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Class of 2011: For some, the struggle is real

By Will GrayNovember 20, 2017, 9:00 pm

They all have stories.

Tales about the time that they went toe to toe with a future major champ, or maybe even clipped him by a shot. Memories of walking the range just a few short years ago and viewing some of golf’s brightest stars simply as peers.

The Class of 2011 continues to expand its collective footprint on the national stage, but it extends beyond names like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas. In almost every field at every level of professional golf, there are players from that prodigious class, each still straddling the divide between memories of the past and dreams for the future.

Once junior competitors, they are now young men entrenched in their mid-20s. And while some of their former classmates have already piled up long lists of achievements, dozens more are still fighting for status on the various echelons of golf’s meritocracy.

Their common goal remains a simple one: join former classmates on the big stage as soon as possible.


Michael Johnson at the 2016 Barbasol Championship (Getty Images)


Michael Johnson gets asked about it a couple times per year.

When The Players Championship rolls around in mid-May, his phone lights up with calls or texts about the time that he topped an elite field on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass.

It was the 2010 AJGA Junior Players Championship, and its leaderboard could pass for a current-day PGA Tour event. Spieth was a runner-up alongside Emiliano Grillo, while Patrick Rodgers was seventh. Daniel Berger and Ollie Schniederjans tied for eighth.

But the man with the trophy was Johnson, who also ended up sixth in the final AJGA/Polo recruiting rankings for the Class of 2011 – ahead of the likes of Grillo, Berger and Schniederjans.

“Obviously that Junior Players is something I look back on, and it puts a smile on my face,” Johnson said.

He went on to have a successful career at Auburn, including first-team All-American honors his senior year. A hip injury led to a redshirt season and dropped him a year behind his classmates, but he graduated in the summer of 2016 and quickly turned pro.

Johnson’s PGA Tour debut revealed just how thin the margin can be between the fast track to stardom and a more arduous battle. Playing on a sponsor invite at the Barbasol Championship, he finished third.

Officials told him that based on the non-member FedExCup points he earned, Johnson could expect a spot in the Web.com Tour Finals that fall and a chance to play for a PGA Tour card. At worst, he’d lock up Web.com status for 2017.

But the numbers didn’t pan out as expected, and even after Monday qualifying for the season-ending Wyndham Championship, Johnson knew he had work to do. But he missed the cut by a shot.

With the top 200 in points qualifying for the Finals, Johnson finished 201st.

“It was pretty tough, honestly,” he said. “I was on such a high that whole summer and came crashing down pretty quickly.”

Instead of a shot at the PGA Tour, Johnson tumbled all the way down to the ground floor: the first stage of Web.com Tour Q-School.

“It was kind of funny,” he said. “I’d be on the range and my friends would be like, ‘Why are you here?’ I’d be like, ‘Well, I’ve got to go through Q-School, just the same as you.’”

Johnson played his way up, one level at a time, before ultimately earning his Web.com card for 2017 and retaining it for the upcoming season. This fall he watched on TV as several of the players he beat that memorable week at TPC Sawgrass competed at the Presidents Cup.

Johnson still awaits his next opportunity, and the confidence that he’ll soon join former classmates on a full-time basis hasn’t wavered.

“I would say that people, they don’t know how hard it is,” Johnson said. “People are just confused, thinking golf is just a recreational sport and you’re out there having fun. But it’s just like any other sport in that it’s so hard to get into the big leagues.”


Morgan Hoffmann, Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth and Byron Meth at the 2015 Masters (Getty Images)


For Byron Meth, the questions always trace back to the 2015 Masters.

That’s when the winner of the final U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship made his Augusta National debut. As he soaked in the azaleas, Meth asked to join Morgan Hoffmann for a Tuesday practice round. Hoffmann told him simply to turn up to the 10th tee to see who they were facing.

Their opponents for the day turned out to be Spieth and Brooks Koepka.

“It was a little reminiscent of our AJGA days, but more so our college practice rounds,” Meth recalled. “We were just hitting shots and telling stories. Just kind of hung out and embraced the day.”

Five days later, Meth watched the kid from Texas he had known for years slip into a green jacket. Inevitably, reporters wanted to know what sort of spark he had seen from Spieth in their practice round together.

“Jordan didn’t look any different that day than he did when we were kids,” Meth explained. “But the confidence was definitely way higher because of his success.”

Growing up in Southern California, Meth’s duels with reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele date back to their high school days. Meth was 26th in the final recruiting rankings, one spot ahead of current PGA Tour player C.T. Pan, and it was qualifying for the Masters that convinced Meth that his game was strong enough to compete on an elite level.

That belief was quickly reinforced in his first event as a pro, a pre-qualifier for the 2016 Sony Open. He advanced, then went on to Monday qualify for the main event.

