Years before they became inextricably linked, before the photo of them together went viral, Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas sat next to each other on a transatlantic Swissair flight.
They had met three months earlier, in April 2007, at a junior event in Spieth’s backyard. Tied for the lead heading into the final round at Walnut Creek outside Dallas, Spieth dusted his fellow 13-year-old by five shots in his first AJGA start. Now, they were part of a U.S. foursome that was headed to France for the inaugural Evian Masters Junior Cup, an international mixed competition in which the top three finishers earned a spot in the pro-am prior to that week’s LPGA event.
During their weeklong trip, the boys shared a one-bedroom unit, noshed on chocolate croissants, toured the Olympic Museum and jostled for a spot next to Paula Creamer in photos. (Spieth, 1 up.) Determined to win the friendly exhibition, they skipped a white-water rafting excursion for a few more hours in the short-game area, much to the chagrin of the adults in the group. “I thought, Man, that would be so much fun!” recalls the AJGA’s Beth Dockter, who accompanied the team. “But they were both very intense and very competitive – even at that age.”
Skinnier than his 6-iron, Thomas finished third and played the pro-am with Juli Inkster. Spieth served as Thomas’ caddie, but they were stewing after the Americans took bronze.
|MORE ON THE Class of 2011|
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|Photos: The AJGA days|
“They were really driven. I remember them feeding off each other,” says U.S. teammate Grace Na. “You could tell they wanted to beat each other, even though they were on the same team. They motivated each other to bring the best out of themselves.”
A decade later, not much has changed.
That same combination of talent, camaraderie, ambition and ego produced a pair of global superstars, but Spieth and Thomas have made an even bigger impact on their peers, inspiring a once-in-a-generation class that overwhelmed the PGA Tour this year.
Spieth secured the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
Thomas won a Tour-best five times, including his first major, to sweep the end-of-season awards.
Even Xander Schauffele – such an outsider that some college coaches didn’t realize he was in the same gilded class – capped a breakout season with Rookie of the Year honors.
“I always joked with my buddies that it’s not cool to be 23 on the PGA Tour anymore, since everyone that’s been 22, 23, 24, they’re all winning,” Schauffele says. “I guess kudos to them for pushing me along.”
The youth movement on Tour isn’t just an intriguing storyline; it’s a competitive reality. Last season was the first that the average winner was younger than 30 (28.9). And to Schauffele’s point, his season-ending victory was the 18th by a player 25 or younger – eight more than the next-best year.
But of all that promising young talent, no collection of stars figured more prominently this year than the members of the Class of 2011, a group whose rise was so meteoric that they’re recognized not by their graduation year from college, but from high school.
Most of them can’t rent a car, and yet they factored nearly every week on the PGA and European tours. They played key roles in the majors, the playoffs and the Presidents Cup. In all, a whopping 11 members of the ’11 class own a PGA Tour card this season.
How has that particular group – born 13 months apart, from every corner of the country – grown so close, and been so successful, so quickly?
Thomas offered one simple theory – “I just think we’re all good” – but the origins of this fabled class are much more complex.
2009 AJGA First Team, including: Grillo (top, third from left), Spieth (right of Grillo), Alison Lee (bottom left), Jessica Korda (bottom, third from left) & Lexi Thompson (right of Korda) (AJGA).
Click here for a look at images from the Class of 2011 during their AJGA days
PLAYERS TODAY ARE BETTER younger for a multitude of reasons – advancements in technology and coaching, increased focus on fitness and nutrition, the Tiger Effect – but perhaps the most significant development has been the evolution of the country’s premier junior-golf circuit.
In 2003, the AJGA created a Performance Based Entry system to fill out its tournament fields. It’s essentially a miniature version of the PGA Tour. Roughly a thousand local, state and regional events are entered in the AJGA database, and with good results players gain status through performance stars – think of them as FedExCup points – that allows them to compete throughout the year. Players with enough performance stars qualify for the invitational tournaments that bring together the best juniors in the country nearly a dozen times a year.
The upshot? The top high school quarterback and pitching prospect don’t face elite competition every game, but these wunderkinds are tested at each event.
“That’s what made it so easy to transition from junior golf to college to the pros,” Spieth says. “We were already playing against the best talent level, and that stayed relatively similar moving forward. We didn’t see anybody at that level that we hadn’t seen before.”
The fraternal vibe – now viewed as an integral part of Team USA’s success – was ingrained early, too. If a player’s parents couldn’t travel to an event, the AJGA set him up with another junior’s family. With his father, Shawn, at work and his mom, Chris, at home with his two young siblings, Spieth traveled alone to nearly half of his tournaments from 2007-10. That’s when most of these friendships were formed.
