro in 2011.

Beau Hossler is also a player to watch in 2018, although he’s considered a first-year player, not a rookie, according to Tour regulations, much like Jon Rahm and Bryson DeChambeau last season. European stars Thomas Pieters, Tommy Fleetwood and Alex Noren would also be considered first-year players.