It was success beyond anything that he could have anticipated, but it’s a result that now elicits a sigh.

“It kind of sounds strange, but Monday-ing into the Sony might have been one of the worst things that happened to me in 2016,” he said. “I made the mistake of having expectations. I thought it was going to happen like that all the time.”

As many other pros can attest, easy success is either fleeting or entirely non-existent. Meth quickly learned that lesson, and like Johnson became the victim of razor-thin margins. He missed the cut in the first stage of Web.com Q-School by a shot last year, and fell short by the same number this year. In between, he spent his months toiling on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada and now faces a similarly uncertain future in the spring.

The rigors of Q-School do not show favor to former major participants, nor do they offer midseason reprieves for those who fail to advance. Meth is back to the drawing board, fully aware of the uphill battle that awaits.

But he remains imbued with confidence from his week at Augusta National, a brief stint alongside the game’s best where he had a front-row seat for the pinnacle of Spieth’s career.

“I asked him that day, ‘It doesn’t look like you’re doing anything different physically than you did when we were kids,’” Meth said. “He goes, ‘I just had an opportunity to play, and I took advantage of it.’”


Joseph Winslow competing on the 2017 Latinoamerica Tour (Getty Images)


As one of the top junior golfers in the Kansas City area, Joseph Winslow had a keen eye for other Midwest names on the leaderboard. One, in particular, continued to stand out.

“I would look at the standings and saw this kid from Avon, Indiana,” Winslow said. “And I was just wondering like, ‘What’s his deal? Why is he winning, what’s he doing?’”

That kid turned out to be Rodgers, who went on to a decorated career at Stanford and has won more than $4 million on Tour. As the No. 18 recruit in the Class of 2011, according to AJGA/Polo rankings, Winslow saw plenty of Rodgers growing up. But he also ventured south to challenge elite fields that featured Spieth, Thomas and Grillo.

“I think if you look at the invitationals from late 2010 into 2011, those were probably some of the strongest fields ever in AJGA, junior golf history, when you look at current players today,” Winslow said.

He committed to Iowa, and as freshman tied for 13th alongside Rodgers at the 2012 NCAAs. Days later, Spieth edged Thomas in a memorable match at Riviera while helping Texas win a team national title.

The chilly winter weather led him to transfer to the University of South Florida, and Winslow’s first move after turning pro was to qualify for the Asian Tour. But the status he earned didn’t make the extensive travel worthwhile, so he opted to spend his first summer scratching out checks closer to home on the Adams Pro Tour.

“It was a little bit of culture shock starting out, turning up to golf courses and seeing greens with weeds on them,” he said. “Just stuff that you’ve never experienced before, and that’s part of the life.”

This year Winslow gained a foothold with status on PGA Tour LatinoAmerica, and he’s been giving his passport a workout ever since. A pro for less than three years, he estimates that he’s already teed it up in 21 different countries in search of a path that will earn him another tee time next to Rodgers.

“My goal is to be out there on the PGA Tour, playing with the guys I’ve been playing with my whole life,” he said. “We’re just working our way back up, putting in the time that you have to, and take advantage of your opportunities when you get them.”


Stephen Behr at the 2017 Amateur Championship. (courtesy: Stephen Behr)


Stephen Behr knew that the sound was just different.

It was at the 2010 AJGA Polo Golf Classic that Behr, No. 11 in the Class of 2011, looked around him on the driving range and found all the usual suspects: Spieth, Thomas, Grillo, Schniederjans.

“Berger wasn’t even that good back then,” Behr recalled. “And now he’s a stud.”

Going through his own warm-up routine, Behr took in the sights. But he listened even more intently, focusing on the sounds of future major champions making crisp contact each and every time. Whoosh. Whoosh.

And it was the sound that gave him pause, even at age 17.

“It was just like, it almost made you feel bad about your game,” he said. “You’d watch them hit it and it was like, I’ve got training wheels on and they’re in Ferraris.”

That realization is a big reason why Behr, an accomplished player who earned All-American honors during his senior year at Clemson, now works as a risk consultant with Ernst & Young. His battles with the stars from his graduating class are now entirely in the rear-view mirror, a wistful recollection of time spent in the arena.

“I don’t think I ever beat Spieth,” he said. “I think my record against him is like 0-52. I never beat him because his off weeks, I feel like he still finished third.”

While Behr didn’t turn pro after graduation, his clubs aren’t exactly collecting dust. His amateur ranking based on his final days at Clemson was good enough to gain entry into the British Amateur this summer, and these days the self-described “weekend warrior” carries a plus-3.2 handicap.

“I can still get it around, man,” Behr said. “I’m just not quite as sharp as I used to be.”