At night, there always was a function for players to attend – a group dinner, a sponsor meet-and-greet, a clinic – while parents mingled and swapped stories. There were glow-in the-dark putting contests and balloon tosses and leaps into Poppie’s Pond, all while they downed milkshakes and danced to music.
“It was like a PG-rated college experience,” Spieth says. “We were able to build close relationships other than our friends at home. It was a weird, two-life thing that continues today.”
Not only did his core group of friends (Thomas, Patrick Rodgers, Emiliano Grillo, Ollie Schniederjans) often stay together on the road, but they spent countless hours after their rounds in the practice area, competing in extravagant putting and flop-shot contests for quarters.
“If there was a snot-blowing contest, by gosh, one of them would have the most snot,” says Baylor coach Mike McGraw. “They’re so competitive. That’s really what drove this generation.”
And so they racked up invitational titles. They bonded on Junior Ryder Cup, Canon Cup and Walker Cup teams. They played for national championships, with Spieth joining Woods as the only players to win multiple U.S. Juniors.
By the time they prepared to make their college decisions, three members of the class had already made the cut in a Tour event: Thomas at the 2009 Wyndham Championship; Spieth at the 2010 AT&T Byron Nelson; and Anthony Paolucci at the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open. Several others boasted decorated amateur résumés.
“I preach to recruits all the time that you want to go somewhere that you’re going to be pushed,” says USC coach Chris Zambri. “With Spieth and Thomas playing the way they were, that’ll push you. Go shoot 210 in a tournament and lose by six when you’re 14 years old, that’ll get you to practice harder.”
But it wasn’t just the quality of their scores that turned heads. “The common denominator was their mental approach,” says Stephen Hamblin, the AJGA’s executive director. He recalled the frenzy following Spieth’s stunning debut at the Nelson, where he tied for 16th as a 16-year-old high school junior. The following week, Spieth played against kids his own age and lost by nine, but there was so much media attention that the AJGA organized a news conference. “He articulately went through why he felt like he had a great week and, without sounding conceited or arrogant, said, ‘Now that I’ve had this experience, I know for certain that I can go out and compete on the PGA Tour,’” Hamblin says. “That’s how it was with these guys.”
Sure, success in pro and amateur events at a young age is usually a strong predictor of success, but nothing was guaranteed. Hotshot prospects had fizzled out each of the previous few years. College coaches were intrigued, but also wary.
“Honestly, we knew there were a lot of good players,” Zambri says, “but at the time none of us were thinking that this was the chosen class.”
Oh, how wrong they were.
ZAMBRI IS STANDING IN his son’s bedroom, staring down at his desk.
Preserved under the glass is a USC recruiting questionnaire, filled out by a 15-year-old Jordan Alexander Spieth. Zambri begins scanning the water-stained page.
“5-foot-11, 140 pounds.”
“Nickname is Spiethy.”
“GPA is 4.0.”
“Schools considering is TBD. … Smart.”
Then he pauses.
“Interest in us is extreme,” he reports.
“Well, not extreme enough.”
College coaches possess an uncanny ability to recall where they were when they received the dreaded call from a prized recruit. The office. The bathroom stall. The Best Buy parking lot. When Spieth phoned Zambri in fall 2010, the USC coach had just hopped on the 101 northbound.
Even without Spieth onboard, Zambri was still “stoked” about his incoming class, which included top-ranked Paolucci. That group just didn’t work out – for three years, the Trojans didn’t finish better than 15th at NCAAs. The questionnaire is a cool memento for Zambri’s 15-year-old son Joey, but it’s also a painful reminder of how the past few years could have been different.
McGraw, too, is tinged with regret. Then the coach at perennial power Oklahoma State, he first watched Spieth and Thomas as seventh-graders. “Those two guys had a look about them,” he says. “They competed really hard. They were supremely confident. Very animated. And they had an intensity about them, too. They looked like mini pros. The personality you see them play with today, it was there then.”
Believing they were program-changers, McGraw put on the full-court press and got burned in recruiting. Neither star came to Stillwater, nor did any of the other boldfaced names.
“This was quite the class, and it was slim pickings,” he says. “If I’d been smarter, I would have realized that I wasn’t going to get any of those guys and focused elsewhere.” McGraw’s underwhelming 2011 class didn’t pan out, either, clearing the way for Texas and Alabama’s three-year run of dominance.
Longhorns coach John Fields had been sold on Spieth early, after watching him play as a 12-year-old at a junior event in Ardmore, Okla. On the second hole, Spieth drew a gnarly lie on a downslope behind the green, but his majestic flop shot trickled within 6 inches of the cup. “No one else in the field could do that,” Fields said.
That he eventually persuaded Spieth to stay in state was a testament to the program he had built. Sizing up his options, Spieth coveted two things: a shot at a national title and fierce, intra-squad competition, which Cody Gribble and Dylan Frittelli – now winners on the PGA and European tours, respectively – helped provide.
