The PGA Tour's Youth Revolution is now perpetual
There's one experience every golf writer who has been even peripherally associated with the PGA Tour has in common, and for most of us, it happened sometime between 2013 and 2014. I call it the "Jordan Spieth Moment," and whether it took place in a one-on-one interview or in a press conference, it's always the same: The writer watches Spieth—then around 20 or 21—conduct himself with what looks like an unbelievably precocious maturity. The writer probes, a little, even if just in the act of observation, seeking out that telling moment of youth, the giveaway that proves it's just a very well-done pantomime. But it looks legitimate, and he somehow pulls it off without becoming a robotic cliche drone...he keeps his humanity. And after several perplexing minutes, the stunned writer understands that no, this is not a mere performance, but a true reflection of Spieth's character. He grasps for pat explanations—is it his upbringing? His family?—but in the end there's no good way to contextualize the way Spieth behaves. It's a remarkable and inexplicable brew of nature and talent.
My Jordan Spieth Moment came in 2014, and his poise has only grown stronger since that memorable season of near-misses. I thought about him again on Sunday while watching Matthew Wolff and Colin Morikawa duel it out at the end of the 3M Open in Minnesota. Wolff, the defending NCAA champion, won with a dramatic eagle on the last hole, but Morikawa played even better on the back nine—both of them showed incredible mettle under pressure for 20 and 22-year-old rookies, respectively. I watched Wolff's post-match presser, and while he's not quite Spieth-like in his "composure" and "polish," he still sounded (and played) a lot older than his 20 years. And, of course, he joins elite company in having won on the PGA Tour before his 21st birthday—as Justin Ray first noted, the other six players to do that, Spieth among them, all went on to win at least three majors.
Along with Viktor Hovland and Justin Suh, Wolff and Morikawa are already being compared to the class of 2012-'13 that included Spieth, Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Xander Schauffele. It's unlikely that they'll have achieved the same level of success in five years, but the more relevant point is that the youth revolution continues in these players, and will continue after them—we've reached a stage in professional golf where the phenomenon, I believe, is perpetual.
Blame Tiger. There's a truism that his approach to the game, from his training to his aggression to his pressure play to his media management, set a standard for everyone who came after. Unlike many truisms, this one bears repeating—it doesn't mean that each young player that emerged after 1997 could match Tiger's accomplishments, and it doesn't mean they will in the future. But every young star I spoke with while following the tour, from Spieth on down, credited Tiger not just as an inspiration, but as a model. Players like Wolff and Morikawa were too young to remember Tiger's best years, but it doesn't matter—they still saw him win, and even if they didn't, they would have seen Spieth, and Koepka, and Thomas. It's changed the paradigm—as NoLayingUp's Chris Solomon said, there's an absence of fear in the PGA Tour's youngest contenders, and without fear, where is age's advantage?
My editor, Ryan Herrington, made a great point, which is that the success of players like Spieth or Wolff can have negative effects—surely there will be players who see them excel and turn pro too early. Many won't be ready to compete at the professional level, when more years in college would have changed everything. But the ones who make it through are going to be more prepared than ever to challenge for the top honors. Seniority means next to nothing on the PGA Tour, and that's only going to be more pronounced as time marches on.
Along with youthful models of success to imitate, today's high school stars have access to more resources and avenues of experience than ever before, and nothing about the PGA Tour, from the travel to the insularity to the heightened media attention, will be unexpected. Novel, for a little while, but not overwhelming. That's the reality of life in 2019—the concept of youth revolution is less like a dynamic aberration that occurs once a generation, and more like the revolution of the earth around the sun. It's becoming more predictable, and more frequent, than ever before.