Behr excelled both in the classroom and on the course at Clemson. Afforded the option of a promising gig in finance with ample on-course networking opportunities, he happily headed for corporate America while some of his former peers were busy racking up trophies.

“A lot of people, when I tell them that I played with those guys, they think that maybe I just played like in one tournament against them,” he said. “But like, no. I actually played in the same group with them, and competed with them.”

Behr explained that while his time against such top-tier talent created great memories, it also affected his career choice. Perhaps, he admitted, he might have tried the pro golf circuit had he been a member of the Class of 2010 or 2012.

Instead, he was constantly flanked on the range by Ferraris.

Behr still plans to remain active in amateur golf, and next year will take his first crack at the U.S. Mid-Amateur. A win there would earn him a spot in two majors, and perhaps a chance to improve his record against Spieth.

Until then, he’s able to reflect fondly from an office chair on memorable days gone by.

“I’m glad I got into those AJGAs and got to compete against them, and see first-hand how impressive they were,” he said. “I think this 2011 class, I’ll look back when I’m a granddad and be telling my grandkids about some of these guys that I got to play with.”

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Stunner: Inbee Park steps aside for Int. Crown

By Randall MellJuly 17, 2018, 4:00 pm

There was a big surprise this week when the LPGA announced the finalized lineups for the UL International Crown.

Rolex world No. 1 Inbee Park won’t be teeing it up for the host South Koreans Oct. 4-7 in Incheon.

She has withdrawn, saying she wanted another Korean to be able to experience the thrill of representing her country.

It’s a stunner given the importance the LPGA has placed on taking the UL International Crown to South Korea and its golf-crazy allegiance to the women’s game in the Crown’s first staging outside the United States.

Two-time major champion In Gee Chun will replace Park.

"It was my pleasure and honor to participate in the first UL International Crown in 2014 and at the 2016 Olympics, and I cannot describe in one word how amazing the atmosphere was to compete as a representative of my country,” Park said. “There are so many gifted and talented players in Korea, and I thought it would be great if one of the other players was given the chance to experience the 2018 UL International Crown.”

Chun, another immensely popular player in South Korea, was the third alternate, so to speak, with the world rankings used to field teams. Hye Jin Choi and Jin Young Ko were higher ranked than Chun but passed because of commitments made to competing in a Korean LPGA major that week. The other South Koreans who previously qualified are So Yeon Ryu, Sung Hyun Park and I.K. Kim.

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Na: I can admit, 'I went through the yips'

By Rex HoggardJuly 17, 2018, 3:35 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Following his victory two weeks ago at A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier, Kevin Na said his second triumph on the PGA Tour was the most rewarding of his career.

Although he declined to go into details as to why the victory was so gratifying at The Greenbrier, as he completed his practice round on Tuesday at the Open Championship, Na shed some light on how difficult the last few years have been.

“I went through the yips. The whole world saw that. I told people, 'I can’t take the club back,'” Na said on Tuesday at Carnoustie. “People talked about it, 'He’s a slow player. Look at his routine.' I was admitting to the yips. I didn’t use the word ‘yip’ at the time. Nobody wants to use that word, but I’m over it now so I can use it. The whole world saw it.”


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


Na, who made headlines for his struggles to begin his backswing when he found himself in the lead at the 2012 Players Championship, said he asked other players who had gone through similar bouts with the game’s most dreaded ailment how they were able to get through it.

“It took time,” he said. “I forced myself a lot. I tried breathing. I tried a trigger. Some guys will have a forward press or the kick of the right knee. That was hard and the crap I got for it was not easy.”

The payoff, however, has steadily arrived this season. Na said he’d been confident with his game this season following a runner-up showing at the Genesis Open and a fourth-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, and he felt he was close to a breakthrough. But being able to finish a tournament like he did at The Greenbrier, where he won by five strokes, was particularly rewarding.

“All good now,” he smiled. “I knew I was good enough to win again, but until you do it sometimes you question yourself. It’s just the honest truth.”

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Koepka still has chip on his chiseled shoulder

By Ryan LavnerJuly 17, 2018, 3:06 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Brooks Koepka prepared more for this Open than last year's.

He picked up his clubs three times.

That’s three more than last summer, when the only shots he hit between the summer Opens was during a commercial shoot for Michelob Ultra at TPC Sawgrass. He still tied for sixth at The Open a month later.

This time, Koepka kept his commitment to play the Travelers, then hit balls three times between the final round in Hartford and this past Sunday, when he first arrived here at Carnoustie.

Not that he was concerned, of course.

Koepka’s been playing golf for nearly 20 years. He wasn’t about to forget to how to swing a club after a few weeks off.