They steamrolled into the NCAA Championship, setting up a 1-vs.-2 final against Alabama, which featured its own freshman sensation.
Scott Limbaugh had made dozens of trips to Bowling Green, Ky., to watch Thomas play. As a youngster, he was easy to spot – the son of a club pro, he often wore khaki slacks – and popular among his peers, befriending many of the other juniors.
“I always remember how much Justin respected the other guys’ games,” says Limbaugh, then an Alabama assistant. “He could do all the flashy stuff, driving it longer than you think he should and hitting 3-irons that landed like feathers. But he always admired Rodgers’ putting and Spieth’s wedges. With him, it was an I’ve-gotta-get-there type of thing.”
Limbaugh and head coach Jay Seawell were at the team facility when Thomas made his decision between Alabama and Florida State. That single call altered the trajectory of the program.
“We went absolutely crazy,” Limbaugh says, “because you just knew.”
The decision paid almost immediate dividends.
In a taut singles match at Riviera, and with the overall result hanging in the balance, Spieth holed an approach shot on the 15th hole to defeat Thomas and earn a critical point for the Longhorns, who captured their first national title in 40 years. He still needles Thomas about that shot, and that outcome, texting him a photo from the course each February.
At least Thomas didn’t leave empty-handed – he edged Spieth for national Player of the Year honors, then claimed his own NCAA title a year later, the first of back-to-back championships for the Tide.
As usual, Spieth and Thomas led the way, but the one-upmanship among classmates continued around the country.
Rodgers matched Woods’ school record of 11 wins at Stanford.
Schniederjans rose to No. 1 in the world while at Georgia Tech.
Cheng-Tsung Pan set a Washington record with eight career victories.
Michael Kim became the first Cal player to win the Haskins Award.
Daniel Berger paced Florida State as a two-time All-American.
And even though he turned pro after high school, Grillo won in his native Argentina, then again in the PGA Tour’s 2015 season opener in Napa.
“The belief in who they were, that’s what stands out,” Fields says. “There are a lot of guys with talent, but their ability to dream and to get out of the way and allow those things to happen, that’s monumental.
“And to have all of those guys in one class, well, that’s just the sun and the moon and the stars lining up.”
IN THE PRO SHOP at Harmony Landing Country Club in Goshen, Ky., hangs a display rack that is filled with more than 130 golf balls, each marked with a tournament name and date.
They’re from all of Thomas’ victories, both large and small, a collection that began while he was in elementary school. Every scenario was different – needing a late rally, going wire-to-wire, scraping it around without his best stuff – but the end result was the same.
“It’s uncomfortable to win, but he became very comfortable and very experienced in that position,” says Thomas’ father, Mike. “Winning is winning, and he got that mindset started early.”
That’s why Limbaugh wasn’t surprised by the text he received after he congratulated Thomas on winning the FedExCup.
“Winners win,” Thomas replied.
“That may sound arrogant,” Limbaugh says, “but that’s all they’ve known. Winners win, and these guys have won all their freakin’ lives.”
Spieth just happened to win first on the big stage.
Leaving Texas after three semesters, he began 2013 with no status on any major tour. He ended that year – what would have been his sophomore season in college – with a victory, a Tour Championship berth and a Presidents Cup uniform. His near-instant success had a seismic impact on his peers, leading to even more early defections and erasing any lingering doubts about whether they belonged.
“They probably didn’t know it at the time,” Mike Thomas says, “but they were pushing each other. Jordan having success was the start of it. Guys were saying, ‘Hell, I’ve played with this guy since he was 12. I’ve beaten him before.’ That spurred everyone on to think they can do this, too. They said, ‘I guess I’m next.’”
But those outsized expectations can also test a player’s patience and create competitive friction.
No one was obscured by Spieth’s considerable shadow more than Thomas, whose good play, invariably, tied back to Spieth. Though their friendship elevated his profile among fans, Thomas has understandably grown weary of the overblown, best-buddies storyline.
Indeed, even after a Player of the Year campaign, he still can’t escape the Spieth connection. Last month, after winning the CJ Cup in South Korea, Thomas was asked by a reporter if he would convince “his good friend” to play in next year’s event, implying that his presence alone wasn’t enough.
“I don’t care what he does,” Thomas sniffed.
The dynamic of their relationship changed forever at the PGA Championship. A week that had been dominated by Spieth's quest for the career Grand Slam ended with Thomas winning his first major. The message was clear, and afterward Mike Thomas couldn’t overstate its importance. “This is huge,” he said. “This lets Justin know he can do this.”
And so it’s easy to see how Thomas’ banner year now will motivate the next wave of 2011ers – his sublime play acting like a vortex, pulling in more talent.
