The sprawling legacy of the Class of 2011 can be traced to any number of origins, but for some among what is arguably the most prolific class ever, it all began in June 2009.
The 99-player field that descended on Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., for the AJGA’s FootJoy Invitational included Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and so many others, like Michael Kim, who up to that moment had experienced the weight of the ’11 class only from afar.
“It was that year that Justin won the FootJoy Invitational and that got him into [the Wyndham Championship]," Kim recalled. "That was my first invitational and I was like 'these guys are so good’ and I was blown away by what they were shooting. I remember being shocked by how good they were at that time.”
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|Photos: The AJGA days|
Tom Lovelady, who like former Cal-Berkeley Bear Kim is now on the PGA Tour, remembers that tournament as the moment when he started to realize how special this particular group could be, as well as the genesis of what has become lifetime friendships.
In the third round, Lovelady was paired with Spieth.
“We kind of hit it off and became friends after that," Lovelady recalled. "The final round I got paired with Justin Thomas and we became friends. On the 10th hole I asked [Thomas], ‘Where do you want to go to school?’ He said, ‘Here. Here or Alabama.’ My first reaction was, ‘Don’t go to Alabama.’ He’s like, ‘Why?’ I wanted to go there. I knew the class was strong and they only had so many spots, but that’s where I really wanted to go.”
Both ended up in Tuscaloosa, and both won an NCAA title during their time in college. They also solidified a friendship that endures to this day in South Florida where they live and train together.
While the exploits of Thomas, Spieth and Daniel Berger are well documented, perhaps the most impressive part of the ’11 class is the depth that continues to develop at the highest level.
To many, it’s not a question as to whether the class will have another breakout star, it’s when and who?
There’s a good chance that answer could have been found on the tee sheet for last week’s RSM Classic, a lineup that included Class of ’11 alums Lovelady; Kim; Ollie Schniederjans, a two-time All-American at Georgia Tech; Patrick Rodgers, Stanford's all-time wins leader alongside Tiger Woods; and C.T. Pan, a four-time All-American at the University of Washington.
Lovelady earned his Tour card this year via the Web.com Tour, while Schniederjans and Rodgers are already well on their way to the competitive tipping point of Next Level.
Rodgers, who joined the Tour in 2015, dropped a close decision at the John Deere Classic in July, where he finished a stroke behind winner Bryson DeChambeau; and Schniederjans had a similar near-miss at the Wyndham Championship.
To those who have been conditioned by nearly a decade of play, it’s no surprise that the class has embraced a next-man-up mentality. Nor is it any surprise, at least for those who were forged by such an exceedingly high level of play, that success has seemed to be effortless.
“First guy I remember competing against at a high level was Justin. We were playing tournaments at 10, 11 years old together,” Rodgers said. “He was really, really good at that age and I wasn’t really good and so he was always my benchmark and motivated me to get better.”
That symbiotic relationship hasn’t changed. At every level the group has been challenged, and to a larger degree motivated, by the collective success.
By all accounts, it was Spieth who assumed the role of standard-bearer when he joined the Tour in 2013 and immediately won. For Rodgers, however, the epiphany arrived a year later as he was preparing to play a college event in California and glanced up at a television to see his former rival grinding down the stretch at Augusta National.
“Jordan’s leading the Masters. A couple years before we’d been paired together battling it out at this exact same college event,” he laughed. “I think I even won the tournament. It was just crazy for me to see someone who is such a peer, someone I was so familiar with up there on the biggest stage.”
It was a common theme for many among the Class of ’11 as Spieth, Thomas and others emerged, and succeeded, on a world stage. If familiarity can breed contempt, in this case it created a collective confidence.
Success on Tour has traditionally come slowly for new pros, the commonly held belief being that it took younger players time to evolve into Tour professionals. That’s no longer the case, the byproduct of better coaching, training and tournaments for juniors and top-level amateurs.
But for the Class of ’11, that learning curve was accelerated by the economies of scale. The quality and quantity of competition for the class has turned out to be a fundamental tenet to the group’s success.
“Since the mindset of the class has been win, win, win, you don’t know anything other than that, it’s never been just be good enough,” Lovelady said. “You don’t think about being top 125 [on the FedExCup points list], you think about being as high as you can instead of just trying to make the cut, or just keep your card. It’s all you’ve known since you were 14, 15 years old.”
It’s a unique kind of competitive Darwinism that has allowed the class to separate itself from others, an ever-present reality that continues to drive the group.
“It was constantly in my head motivating me,” Rodgers said. “Then you see Jordan turn pro and have immediate success and Justin turn pro and have immediate success. It’s kind of the fuel that drives me. What makes it special is these guys have always motivated me, maybe even more so than someone like Tiger [Woods].”
The domino effect seems obvious, inevitable even, with the only unknown who will be next?
“That’s a good question; I’d like for it to be myself,” Lovelady said. “But it’s hard to say it’s going to be him, it’s going to be him when it could be him. There are just so many guys.”