“It was pretty much the same thing,” he said Tuesday, during his pre-tournament news conference. “I shared it with one of my best friends, my family, and it was pretty much the same routine. It was fun. We enjoyed it. But I’m excited to get back inside the ropes and start playing again. I think you need to enjoy it any time you win and really embrace it and think about what you’ve done.”

At Shinnecock Hills, Koepka became the first player in nearly 30 years to repeat as U.S. Open champion – a major title that helped him shed his undeserved reputation as just another 20-something talent who relies solely on his awesome power. In fact, he takes immense pride in his improved short game and putting inside 8 feet.

“I can take advantage of long golf courses,” he said, “but I enjoy plotting my way around probably - more than the bombers’ golf courses - where you’ve got to think, be cautious sometimes, and fire at the center of the greens. You’ve got to be very disciplined, and that’s the kind of golf I enjoy.”

Which is why Koepka once again fancies his chances here on the type of links that helped launch his career.

Koepka was out of options domestically after he failed to reach the final stage of Q-School in 2012. So he packed his bags and headed overseas, going on a tear on the European Challenge Tour (Europe’s equivalent of the Web.com circuit) and earning four titles, including one here in Scotland. That experience was the most fun and beneficial part of his career, when he learned to win, be self-sufficient and play in different conditions.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“There’s certain steps, and I embraced it,” Koepka said. “I think that’s where a lot of guys go wrong. You are where you are, and you have to make the best of it instead of just putting your head down and being like, 'Well, I should be on the PGA Tour.' Well, guess what? You’re not. So you’ve got to suck it up wherever you are, make the best of it, and keep plugging away and trying to win everything you can because, eventually, if you’re good enough, you will get out here.”

Koepka has proved that he’s plenty good enough, of course: He’s a combined 20 under in the majors since the beginning of 2017, the best of any player during that span. But he still searches long and hard for a chip to put on his chiseled shoulder.

In his presser after winning at Shinnecock, Koepka said that he sometimes feels disrespected and forgotten, at least compared to his more-ballyhooed peers. It didn’t necessarily bother him – he prefers to stay out of the spotlight anyway, eschewing a media tour after each of his Open titles – but it clearly tweaked him enough for him to admit it publicly.

That feeling didn’t subside after he went back to back at the Open, either. On U.S. Open Sunday, ESPN’s Instagram page didn’t showcase a victorious Koepka, but rather a video of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. dunking a basketball.

“He’s like 6-foot-2. He’s got hops – we all know that – and he’s got hands. So what’s impressive about that?” Koepka said. “But I always try to find something where I feel like I’m the underdog and put that little chip on my shoulder. Even if you’re No. 1, you’ve got to find a way to keep going and keep that little chip on.

“I think I’ve done a good job of that. I need to continue doing that, because once you’re satisfied, you’re only going to go downhill. You try to find something to get better and better, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Now 28, Koepka has a goal of how many majors he’d like to win before his career is over, but he wasn’t about to share it.

Still, he was adamant about one thing: “Right now I’m focused on winning. That’s the only thing I’ve got in my mind. Second place just isn’t good enough. I finished second a lot, and I’m just tired of it. Once you win, it kind of propels you. You have this mindset where you just want to keep winning. It breeds confidence, but you want to have that feeling of gratification: I finally did this. How cool is this?”

So cool that Koepka can’t wait to win another one.

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Despite results, Thomas loves links golf

By Jay CoffinJuly 17, 2018, 2:48 pm

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Despite poor results in two previous Open Championships, Justin Thomas contends that he has what it takes to be a good links player. In fact, he believes that he is a good links player.

Two years ago at Royal Troon, Thomas shot 77 in the second round to tie for 53rd place. He was on the wrong side of the draw that week that essentially eliminated anyone from contention who played late Friday afternoon.

Last year at Royal Birkdale, Thomas made a quintuple-bogey 9 on the par-4 sixth hole in the second round and missed the cut by two shots.


Full-field tee times from the 147th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 147th Open Championship


“I feel like I’ve played more than two Opens, but I haven’t had any success here,” Thomas said Tuesday at Carnoustie. “I feel like I am a good links player, although I don’t really have the results to show.”

Although he didn’t mention it as a reason for success this week, Thomas is a much different player now than he was two years ago, having ascended to the No. 1 position in the world for a few weeks and now resting comfortably in the second spot.

He also believes a high golf IQ, and the ability to shape different shots into and with the wind are something that will help him in The Open over the next 20 years.

“I truly enjoy the creativity,” Thomas said. “It presents a lot of different strategies, how you want to play it, if you want to be aggressive, if you want to be conservative, if you want to attack some holes, wait on certain winds, whatever it might be. It definitely causes you to think.

“With it being as firm as it is, it definitely adds a whole other variable to it.”