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Ready or not, here comes the new Tour season

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Just 11 days after Xander Schauffele swirled in the winning putt at the Tour Championship, and with the champagne stains still drying in the U.S. team room, a new PGA Tour season kicks off this week in Napa, Calif.

The Safeway Open is the first of eight events this fall – the CJ Cup in two weeks is the new addition – that offer an opportunity for players to get a head start in the FedExCup race.

With only five of the top 50 players in the Official World Golf Ranking in this week’s field at Silverado, the Tour’s soft launch provides fans a glimpse at the new wave of talent to hit the big leagues, a rookie class that includes former U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, big-hitting Keith Mitchell and former NCAA individual champ Aaron Wise.

For the recent Tour graduates, there was little time to celebrate their promotion. Instead of having a week or two to regroup and reassess, the Tour played its finale up against the Presidents Cup, four days before the start of the new Tour season. Complicating matters even more was a Monday finish because of inclement weather, and 13 players who had already secured Tour status bailed to get a jumpstart on their next chapter.

Safeway Open: Articles, video and photos

Full tee times from the Safeway Open

Ideal, it was not, and many of the players commuting from Jacksonville didn’t arrive in Northern California until Tuesday night and contemplated skipping a practice round for rest. They need to hit the ground running. As much as the fall slate is criticized for oversaturating the Tour’s overall product – Jay Monahan’s defense: It’d be foolish to turn down sponsorship money, and if the Tour doesn’t host a tournament, someone else will – there’s little mistaking its importance, particularly for the middle class.

Now in Year 5 of the wraparound season, three of the four winners of the season-opening event went on to reach the Tour Championship. Last year’s champion, Brendan Steele, was the only player who did not – and he finished the season 33rd in points, just outside the cutoff for East Lake.

“Obviously it set up a really good year for me, my best year on Tour,” Steele said.

All seven of the fall winners a year ago advanced to at least the second playoff event, and three used that victory as a springboard to the Tour Championship.

No one was boosted more by a fall victory than Justin Thomas, whose title defense at the CIMB Classic ignited his confidence and kicked off a career year in which he won five times (including the PGA Championship), collected the FedExCup and on Wednesday was named the PGA Player of the Year.

One trend that isn’t going anywhere is the youth dominance on Tour. Last season, 15 of the 30 players who qualified for East Lake were in their 20s, marking the first time in the past 35 seasons that the average age of a Tour winner was younger than 30 (28.9).

Schauffele’s season-ending victory was the 18th by a player 25 or younger. That’s eight more than the next-best total from 2000, when Tiger Woods accounted for nine of those 10 wins. Players like Ollie Schniederjans, Beau Hossler and Maverick McNealy – all of whom are in the field in Napa – could add to that list this season.

The 49-event Tour schedule begins this week, with the points reset and the slates wiped clean.

Yes, golf fans, that Thomas-Schauffele double dip was so last month.