“When there’s a confluence of really great players who have played a lot against each other and beaten each other and are not afraid of a challenge, it just drives better golf, for everyone,” McGraw says. “They push each other to different heights.”
“The rest of the guys always saw what great was,” adds Limbaugh. “You get some guys in there like Jordan and Justin that set the bar. They’ll drag some along, but they’ll leave some of them behind, too.”
Including the class’ No. 1-ranked player.
L to R: Patrick Cantlay, Justin Thomas, Anthony Paolucci (winner), Gavin Hall, Franco Castro at the 2010 Thunderbird International. (AJGA)
GROWING UP IN DALLAS, Anthony Paolucci was a ready-made rival for Spieth.
When they were 10, Spieth played his first Legends Tour event, got waxed by Paolucci and wondered whether he should stick with baseball. Paolucci continued to impress over the next few years, reaching the final of the 2007 U.S. Junior, making the cut in the Tour event at Torrey Pines and dazzling prospective coaches with his crisp ball-striking.
“They had a really nice rivalry going,” says Zambri, and for a while there was legitimate debate about who was the better prospect.
But with his career starting to take off, Paolucci moved with his family from Dallas to San Diego before the start of his junior year of high school. Unlike Spieth and Thomas, who have kept the same instructors and equipment, Paolucci began working with Dave Phillips at the Titleist Performance Institute.
“There was a disruption there, and it was at a critical moment,” says Texas coach John Fields, who recruited Paolucci. “The potential for change is so significant that it can upset that delicate balance within a player.”
Signed by USC to be a difference-maker like Spieth and Thomas, Rodgers and Schniederjans, Paolucci won only one event and was a solid, but unspectacular, contributor before turning pro after his junior season.
While the rest of his heralded classmates graduated to the PGA Tour, earning major victories and millions in endorsements, Paolucci, 25, has battled a shoulder injury and toiled for the past few summers on the mini-tours. This year, he banked $17,915 in Latin America and failed to advance past the second stage of Q-School.
His career at a crossroads, Paolucci has moved back to Dallas. He still runs into his former junior rival on occasion, but how much the growing divide gnaws at him remains unclear. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Jordan is kicking ass and taking names, and I would guess it probably wasn’t easy for Anthony,” Zambri says. “That probably added to some of the pressure being felt by not playing his best golf. As much as them being great as youngsters may have pushed him, it may have made things a little more difficult now.”
Even without the highest-ranked player, this high school class is unlike any we’ve seen recently.
Of the top 30 players in the 2011 rankings, 10 are currently on Tour. To put that figure in perspective: None of the previous four classes have more than six of the top 30 on Tour, even now, with more time to establish themselves in the big leagues.
And that figure doesn’t even include Schauffele, the Tour’s reigning Rookie of the Year, who was ranked 45th, nor does it account for those who are apprenticing on the Web.com circuit, or the class members who have played in the Masters (Matias Dominguez) or represented the U.S. at the Walker Cup (Hunter Stewart) or topped the Mackenzie Tour Order of Merit (Kramer Hickok) or won on the European and Challenge tours (Paul Dunne, Lucas Bjerregaard and Thomas Detry).
“Honestly, I don’t know why our class was so deep,” Spieth says. “Maybe it’s dumb luck. Or maybe we had top-heavy players where adjustments needed to be made because it was such a high level – a few guys jumped out early and made the others work hard and set the bar even higher.
“I couldn’t tell you exactly why, but it’s amazing.”
Thomas, Spieth at the 2007 Evian Masters Junior Cup
GRACE NA IS “80 PERCENT” certain that she snapped the viral photo.
By now, you’ve probably seen it – the candid shot from the 2007 Evian Masters Junior Cup in which Thomas sits on the grass with a hamburger stuffed in his mouth as Spieth looks on, unfazed.
It’s adorable, sure, but the image endures because of what it represents – the beginning of a friendship, a rivalry and a revolution that has come to define American golf.
Na and Erynne Lee have played hundreds of tournaments since then, and yet the memories of that particular trip, a decade later, remain as vivid as ever.
They remember that Spieth was fiery, becoming so upset after missing a putt that he snatched his hat and smacked his knee, drawing blood. And they remember that Thomas was feisty, contending despite his slight physique. And they remember that Dockter, the AJGA rep, had to prepare the team uniforms, because the kids didn’t know how to use an iron.
Even now, they’re asked in pro-ams whether they know the boys. They smile and then share stories about where it all began.
“Erynne and I still talk about it,” Na says, “about how crazy it is to see where the guys are now, what they’ve become.”
Not just multimillionaires and major champions, teammates and community leaders.
They’ve become sources of inspiration – the headliners of a remarkable 2011 class that, somehow, keeps getting stronger.